As starting debuts go, Josh Atencio had his work cut out for him. Not only was he matched up against one of the top midfield units in the league — one that featured the dynamic Emanuel Reynoso — but he was also effectively filling in for Seattle Sounders captain Nicolas Lodeiro, who was missing the game with a quad strain.
Just to round out the pressure, the Sounders were also playing their first game in front of home fans for the first time in over a year.
The 19-year-old rarely looked bothered and never seemed overwhelmed by the moment.
“That kid had a really good game, a fantastic game,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said in the postgame press conference. “I have to give a lot of credit to Josh. He had big shoes to fill. If Nico Lodeiro, the captain of this club, was healthy, Nico would have been playing. That would have meant Cristian would have dropped next to JP, Josh wouldn’t have played.”
Schmetzer pointed out that getting Atencio to this point has been a years-long process. The Bellevue product played several years in the Sounders Academy before signing with the Tacoma Defiance in 2019. He spent a year there moving between centerback and defensive midfielder before signing a Homegrown contract with the Sounders at the start of last year.
Although he played less than 20 first-team minutes, he did remain with the Sounders all season. Schmetzer felt the experience of training with veterans was invaluable. This preseason, Schmetzer often praised Atencio’s play.
“You guys witnessed his transformation into a very, very talented MLS player,” Schmetzer said on Friday, noting that Minnesota United manager Adrian Heath also singled out Atencio for praise.
One of the things coaches often look for in young players is not so much the end result, but what kind of decisions they make and how much confidence they show. Will the players look for the ball or will they give it up too easily? Will they attempt a switch when a square ball might work just fine? Will they step up when they see an offensive player break free or try to hand them off to a teammate?
These were the areas where Atencio showed best. He did not complete every pass or maximize every opportunity. But more often than not he saw the right pass, took space when given and rarely gave the ball up in bad spots.
Late in the first half, for instance, he took the ball off Reynoso, started a counter-attack and continued his run into the box where he’d have been in on goal if he got the ball back.
Atencio did some good things out there and would have been in on goal if Ruidiaz saw him... pic.twitter.com/EsahmoQB0p— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) April 17, 2021
Shortly after halftime, he made a marauding run through the midfield, fighting off Reynoso before helping set up a decent chance.
Considering this my Josh Atencio appreciation thread. Love how he's confidently pushing ball forward. pic.twitter.com/zaIz8WVtiy— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) April 17, 2021
He constantly seemed to have his head up, looking to get teammates into space like on this ball to Will Bruin.
This is such a good ball to Bruin. pic.twitter.com/LJzo9WTDkR— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) April 17, 2021
Atencio’s best moment came late when he sent a 60-yard switch to Alex Roldan, helping to set up Fredy Montero’s goal.
I think he's going to get a hockey assist on this one. pic.twitter.com/wu73zRuMzp— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) April 17, 2021
It was that play that made me realize that Atencio had been doing a pretty solid Gustav Svensson impression all night. A look at the stats confirmed as much. Atencio led the Sounders in progressive passing — meaning balls toward the opposing goal — while still completing 82.5% of his attempts. He also had a team-high five tackles to go along with 27 pressures and five blocks. I don’t think Atencio’s rise is what made Svensson expendable, but it is notable that they might be able to get similar production out of a player 15 years younger and about $500,000 cheaper. If Atencio can also develop Svensson’s penchant for scoring dramatic goals? The Sounders could have one of the building blocks of their midfield for the next decade on their hands.
You can be excused for allowing yourself to imagine fellow teen Danny Leyva — who’s probably the next best contender for best starting debut — patrolling that midfield alongside Atencio.
Of course, that’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves. It’s entirely possible that this was the best-ever starting debut for a Sounders Homegrown Player, but Schmetzer pointed out that few players’ trajectories are smooth.
“I caution that there might be some bumps in the road,” Schmetzer said in response to a question about Atencio and Alex Roldan’s performances. “But they showed tonight that they’re willing to take risks and be part of a special club. The bar we set is very high.”