The Sounders Academy U-17’s thrashing of their Atlanta United counterparts in the USSDA national championship match Tuesday was a signpost moment for an organization that has greatly emphasized player development in recent years. The win was a culmination of a rather amazing regular season in which the Sounders scored 115 goals in 34 games and then a playoffs in which they went 6-0-0 with a 27-6 goal-difference.
“To win in the fashion that we did and win every playoff game in the fashion that we did, I couldn’t be prouder of the team,” Sounders GM and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey told the media on Wednesday. “It’s a great flag-post for us. Three years ago, we started investing in this development. We said ‘this is going to be a foundation of what we do, we’re going to build this farm system.’ We did it.
“This is step one. Step two now is to take these kids and integrate them to S2 in the USL level, and step three will be to integrate them into the first team. We are still at the very beginning of this. I think we’re still probably about three years away from impactful players in the first team if you look at the ages of the best players in that group, but we’ve made a strategic decision, we’ve put significant resources behind us. I can’t thank our owners enough for what they’ve committed to allow us to pursue this project and no we get a little bit of reward and those kids get a little bit of reward.”
For several players on the team, the S2 process has already begun. Ray Serrano, who bagged a brace in the championship match, became the youngest signing in club history when he signed with S2 back in February. Azriel Gonzales and Alfonso Ocampo Chavez, who also scored in a 5-1 beatdown of Atlanta, are signed to USL contracts as well. Marlon Vargas is the fourth U-17 players signed to a S2 contract.
For Lagerwey, the success shows that the club’s plans for the future are in motion, particularly given the massive overhaul of the academy system that he has overseen in his tenure. He noted that despite the success of academy products DeAndre Yedlin and Jordan Morris that there’s more of a process now than when those players came through the system.
“What I would say is the coaching is better, the infrastructure is better,” Lagerwey said. “We’re better organized. We’ve already signed four of those kids to S2, even if they don’t have a ton of appearances there yet. Four years ago, the Sounders are just the Sounders. There was a part time academy staff and there was no S2. There was zero player development. We relied on the local clubs, we didn’t have our affiliate network, we didn’t have our homestay program. All these steps that we’ve done to build up the infrastructure around ‘how are we going to aggregate players not just from Seattle but from outside Seattle and make this the best that we can,’ It’s taken years of work, and that’s why this is such a cool thing to win a national title, to get a little bit of reward along the way of what we know is still a long process.”
The incentives for developing homegrown players is tremendous. If the academy can develop a core group of homegrown players, who essentially don’t count against the club’s roster budget, it frees up more funds for the club to pursue other players, like the TAM-level signing that Lagerwey said the club is pursuing in the secondary transfer window.
Of course, sentiment also plays a strong role in fostering the relationship between a club and its homegrown signings. Lagerwey pointed to the examples of Morris and Cristian Roldan (who is not an academy product but played his college ball at the University of Washington) as members who have been embraced by the local community.
The days when a club could win only using local players—like the 1967 Celtic side that were all born within 30 miles of Celtic Park and won the European Cup Winners’ Cup—may not be possible in the modern era of global soccer, but developing young talent is a major way for clubs to stay competitive in the marketplace.
Lagerwey says it will be several years before the club can know for sure if it has struck gold. Prospects flare out all the time in the world of athletics, but the core group currently in the academy and the level of dominance they have displayed throughout the USSDA season suggest that there is a bright future for young Sounders.