The Seattle Sounders added two new Homegrown Players to their roster on Monday, June 15. The new additions ahead of the MLS is Back Tournament raised excitement — everyone loves the potential and promise of a young player — but they also raised questions. Where would Josh Atencio and Ethan Dobbelaere play in this team? Will they get many minutes, and could they have an impact if they do? What can we expect to see from them when they do get on the field? Some of these questions can’t fully be answered until the team travels to Orlando and games are played, but a look back at both players’ performances with Tacoma Defiance can provide a bit of insight into what they will bring to the Sounders.
Josh Atencio’s case for a first team contract is pretty clear. At only 18 years old, has 2,340 minutes in the USL Championship. Those minutes have come in 29 appearances, with 26 starts. On top of those USLC appearances, Atencio also made a bench appearance with the Sounders in the 2019 US Open Cup. He has plenty of pro experience for his age, paired with a wealth of experience in the Sounders development system, having progressed through every rung of that ladder, including participating in the Sounders Discovery Program. He also served as a semi-regular captain with Tacoma Defiance, and a leader on and off the field with that team. The Sounders love to target team captains when signing players from abroad, and that’s likely a positive for them adding Atencio to the first team.
On the field Atencio is a highly technical player, capable of lining up as a defensive midfielder or as a centerback. When playing with the Defiance, he played most often in midfield — somewhat regularly in a double-pivot with Danny Leyva — but his potential seems highest as a CB, and if the scrimmage from training on Monday, June 22 is any indication, CB seems to be where the Sounders envision him playing. The path to playing time at CB with the Sounders appears to be clearer, as well — he’s likely to be the fourth option at that spot, and arguably the sixth choice to play one of the two defensive midfield spots in Brian Schmetzer’s 4-2-3-1. Whichever role Atencio ends up filling on the team sheet, what he offers on the field is largely the same. His frame allows him to be a physical presence, capable of mixing it up with opposition strikers and combative midfielders. He’s a steady, consistent presence, he reads the game well and uses his positioning to stifle and stand up opponents rather than relying on rash challenges and last-ditch defending. The combination of his physical strength, reading of the game, and technical ability allows him to win duels and challenges and turn what would otherwise be a clearance into a dribble or a pass to safety.
Atencio’s passing isn’t just safe. While he’s a good passer at short or middle distances, he is also capable of playing a magnificent line-breaking pass. His ability to read the game and pick out a long pass, especially from deeper at CB, could prove lethal and unlock a defense for players like Jordan Morris or Raúl Ruidíaz. His particular combination of strength, intelligence, technique, and passing ability ought to make him a good fit in a team that has become even more technical through the spine with the addition of João Paulo. In the future, Atencio could effectively be a quarterback in Rave Green at CB, controlling the game and dictating the tempo, and in the immediate future he should be able to contribute to a team that wants to keep and control the ball, while still taking advantage of transition opportunities when they present themselves.
Ethan Dobbelaere has been in the Sounders development system for a long time — the 17 year-old midfielder started playing in the Sounders Discovery Program when he was 11. Unless you pay a lot of attention to the Sounders Academy, though, it’s likely that you hadn’t heard of Dobbelaere until he arguably burst onto the scene last year. Described as a “late bloomer” by Tacoma Defiance manager Chris Little, Dobbelaere forced his way into the broader conversation in 2019 as he played a major role for the Sounders U-17 side that made history by becoming the first MLS academy team to with the GA Cup Champions Division, then made his first professional appearance with Tacoma Defiance and earned his first youth national team call-up in quick succession. Dobbelaere went on to make seven appearances with Tacoma Defiance, scored his first professional goal, and earned a spot in the US U-17 team that traveled to Brazil for the U-17 World Cup, where he was a rare bright spot during the team’s poor performance at the tournament.
Now that he’s here, it’s reasonable to wonder what exactly he can offer the team, and even why Dobbelaere got a first-team contract over other players with more USL experience at similar positions. Dobbelaere’s limited experience at the USL level — seven appearances and two starts — means that there’s not as much evidence of what he offers at the professional level as his fellow newly signed HGP, particularly in the context of a full game, but watching his appearances with Tacoma Defiance can still provide a glimpse of what he could contribute to the Sounders. Playing mostly as a 10 for Tacoma, Dobbelaere provides smart, consistent pressure on opposing CBs and goalkeepers, and fills passing lanes. Although he may not always put a tackle in, or contribute directly to a turnover, he makes it more difficult for the other team to play out of the back, and when he does make a tackle, intercept a pass or cause a turnover, he almost immediately turns those opportunities into an attack.
Dobbelaere is capable of playing anywhere along the attacking band of three in the 4-2-3-1 preferred by the Sounders. He’s a player with exceptional technical skill and a great first touch, equally capable of playing tight, intricate passes and incisive through-balls. Similar to Atencio, Dobbelaere is comfortable playing in both a possession system and in a system with a greater focus on transition opportunities. Whether playing on the wing or in the center, he tends to look for opportunities to move the ball toward the goal, but is also willing and able to drop deep to help on defense or maintain possession.
Dobbelaere isn’t the fastest player on the field, but he’s also not necessarily slow and could get faster as he continues to develop physically. Not having elite physical traits to fall back on, he uses his ability to read the game and take up good positioning to contribute, and tends to let the ball do the majority of the work for him.
There are similarities in Dobbelaere’s game to a former Sounder and one current Sounder, which should provide some insight into how he’ll fit into the team going forward. These comparisons are more intended to provide an understanding of the style of Dobbelaere’s game rather than to suggest the level of his play, but watching him play can bring to mind thoughts of Víctor Rodríguez and Nicolás Lodeiro. Dobbelaere’s willingness to harry opponents with the ball, and his propensity and desire to spring teammates into space with through-balls are very much reminiscent of the Uruguayan number 10. His control of the ball and capable dribbling is not unlike both players, but his desire to take on defenders on the dribble is very Rodríguez-like. Similarly, his skill in passing in tight spaces, particularly in combination with an overlapping fullback, is sure to remind fans of the Spaniard’s best moments linking up with Brad Smith and Lodeiro in free-flowing attacks. When playing wide, Dobbelaere likes to move inside to combine or create goal-scoring opportunities. When he gets those opportunities himself, he’s more than capable of putting the ball away.
It should be noted that when playing with Tacoma Defiance, Dobbelaere has occasionally struggled to get involved. That’s not for a lack of effort — his off-ball movement in the attack is smart and tends to either pull a defender or put himself in a dangerous position as it did in the above video of his goal — but his direct involvement can be limited, as he only averaged about 26 passes per 90 minutes. Whether that lack of involvement was the result of a lack of chemistry with some of the players around him or simply a stylistic fit issue, it’s something to keep an eye on as he works to earn opportunities with the first team. Dobbelaere has a particular trait that he shares with Cristian Roldan that should help him overcome any such issues, as he invariably seems able to raise his game to whatever level he finds himself at. Even when drifting in and out of USL games, he never appeared out-matched or out of place.