Coming into the 2022 season, one area of potential concern with the Seattle Sounders roster was centerback depth. Shane O’Neill left in the offseason, leaving the top backup job pretty much wide open.
That seeming lack of depth has been tested earlier than expected when Yeimar Gomez Andrade was forced the leave the LA Galaxy match early with what was eventually diagnosed as a “high ankle sprain.” Yeimar missed the next two games, has already been ruled out of the next two, and his timetable for return is still unknown.
So far, the Sounders have barely missed a beat thanks to the emergence of Jackson Ragen.
“He’s done really well,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said, joking that he was needing to “temper” his praise in order to keep Ragen from getting overly confident. “He’s exceeded our expectations.”
Ragen, who made his MLS debut earlier this year, not only slid seamlessly into the Galaxy game but followed it up with standout performances on the road against Club León in Concacaf Champions League play and Austin FC in league play. He’s expected to start Saturday’s road game against Minnesota United and the home leg of the CCL semifinals against New York City FC.
Although Ragen strikes an imposing figure at 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, he’s made more of an impression with his passing ability. Ragen has completed 90% of his passes in MLS play and has often been credited with helping the Sounders start their counterattack with line-breaking passes.
“You’re seeing an end product of a kid who’s very smart,” Schmetzer said. “It’s not just his passing — the technical piece of it always being firm with the right pace — it’s all the little details but also the decision-making process of who he’s passing to is what sets him apart. Where he got that from, I don’t know?”
Ragen’s rise is one that doesn’t quite fit the modern MLS model of player development, which has increasingly pushed players into the professional ranks as teens. The Seattle native didn’t even join the Sounders Academy until his senior year of high school, spent four years in college and then another year in the USL before joining the Sounders as a 23-year-old.
While that’s an increasingly rare path to MLS, it does seem to have suited Ragen well.
When Ragen first joined the Sounders Academy, he was a tall and skinny holding midfielder with a solid passing range. The first thing that needed to change was his position. Wade Webber — who was then the Academy’s U18 coach — saw his height and soft feet as potentially more valuable at centerback. Still, the Sounders didn’t really see Ragen as pro ready at that point and were more than happy for him to go to the University of Michigan.
During his four years in Ann Arbor, Ragen continued to train with the Sounders most summers, added some muscle and gained a bit more of what Webber calls his “stadium voice,” something that’s still a work in progress. The Sounders liked enough of what they saw to offer him a Tacoma Defiance contract, but Ragen opted to take his chances in the MLS draft, where he was taken in the second round by the Chicago Fire.
That’s where fate intervened. With the Covid-19 pandemic still creating complications, the Fire allowed Ragen to return to college to play out his spring season, where he would earn Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year. The following summer, he got his chance with the Fire but wasn’t offered an MLS contract.
Webber suspects that if the Fire’s new coach — Ezra Hendrickson, who was S2’s coach when Ragen played for them as an Academy player — was there at the time, things might have been different.
“Chicago didn’t rate him,” Webber said. “That coach is fired. If Ezra had been in charge, he might have made a different decision. We maybe got a little lucky.”
Having kept in touch with Webber throughout his college career, Ragen felt comfortable coming home to play for the Defiance and worked his way into the starting rotation almost immediately. Ragen ended up starting 16 of the Defiance’s final 18 games.
“He’s been a huge mentor for me,” Ragen said about Webber. “We’ve had a great relationship. I’m not sure if I’d have come back if he wasn’t here.”
Webber, for his part, has been one of Ragen’s biggest champions in the organization and doesn’t seem at all surprised that others are seeing what he’s long seen.
“Jackson sees passes like a midfielder — he sees passes and he can complete them,” Webber said. “There was a perception that he’s not fast. My retort is, he’s fast enough. As a centerback, if you’re smart and fast enough, you can use your body and angles — it’s all geometry — he’s smart that way. He doesn’t often get beat for pace.”
Ragen’s path to this point has not necessarily been direct and progress in players is almost never linear. Even this year, Ragen has been at least partially at fault on a couple of goals and can still improve on the way he uses his big frame.
But he’s just another example of how one of the strengths of American soccer is that there are many paths to the top. Ragen looks to be well on his way.