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Sounders find elegant ‘solution’ to Obed Vargas’ U20 dilemma

Sounders midfielder will likely join U20s halfway through qualifying.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

UPDATE: Obed Vargas was officially named to the USA U20 team for the Concacaf U20 Championship on Friday.

TUKWILA — It’s not very often that a 16-year-old finds himself in a tug-of-war between his club team and a youth national team. Even though youth tournaments are often held outside of international windows, club teams are often more than happy for their young players to get meaningful minutes against reasonably high-level opponents.

As is becoming more and more apparent, Obed Vargas is not a typical 16-year-old. Since starting the season-opener, Vargas has established himself as a regular contributor and has already logged more than 1,100 first-team minutes across all competitions this season.

With João Paulo’s injury, Vargas’ role within the team has grown even more important. Vargas was the player Brian Schmetzer tapped to replace João Paulo in the Concacaf Champions League final, and the only MLS match he hasn’t started since then was one he missed due to yellow-card accumulation.

It was in that context that the Sounders were initially reluctant to release Vargas for the upcoming Concacaf U20 Championships, a tournament that will also serve as the qualifiers for the 2023 U20 World Cup and the 2024 Summer Olympics.

But after U20 head coach Mikey Varas reached out to Schmetzer, a solution has now been reached. Vargas will likely remain with the Sounders for their next three games — at home against the Vancouver Whitecaps (June 14), LAFC (June 18) and Sporting KC (June 25) — before joining the U20s for the quarterfinals onward.

“In my world — maybe the higher-ups had a different conversation — we had a very good conversation,” Schmetzer said on Monday, the Sounders’ first day back in training after more than a week off. “It’s good to have communication with your national team coach. That was the thing I appreciated about Mikey. For us, it was pretty easy. We found a solution. The kid’s well-being was always the first priority.”

Despite almost certainly being the youngest player on the USA’s roster — he’ll still be eligible for the 2025 U20 World Cup — Varas apparently considers Vargas to be the best No. 8 in the pool of eligible players, which is why he was so dead-set on having him in camp. At the same time, there was apparently some recognition that the U20s have a decent margin for error.

In order to advance out of the group stage to the Round of 16, the USA must only finish in the top three of their four-team group. The other teams in their group are Cuba, Canada and the dual-island nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, which has a population of just 53,000 people.

If the USA can manage to get out of their group, they’d likely face either Nicaragua or the third-place finisher from a group that includes Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala and Aruba.

The top four teams from this tournament will qualify for the 2023 U20 World Cup and the two finalists will qualify for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

If the USA advances to the finals, Vargas would miss the Sounders’ home match against CF Montreal (June 29) and a road match at Toronto FC (July 2).

Adding some intrigue to all of this is Vargas’ status as a dual-national. He is eligible to represent the United States and Mexico, through his parents. Although he grew up rooting for Mexico, Vargas is very open to representing the USA. This tournament would not cap-tie Vargas, but would put him in a position where he would need to file a one-time switch in order to represent Mexico in the future.

“I talked to Obed,” Schmetzer said. “He’s excited to play for his national team. Right now he’s excited to play for the U20s. It’s important for him. He’s deserving of that.”

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