Warshaw: Why the Seattle Sounders' historic GA Cup title matters

Valencia, of David Silva, Isco, and Raul Albiol.

River Plate, of Gonzalo Higuain, Hernan Crespo, and Matias Almeyda.

Flamengo, of Vinicius Junior, Lucas Paqueta, and Julio Cesar.

West Ham United, of Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, and Michael Carrick.

The Seattle Sounders, of Danny Leyva, Alfonso Ocampo-Chávez, and Ray Serrano, beat them all.

The Sounders Under-17s topped Valencia 1-0 in extra time to win the 2019 Generation adidas Cup Champions Division, the first time an MLS club has ever won the top division of North America’s top youth soccer tournament.

The milestone doesn’t come by accident. It’s the culmination, though not the end of the road, of a concerted effort by the Sounders’ organization.

How the Sounders remade their academy

The Seattle Sounders U-17s celebrate a victory against West Ham at the 2019 GA Cup.

In 2014, the Sounders started a reboot of their academy.

They hired Marc Nichols, two-time academy coach of the year, to Academy Director. They ramped up their scouting efforts and found Leyva in Las Vegas and Ocampo-Chavez in California. And they started Seattle Sounders 2, now called Tacoma Defiance, in the USL to give young players their first taste of professional soccer. Five Tacoma players featured at GA Cup.

While everyone was looking right, at Garth Lagerwey’s comments about how the Sounders might not be able to spend money on players like some of the new additions to Major League Soccer, the Sounders invested left. They made sure they have their own pipeline of elite domestic talent. They might not be able to buy each new Nico Lodeiro or Carlos Vela, but they can produce plenty of Danny Leyva’s. As of age 17, the Leyva’s have now shown they can beat the players coming out of Argentina, Brazil, and Spain.

What made this Sounders team unique? They dominated the key moments.

Every soccer game, at some point, comes down to the three-second action of putting the ball in the net. One player has to outperform the person across from him. The Sounders almost always won those moments.

Their rotating cast of defenders — Josh Atencio, Elias Katsaros, Eric Kinzner, Alex Villanueva, Bryson Hankins, and Sota Kitahara, as well as goalkeeper Conrad Lee — made every block and won every header. The attackers — Ocampo-Chavez, Ray Serrano, Daniel Robles, Chris Hegardt, and Ethan Dobbelaere — consistently got a step on opposing defenders. In the middle, Leyva did a little bit of both and everything.

Whenever the game came down to an individual contest, the Seattle player came out on top.

Other MLS teams over the years have connected more passes, held more possession, and created more chances. But they were always doomed by the eventual mistake. The Sounders went six games without any major errors. They played the game like professionals, with their jobs on the line rather than a shiny medal. They made it clear they have the feet, the brain, and the grit to compete with the biggest names in the world market.

Youth championships are not the endgame for the Sounders. They want professionals. They now need to find a way to integrate talented young players into a team that’s expected to compete for trophies in a league of parity every year. Few clubs around the world have found that balance. But having 15, 16, and 17 year olds coming through pipeline beating some of the biggest clubs in the world is a good place to start.

Congratulations to everyone in the Sounders organization. It’s both the end and the start of something special.

Seattle Sounders celebrate with 2019 Champions Division trophy, becoming the first MLS team to win the honor.

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