The college soccer scene is deep in hibernation as coaches focus on recruiting a 2013 Freshman class and players look forward to the upcoming spring schedule and PDL season, so it's a good time to step back and consider some of the stories and developments that could affect the Sounders Academy alumni in the upcoming year.
Which Sounders will don the Rave Green for the U23s?
Last year the Sounders U23s played their inaugural season in the PDL with a roster built from a mix of Academy alumni, UW players, non-Sounder players from the Seattle area, and a few wild cards like Akron's Aodhan Quinn. And it seemed to work well, given that the team advanced to the national PDL semifinals, which has earned them a spot in this season's US Open Cup competition.
The U23s are an ideal opportunity for the Sounders to check in on the progress of their HGP-eligible players and last season the notable players were there, including DeAndre Yedlin, Sean Okoli, Nick Palodichuk (though he was injured), Troy Peterson, Ryan Herman, and Darwin Jones. Now that there are two full classes of Academy alumni, we're likely to see the ratio of Academy players on the team increase. All of last year's players other than now-pro Yedlin are good candidates, and you could add Stanford's Aaron Kovar, Washington's Ian Lange and Michael Gallagher, West Virginia's Nick Raskasky, and a handful of other players at Division I programs around the country. The opportunity to play for an Open Cup has to be a tremendous draw, and there's even a possibility of the senior Sounders matching up against the U23s in the competition.
By next year it'll be possible to build the team almost entirely from Academy alumni, and it shouldn't come as a surprise if that's what we see.
Can the Sounders repopulate the Washington offense?
In August, before the college soccer season I made much of the fact that the Huskies were becoming a part of the Sounders' talent pipeline, with one player already on the roster, two incoming transfers, and three incoming Freshmen. Lange and Gallagher both became important players for the team, but things didn't quite work out for Dom Dismuke and Darwin Jones, neither of whom were able to suit up for Washington and didn't find that out until the season was nearly upon us. Both are forwards, and it's probably not a coincidence that Washington had offensive difficulties, coming in last in the conference in goals per game.
They were still able to grind their way to an NCAA Tournament appearance thanks to a solid defense that gave up less than a goal a game, timely scoring, and Michael Harris' flip throws turning routine throw-ins into set pieces. But the offense is in even worse shape this season. Last season's top scorer was center back Dylan Tucker-Gangnes, who was drafted by the Timbers in the second round of this year's MLS SuperDraft. Third leading scorers Nate Sackeyfio and Ben Fisk and 4th leading scorer Abdul Aman also graduated, leaving Freshman James Moberg as the only returning player who scored more than one goal last season.
There's been no official announcement, but there are hints (mostly via his Twitter feed) that Dismuke will be able to play for Washington next year and he would immediately become a critical component of a thin offense. Jones' future is even more uncertain, but it sounds like joining the Huskies is still a possibility for him as well. And recruiting season isn't over, so it's possible that the Sounders to Huskies pipeline will continue to flow.
Will Stanford's Sounders help bring the program back?
Staying in the Pac-12, Kovar was Stanford's only Sounder last season, but as the conference Freshman of the Year, he was an important one. He shot out of the gate with the game winning goal in the final preseason match and the first regular season match, and while he couldn't keep up that goal scoring pace he was a regular in midfield when healthy and took a majority of the team's set plays.
Next season he'll be joined by Academy player Jordan Morris, who's one of the top goal scorers in the country at the U18 level and has a shot at earning the Cardinal consecutive Freshman of the Year awards. That would go a long way towards reviving Stanford soccer. Other than one tournament run in 2009, the team hasn't had consistent success since the Bobby Clark era in the 90s, when the father of the current Washington coach started a run of 6 consecutive postseason appearances.
Is Okoli ready to become the ACC's top scoring threat?
Okoli has been in the conversation as a potential HGP for Seattle since he left the Academy, and last February he was called in to the U20 national team. The Sounder forward came on strong in the second half of last season as a Sophomore, finishing with 11 goals, behind only Patrick Mullins of Maryland at 17 and Will Bates of Virginia at 12. Bates is now a Sounder after being taken in the Supplemental Draft. Mullins rejected a GA deal to finish out his college career and he'll be returning to the Terrapins as a strong favorite to lead the ACC in scoring again. But Okoli's clearly talented enough to take that crown and continue a very good decade for Demon Deacons soccer.
Who's the next player to dominate HGP speculation?
The Sounders have said and demonstrated that they're not willing to pull the trigger early on signing a Home Grown Player and have him sit around playing a handful of Reserve League games. Compare to FC Dallas, who in three years have signed 9 HGPs, none of whom have done anything at the senior level. Yedlin's signing was a confluence of the team's cap constraint forcing a prioritization of younger players, positional need at right back, a top national talent, and the Reserve League's expansion into USL-Pro providing more opportunity for competitive playing time.
We may not see a combination of factors like that again any time soon, but it's still fair to speculate about who might be next in line to join the senior club. Another strong season from Okoli would give him a claim. Palodichuk is still on the radar from the first class of graduates, as are Kovar and Gallagher from last season. Goalkeeper Ryan Herman is still biding his time behind Spencer Richey at Washington, but is likely in line to take over next season and could emerge then. And there are players on the current Academy teams to keep an eye on, like Morris and Paul Christensen in residency with the national team, and even Denis Kalamar with the U16s. The future for the Sounders is bright, and this year Yedlin will show that that future can include playing in front of 40,000+ fans at CenturyLink Field.