The Sounders broke their three-match MLS losing streak in large part thanks to the solid play of a 16-year-old homegrown holding midfielder making his first MLS start. That’s significant for a lot of reasons — most of which are more important in the long term (i.e. future success with the Sounders, future sell-on value, benchmark for both Seattle and U.S. youth development) than in the short term (i.e. helping the Sounders win a championship this year).
But, as the standings will show after the Sounders’ win helped them gain ground in the West, Danny Leyva may be significant to that short-term goal as well. To understand how Leyva helps the team in its pursuit of silverware this year, it’s important to understand not just what he could do for the team in the future, but what he can already do right now.
The most impressive layer of Leyva’s meteoric rise is not that he has the mind-bending speed of an Alphonso Davies or even the prodigiously quick feet and attacking vision of a Gianluco Busio, but that he has a sense of tempo and range of passing usually only seen in multi-year veterans of the league.
Leyva’s passing ability has certainly caught the eye of head coach Brian Schmetzer, who cited it as the main reason the young American started the match against Vancouver. In the post-match press conference, Schmetzer noted, “Jordy Delem was not a good pairing with Gustav for this particular match. You’ve got an opponent that’s playing the third game in eight days, and you don’t want two guys who aren’t able to maybe find forward passes as their No. 1 attribute to the team. Both Jordy and Gustav are very very good at what they do, but for the tactics for this game, Leyva was the obvious choice.”
Reading between the lines, that quote is massive for how much it shows Schmetzer’s belief in Leyva’s quality. Faced with an opponent likely to sit back and park the bus, the head coach had more faith in his 16-year-old wunderkind to pick the right creative pass to unlock the opponent (something the first choice Sounders failed to do in Vancouver earlier this year) than two veterans who just returned from national team duty. And as Schmetzer made clear, that’s not necessarily a knock on Svensson and Delem, whose defensive prowess as a pairing would make more sense against a more attack-minded opponent. Rather, Leyva’s quality in passing is simply that good.
Not only did the academy product routinely hit long aerial switches to off-balance Vancouver’s tight diamond midfield, he also found a few passes between lines that helped cut out multiple Whitecaps defenders. One such pass spun into the feet of Henry Wingo with just the classiest amount of English to set the winger free in space, and another bypassed Vancouver’s whole midfield en route to setting up Leerdam one v one on the wing. Leyva hit the second of those passes boldly across the field even as Svensson motioned for him to take the safer option of playing the ball back to the near side.
Leyva started his youth career as a No. 10, and the quality needed to play the position still shows in his game (Like when he chipped an entire team from 35 yards on his MLS debut).
Or, as Schmetzer put it, “I don’t think he’s a true No. 6, as witnessed by his ability to pick his head up and chip a ball over a bunch of players into the back of the net. I think he has some attacking flair.”
Leyva’s history as an attacking player gives him both the confidence and ability to shoot from distance and try for the final pass. In this way, he’s more of an 8 than a 6 (i.e. a box-to-box midfielder rather than a purely defensive midfielder).
That works well in the Sounders current system, which, when the team is healthy, features Svensson holding as a traditional 6 while his partner in the double pivot, Cristian Roldan, has more license to create overloads down the middle of the attack and go forward as an 8. In fact, a quick look and Leyva’s passing map from the game shows the vast majority of his passes being completed in the Whitecaps’ half as he poked and prodded at the compact defense while Svensson did a much higher percentage of his work from deeper on the pitch.
For all of Leyva’s cerebral and technical qualities, he wouldn’t be able to play as the more advanced holding midfielder if he didn’t have a naturally impressive motor, particularly for a 16-year-old. He showed well in this area as well against Vancouver, especially in the second half when he played higher up the field and had multiple interceptions and recoveries to pin Vancouver in their own end.
Late in stoppage time, those defensive contributions made all the difference as he stopped the Whitecaps from getting deep into the Sounders’ half on three separate occasions. On all three plays, Leyva showed a level of quickness, instinct, and strength to play in the No. 8 role at the MLS level.
The prevailing thought is that the Sounders want to add a TAM/DP defensive midfielder this summer. On paper, that makes sense as Svensson is in the final year of his contract and also the backend of his career at age 32. Of course, Will Bruin’s ACL tear and Brad Smith’s potential end of loan could shuffle priorities for the summer. But even if they don’t, and the Sounders do add an expensive piece to their defensive mid rotation, it shouldn’t limit Leyva’s chances of getting minutes all that much.
That’s because, with Roldan under a long-term contract, a holding mid signing is far more likely to be a traditional No. 6 than a box-to-box type like Roldan and Leyva. Where Leyva will get his minutes, and where he can have an immediate impact is as a depth piece behind Roldan.
Before Leyva’s emergence, the most natural fit as an immediate backup to Cristian’s style of play was his younger brother Alex Roldan. But with the younger Roldan getting the bulk of his minutes at outside mid since he’s joined the team, expecting the Seattle U product to seamlessly plug into his brother’s central mid role is a big ask.
Now, between Leyva and Alex Roldan, the Sounders have both depth and competition behind Cristian Roldan. If Leyva continues to improve and play well, he may earn more minutes as Cristian Roldan is more than capable of sliding into the attacking midfield where injuries and absences are frequent. But if Leyva hits a rough patch, as is common with such young players, Alex Roldan can still slide in as a pass first holding mid in Cristian’s absence.
Either way, Leyva will have to fight for his first-team minutes while at the same time having a clear path for contributing to the team. That’s a win-win for both club and player.