One of the best parts of covering young players is seeing how they mature, not just on the field but in how they interact with the press. Few young players come to MLS with much experience having a microphone pushed in front of their faces, but over time the good ones tend to relax and learn to sometimes enjoy the experience.
For most, that evolution can take years and lots of practice. Plenty of veterans never get comfortable speaking to reporters.
But to see Obed Vargas work the press is to see someone mature well beyond his 16 years. Vargas looked perfectly comfortable handling a range of questions from what it’s like to like to play on a veteran-packed team and facing opponents he once watched on TV; the emotional weight of moving thousands of miles away from his family at 14 years old and navigating the tug-of-war that comes with choosing between two nations close to his heart; and still kept things light-hearted enough to joke about his age and crack some jokes at his dad’s expense.
What has talent evaluators on both sides of the USA-Mexico border so excited is that this all comes sprinkled on top of a player whose game already shows the maturity of a much older player and is showing signs of rapid improvement.
“He’s as driven of a young man as I’ve ever come across in any field,” said Tacoma Defiance head coach Wade Webber, who had a post-playing career as a high school history teacher prior to joining the Sounders organization. “He’s got a singular purpose in training. It’s not light-hearted and joking and ‘I’ll just ease my way into training.’ That’s what has set him apart. We have other hard-working kids; there’s just something different about Obed.”
What makes Vargas special isn’t always easy to spot for a casual observer. He doesn’t fill up the box score with traditional stats — he has just one assist in about 2,500 professional minutes — but coaches and talent evaluators absolutely love the way he moves, how smooth he is on the ball, how he doesn’t ever seem to shy away from contact.
He’s done this all at a level high enough that Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer not only saw it fit to start him in the season-opener — on the road against Honduras’ Motagua — but in five of the seven games since then. Vargas has appeared in all eight matches and currently sits sixth on the team in minutes played.
As expected, Vargas’ progression hasn’t been perfectly linear. There have been times when he seems to not be entirely sure of when to sit and when to get forward, but he does seem to show improvement in one area or another each game. In his most recent appearance against Austin FC, for instance, Vargas drew five fouls that were key to the Sounders’ ability to slow down the game at times and contributed two key passes, showing some particularly impressive determination and vision when he outworked a defender near the endline and nearly set up Fredy Montero for a go-ahead goal.
Gotta think schmetzer loves this from Vargas pic.twitter.com/dE9NBAuQMC— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) March 20, 2022
Probably Vargas’ best performance came in the Concacaf Champions League home game against Club León, a Liga MX team he grew up watching that also happens to be one of the best teams in the region over the past few years. Vargas more than held his own in the midfield, showed off the spacial awareness of a veteran, barely put a foot wrong on defense and was key to the Sounders’ ability to limit León to just three shots while helping the offense repeatedly get out in transition.
“He stays calm,” Schmetzer said after the match. “Lots of kids are talented, but they go up, down, up, down — he stays steady. There will come a point where maybe he takes a nosedive because he is young, but right now he’s playing with a lot of confidence.”
Some of that comes from his teammates, who Vargas said have welcomed him with open arms and been free with their advice. More of it, though, seems to come from within.
“It’s my life now. I have to get used to it, it’s going to happen even more,” Vargas said. “I’m going to be playing in these types of games and I have to get used to it. It can’t be a situation where I’m afraid.
“It’s just being confident in myself and knowing how I can play.”
Growing up in the soccer wilderness
With elite soccer effectively non-existent in Anchorage, Alaska, Vargas’ father was on a constant quest to find the kind of competition that would force his son out of his comfort zone. While playing against older opponents helped some, the reality is that there are only even a handful of clubs in the entire state, so Vargas needed to get creative. The solution was to play in men’s leagues, where the players might not be the most technical but at least taught Vargas how to handle physical opponents.
Vargas’ father, Obed Sr., was himself a reasonably accomplished youth player for Liga MX’s Monarcas Morelia — the same club Raúl Ruidíaz played for prior to joining the Sounders — before leaving Mexico to work on a fishing boat in Alaska.
“He said he was a really good player, he talks very highly of himself,” Vargas quipped about his dad’s playing career. “He said he was a very fast striker but lacked some technical skills, and that’s what did him in. If he would have kept going, he would have made it ... but that’s what they all say.”
Apparently committed to not letting his son’s career meet the same frustrating end, Vargas knew his son was quickly outgrowing his potential in Alaska and needed to leave in order to pursue his dreams.
That opportunity came in 2018 when Sounders scouts spotted him at the Region 4 ODP tournament in Southern California, the same tournament where they had previously found Danny Leyva. Vargas, then only 13, was playing with 15-year-olds, holding his own despite his team being at a talent disadvantage.
“He had some special qualities,” Sounders Director of Player Development Henry Brauner told Sounder at Heart. “There’s a determination there. He has those early indicators of success. Whatever the level is he seems to adapt to it quickly. Not just survive but be impactful.”
Vargas first joined the Sounders Academy on a trial basis, then traveled with them to the Manchester City Cup and ultimately decided to leave home at 14 years old. It wasn’t too long after moving to Seattle that travel was effectively shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, essentially separating Vargas from his family.
“It was very important that his parents were trusting of us,” Brauner said.
In the last year, the Vargas family has been able to visit in person and Obed even traveled with them to Mexico in the offseason to celebrate New Year’s. Although they’d like to move the whole family to Seattle — in addition to his parents, Vargas has three siblings — they’ve found it prohibitively expensive.
Luckily, Vargas was welcomed with open arms by his host family, whose son Cody Baker is currently signed to the Defiance and is considered one of the Sounders’ top prospects.
“They’ve been really nice to me,” Vargas said. “I really love it there.”
A heart divided
Soccer has been part of Vargas’ life for as long as he can remember. Like many Mexican-American households, Liga MX games were constantly playing on the TV and rooting for Mexico was a literal birthright, being that both of his parents grew up there before immigrating to Alaska.
Through his parents, Vargas is eligible to represent Mexico at the international level and he admits that as a youngster he dreamed of playing for El Tri. After coming through the Sounders Academy and representing the United States at the youth national team level — he’s currently the youngest player with the U20 team as they prepare for the 2023 U20 World Cup — his feelings have changed. When the USMNT faced Mexico in the Gold Cup final over the summer, Vargas said he was mainly rooting for Sounders teammate Cristian Roldan.
Of course, Vargas also knows this is all getting a bit ahead of things. Neither team has offered him the opportunity for a senior cap and a lot of things will have to fall into place before he actually has a choice to make. When asked about it, however, he gave the kind of nuanced, emotionally mature and honest answer that suggests he has the mindset to handle whatever pressure comes along with such a choice.
“It has leveled out the playing field,” he said. “I still don’t know. My heart is in two places right now.”