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Exit interviews, part 1: The young guys

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This is the first of a three-part series and will focus on the players who were hardship signings and the youngest first-team players who didn’t have big roles.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

In many ways, 2021 was the Seattle Sounders’ first attempt at a youth movement. While they’ve long had several roster spots dedicated to HomeGrown Players, this year they were not only younger than ever before but they actually played. The Sounders gave five teenagers at least one start and they combined to play 2,850 minutes. This part of the roster accounted for about 12% of the team’s minutes.

In the first of a three-part series, we look at the performance and possible future of every player who appeared on the first-team. This is essentially the supplemental part of the roster, featuring players who came through the Sounders Academy, Tacoma Defiance and the U22 Initiative. In later parts of the series, we’ll explore the roster’s core and its highest-paid players.

Sam Adeniran

One stat that matters: Set an S2/Defiance franchise record with 13 goals.

Quick analysis: Signed to two separate “hardship call-up” contracts, Adeniran spent most of the season with the Defiance where he nearly led them to the playoffs. In his one first-team start, Adeniran looked perfectly up for it against Austin FC.

Outlook: Early in the season, Adeniran put himself in a lot of good positions without the final product. As the season wore on, though, he started finishing at an impressive clip, albeit against USL competition. He’s a willing defender, not afraid to use his body and sneaky fast for a player his size. It would not be remotely surprising to see him on a MLS roster next year.

Josh Atencio

One stat that matters: Covered 11.21 km per 90, the second-highest rate in all of MLS.

Quick analysis: The 19-year-old started the year with just 14 MLS minutes under his belt, but managed to win a starting spot in the season opener. At times, he looked ready to emerge as a guaranteed starter, but struggled with some of his defensive responsibilities and grew increasingly timid with the ball toward the end of the season.

Outlook: Growth is rarely ever perfectly linear and some struggles were to be expected. Atencio is not the quickest lateral player but he’s among the league leaders in ground covered per 90 minutes. He appears to be someone the Sounders can build around, whether as an outside centerback or a deeper-lying midfielder.

Juan Alvarez

One stat that matters: Became the second-youngest player (16 years, 343 days) to score a goal for the Sounders organization.

Quick analysis: Never actually made a first-team appearance but made a few benches after signing “hardship” contracts. Made 12 starts and logged 921 minutes in his first professional season with the Defiance.

Outlook: The Sounders seem to really like the 17-year-old from Walla Walla. He moves well and is smooth on the ball, but he’s pretty undersized and not yet ready of overcoming that. Worth keeping an eye on but probably not someone from whom we should expect MLS production soon.

Reed Baker-Whiting

One stat that matters: Averaged .35 expected goals per 90 in about 200 MLS minutes. Small sample size aside, that’s fourth-highest on the team.

Quick analysis: After training with the first team last year and throughout preseason, it wasn’t necessarily a big surprise that the Sounders signed RBW as a 16-year-old. Despite making two starts and logging 204 MLS minutes this year, he kinda got lost shuffling between the first team and Tacoma Defiance where he only played 836 minutes.

Outlook: There’s every reason to think RBW has the skillset to be a viable professional and he’s already been linked to several big European clubs. In his MLS starts, especially, you could see the soccer instincts are there. That he’s yet to log a professional goal or an assist, though, speaks to the difficulty of transitioning to the pro game at such a young age. He’ll definitely be back, but may have at least another year of learning at Defiance before making a real impact at the MLS level.

Leó Chú

One stat that matters: Chu’s actual g+a/90 and xg+xa/90 were both over 1.00.

Quick analysis: The first of what will likely be many U22 Initiative Players signed by the Sounders, Chú managed to have a bigger impact than many of us had predicted. He only played a bit over 200 minutes across all competitions, but he still managed to be directly involved in three goals. His goals+assists per 90 in MLS play was 1.18 and his non-penalty expected goals+assists per 90 was 1.09 — neither of which include the assist in Leagues Cup play — both put him among the most efficient players in MLS (tiny sample-size and all).

Outlook: I know a lot of people wanted to see Chú get more time, but it’s probably not surprising that a 21-year-old with no experience outside his home country had a bit of learning curve when it came to adapting to a new environment. If he follows this trajectory, though, he’ll probably have a much bigger role next year and could end up looking like an absolute steal at $2.5 million.

Abdoulaye Cissoko

One stat that matters: Was the youngest player the Sounders have ever given at least two starts to at centerback.

Quick analysis: The latest in a growing line of internationals who came through the Defiance, the big centerback ended up playing nearly 1,000 MLS minutes. There were definitely some struggles, especially when he got isolated by faster players, but overall held his own despite often playing alongside similarly inexperienced teammates.

Outlook: Still just 21 — younger than most draft picks — there’s plenty of growth potential. I don’t think he’s going to be an MLS starter on a championship-caliber team right away, but there’s no reason to think that he can’t be a regular part of the rotation for many years to come.

Ethan Dobbelaere

One stat that matters: Has now logged more than 1,600 professional minutes before turning 19.

Quick analysis: While learning a new position, the 18-year-old got two starts and 181 MLS minutes and 11 starts and 783 USL Championship minutes. Most of that time came as a right wingback but he also saw some time in more advanced positions. The good news is that he seemed to grow into the position as the season wore on, even if he never was particularly productive.

Outlook: The biggest question around Dobbelaere is what position he’ll play at the MLS level. If the Sounders stick with a three-back formation, wingback seems like a good spot but it’s not clear that he has the defensive chops to play in four-man backline. The good news is that he has plenty of time to figure that out.

Shandon Hopeau

One stat that matters: Only made one start while on loan all year.

Quick analysis: Unclear role with the first team and was loaned to San Antonio FC where he only got one start and less than 200 minutes.

Outlook: Hard to see him coming back to the Sounders and faces an uncertain professional future.

Danny Leyva

One stat that matters: He averaged 28.27 pressures per 90 minutes, which ranks among the best on the Sounders.

Quick analysis: The 18-year-old established himself as a regular part of the rotation and has now played more than 3,000 professional minutes in his career. He was an active defender and an accurate passer.

Outlook: The big question surrounding Leyva is his position. He’s a reasonably good connector, but not really a playmaker nor an active defender — not someone who looks like a classic 6. He did get a recent call to U.S. U20s, though, which shows his potential. He could be a fixture in the midfield for years to come.

Trey Muse

One stat that matters: Set a career high by saving 72% of the shots he faced.

Quick analysis: Spent the year on loan to San Diego Loyal in the USL Championship and made 15 starts, going 6-6-2 with a 1.53 goals-against average. Unfortunately, he got hurt in August and hasn’t played since.

Outlook: While this seemed to be a solid step forward for the 22-year-old, it’s hard to know where he stands on the Sounders’ depth chart. He’s definitely behind Frei and Cleveland, is probably behind Spencer Richey and might even be behind Andrew Thomas. Depending on how the roster gets shaken up during the offseason, it’s not hard to imagine him going back on loan next year or even getting traded/transferred.

Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez

One stat that matters: Started just three matches while on loan to FC Pinzgau Saalfelden.

Quick analysis: It wasn’t so long ago that Ocampo-Chavez was playing in the U17 World Cup and was one of the Sounders’ top prospects. But he’s had a tough go since then. Ocampo-Chavez spent the first part of the year mostly with the Defiance, where he made 10 appearances and scored two goals. He then went on loan to the Austrian third division with FC Pinzgau Saalfelden where he made 13 appearances and scored one goal, logging just 345 minutes.

Outlook: He’s still just 19 so it would be silly to completely write him off, but I have to think the Sounders are looking for something they’re not really getting right now. I suspect the best-case scenario is he finds somewhere he can get regular minutes next year.

Andrew Thomas

One stat that matters: Had three shutouts in seven appearances for the Defiance.

Quick analysis: Picked up in some weird midseason draft, Thomas actually looked really good in his seven Defiance starts. He went 3-1-3 and allowed just four goals during a period where Defiance looked like they’d easily qualify for the USL Championship playoffs. Unfortunately, an injury knocked him out for the year.

Outlook: I really liked what I saw from Thomas, to the point I think there’s a good chance he could even win the backup job next season. At the very least, I think he makes it a lot easier to potentially lose Cleveland and has probably jumped Trey Muse on the depth chart.

Obed Vargas

One stat that matters: Became the youngest player to ever play for the Sounders.

Quick analysis: You’d be excused for never having heard of the Alaskan 15-year-old prior to him making his debut. But there he was, the third youngest player to ever appear in an MLS game when he started against Austin FC. Vargas didn’t exactly light it up in that game or in any of his 19 starts for the Defiance, but he at least looks the part of a future MLS player. Vargas moves well, isn’t afraid to put in a tackle, and is strong on the ball even if he lacks the final product.

Outlook: Considering how quickly he rose through the Sounders organization, it would not be at all surprising to see him signed to a permanent first-team deal within the next year but it’s hard to imagine him contributing at that level that soon.

Alex Villanueva

One stat that matters: His three assists were tied for second-best on the Defiance.

Quick analysis: The Homegrown Player made two appearances off the bench as another “hardship call-up” with another 28 appearances and 1,878 minutes in the USL Championship. With the Defiance, Villanueva had two goals and three assists while playing as a left wingback.

Outlook: The 19-year-old plays with a lot of what I believe the kids call “sauce.” He’s not afraid to attack off the dribble and is perfectly suited for a wingback. It’s hard to imagine him regularly contributing in MLS by next year, but it would not be entirely surprising if he gets a few starts with the first team.