“Play your kids” is a phrase used in American soccer to advocate for Major League Soccer teams to get their more promising young prospects on the field playing with — and against — players with significantly more experience, in the hopes of accelerating their development.
Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer may be about to put that philosophy into action over the next two games even more than he’d like.
The Sounders’ list of unavailable players — due to a combination of injuries, international call-ups and suspension — has reached a level heretofore unseen in the club’s history. And in the middle of a three -game stretch in eight days, Schmetzer is likely going to have to come up with some unconventional lineups.
“I believe the injury report and Xavi’s suspension makes it 10 players that are missing,” Schmetzer said. “That’s a lot.”
Unfortunately, there are no injured players returning to help the Sounders in the immediate future, though there is some promising news on that front according to Schmetzer.
“Nobody new in Texas, but Will [Bruin] and Shane [O’Neill] are pretty close and Nico is going to have a session out on the field on Friday,” Schmetzer said. “So some encouraging news, but I think it’s still premature to get any reinforcements for [Austin].”
With no help from the injured first-team players forthcoming, the Sounders will once again avail themselves of the MLS hardship exemption, allowing them to sign players to short-term deals to navigate situations such as the ones they find themselves in. It’s likely the Sounders sign at least three players from the Tacoma Defiance for the match against Austin FC and can sign as many as four.
“Very young. Very, very young,” Schmetzer said of the players available for selection for the match Thursday.
Of course, signing young players to make up the numbers is one thing. Playing them in an actual MLS game is another. Schmetzer said the style that the Tacoma Defiance plays will help any players who may see action in the game.
“Wade Webber at Defiance plays the same system we do, so the players understand what the general tactics are,” Schmetzer said. “The level of competition they would face if they got in a game is a little higher so you try to simplify the game for the young kids.
“You just want them to use their youthful exuberance and their excitement to be involved in a professional game to carry them.”
Schmetzer said he expects some nerves from any of the players who are signed and get into the game.
“They’re going to be nervous, if they weren’t nervous I’d be concerned if they didn’t have butterflies right before kickoff,” Schmetzer said. “You just try to help them settle into the game. Their job if they get on the field is to work hard and represent themselves and the club in a positive fashion.”
The thin bench complicates the next two game for reasons other than young players getting their first taste of extended MLS minutes. Schmetzer said he and the coaches also have to manage the minutes of their first-team players so as not to risk injuries. Schmetzer also said he has to ensure that they don’t put one of the young players in a position where they may not succeed, which could have long-lasting implications for their confidence and development.
“We looked at our training loads. We’ve looked at which senior players can play [and] how long they can play based on training loads,” Schmetzer said. “It was a pretty long discussion about who is going to start [against Austin]...it took us a little while to come to a starting lineup. I’m confident in the group I’m going to put out there, and then we’re going to turn around and put another strong lineup out against Sporting KC.
“If we do anything less, then we wouldn’t be doing our job. We’re going to have to mix and match and get the best out of the players we have available. It’s a simple as that.”