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What could the future hold for Sounders’ GA Cup Champions

Predicting the developmental curve for the Sounders U17s.

Sounders Academy U17s celebrate Generation Adidas Cup Championship.
Sounders FC Digital

[FREEZE FRAME] That up there? That’s the Seattle Sounders celebrating a Generation Adidas Cup championship. No, this isn’t Déjà vu, it’s just history repeating. You might be wondering how we got here, and what comes next. Well, let’s see if we can’t find some answers and predict the future a little bit.

First and foremost, the Sounders U17s beat Tigres 2-0 in the GA Cup final last week. The win, their third against a Liga MX academy over the course of the tournament, came through a goal from Chris Aquino towards the end of the first half and another from Etienne Veillard just 25 seconds into the second half. Aquino’s role throughout the tournament was that of the super-est sub — splitting time with Michael Luande — a position from which he tallied four goals in six appearances, as well as calmly finishing his penalty in a shootout against Monterrey in the quarterfinals. Veillard, an ‘07 who played up with the U17s, is a highly regarded prospect.

Those two are just the tip of the talent iceberg on this U17 side, so it seems worthwhile to compare the two championship teams to see if we can’t get some idea of what the future might hold for the current crop of academy standouts.

The 2019 group was stacked, to say the least. Four years into Garth Lagerwey’s tenure, a major focus of which has been empowerment and integration of the Academy and development pipeline, it was an ideal opportunity to make a splash. The U17s had won their division in the 2018 GA Cup, earning their place in the top tier for 2019 and setting the stage to accomplish something special. Only one MLS team had even reached the finals of the Champions Division — the tournament was split into two tiers of competition prior to the 2022 edition — let alone won the dang thing.

To improve their chances, the U17 team that played in that tournament featured five players who had already made their debuts in the USL Championship with Tacoma Defiance — Josh Atencio, Danny Leyva, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, Danny Robles and Ray Serrano — while the group’s starting goalkeeper hadn’t played a professional minute yet but had been on the bench for Defiance three times ahead of the GA Cup. Several players were already on professional contracts, and Danny Leyva had even signed with the First Team. The organization went all-in on this shot at history, and it paid off.

The football was beautiful at times, but it was a bit more pragmatic than we saw in 2022. They sat back a bit and hit on the counter, and the final was won in extra time only minutes away from a penalty shootout when Ocampo-Chavez found Ray Serrano for a header to break the deadlock. Regardless of how the win came about, it was a monumental achievement for the club and the league.

After the tournament was canceled in 2020-21 due to the pandemic, the Sounders had an opportunity to defend their title in a reformatted tournament. Despite the disruption to academy competition during the pandemic, Seattle entered GA Cup on stronger footing than in 2019. The loss of a full academy season caused a challenge, but one mitigated by the continued integration of youth players into both Tacoma Defiance and the First Team. While this group of U17s didn’t feature as many players with professional minutes under their belts — Reed Baker-Whiting was the only player in the group on a professional contract, while GK Wyatt Nelson’s start for Tacoma Defiance on April 3 was the only other professional appearance in the group — the team is consistently in pro environments. According to Defiance coach Wade Webber, eight players from this team train primarily with the MLS NEXT Pro side and train once a week with the U17s.

If you’ve been paying attention to the Sounders’ development system and the players in orbit around the First Team, you’ll recognize plenty of the names from the 2022 GA Cup Champions. Despite limited opportunities to watch the Academy recently, guys like Angel Martinez, Josh Hardin and Antonio Herrera have been around for a while. Michael Luande, Jack-Ryan Jeremiah, Jayson Castillo, and Stuart Hawkins (the CB who won Tournament MVP) were all among those who spent time with the Sounders during preseason. Etienne Veillard played up from the U15s and had already been a well-regarded talent before he scored the finisher against Tigres in the final.

This was a group that played without Obed Vargas, one of the top prospects to ever come through the system who at 16 is already too involved in the First Team as they push to make history themselves against a Liga MX opponent in the CCL finals. They went into the biggest games of the tournament without Baker-Whiting, as well, whose 1,552 professional minutes alone are more than all of the players with pro minutes ahead of the 2019 tournament combined. Despite missing what should have been two of their most important players, this U17 team was more than holding its own against some of the best academies in the league and the world. In fact, they were imposing their style and their will on opponents. In the final against Tigres, the U17s showcased the same approach that had gotten them through the group stages and knock-out rounds — a feat that saw them beat two other Liga MX teams as well as two of the most highly rated MLS academies.

They played fast, flowing football built on the foundation of a talented midfield and a defense capable of creating and quenching attacks in equal measure, and finished off by technical, creative, clinical attackers. It was a system of play familiar to anyone who’s watched the Sounders or Defiance play, with a heavy emphasis on full-team defense and pressure that creates chances in the opponent’s end of the field. No surprise, considering how thoroughly integrated the development system is throughout every level of the club.

Other club’s have racked up millions in transfer fees as they send young players abroad, and even a couple have found success in MLS by filling their rosters and starting XIs with HGPs. What the Sounders have done, though, is special, if a bit different. Although Seattle’s academy hasn’t really entered the global transfer market in the way that FC Dallas, RBNY and Philadelphia Union have — and this seems likely to change in the coming years as Obed Vargas and his cohort come of age — they have reached unprecedented success in academy competitions while also succeeding in MLS by building rosters with a mix of youth and homegrown players and high-level domestic and international talent brought in from outside the organization.

If the 2019 GA Cup champions featured 11 professionals three years down the road — 6 MLS players, 2 USL Championship players, a USL League 1 player, and 2 more on MLS NEXT Pro contracts — with 4 more college players and a high schooler all still capable of going pro, then what could become of the 2022 group? With Baker-Whiting and Vargas already leading the way, anything is possible. More trophies and some big money transfers seem plenty likely, and in the coming months we’ll almost certainly see the Defiance roster bolstered by signings. Maybe we’ll even see the First Team sign the 20th Homegrown Player in team history. The Future is bright, and it’ll be here any second.

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