Perhaps the most compelling roster battle to watch during preseason will be in the central midfield. Assuming full fitness, João Paulo seems a solid bet to be starting in the defensive midfield. But who his partner is and what the depth looks like behind him seems to be very much in question.
It’s not for a lack of options. Cristian Roldan, Albert Rusnák and Nicolás Lodeiro are all candidates to fill that spot and are potentially Best XI-caliber players. One way or another, though, all three of those players are probably starting, though.
Where it gets potentially more interesting — at least from a preseason storyline perspective — is the situation behind them. Obed Vargas (17), Danny Leyva (19) and Josh Atencio (20) have all proven themselves capable of positively contributing at the MLS level and need significant first-team minutes to maintain their growth, while new Homegrown signing Sota Kitahara has probably outgrown MLS Next Pro but may not quite be ready to jump any of these players on the depth chart.
Even with the added Leagues Cup and U.S. Open Cup matches, finding minutes for all of them will likely require some creative solutions.
“We have four really, really super talented [young] midfielders,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said this week. “There is a logjam that we have to think about as a club as to what do we do with all these very talented young players and how we get the most of their development.
“Can some of them be loaned out? Can we sell some of them? That’s a project that Craig [Waibel] has to take on. We haven’t really sold players before. We have a surplus. What are we going to do with that surplus?”
Here’s what seems like the best and most likely scenario for each player:
Atencio’s breakthrough came in 2021 when he opened the season as the starter alongside João Paulo and ended up logging about 1,500 minutes. Big things were expected of him in 2022, but injuries limited him to less than 800 minutes.
What 2023 means: Atencio has proven himself a capable MLS player, but his best position remains an open question. Although he’s mostly played as a defensive midfielder, the idea of making him a mobile, ball-playing centerback remains enticing. There’s obviously still time to figure that out, but if a move to centerback means more playing time I’d love to see it.
Best-case scenario: The Sounders move to a three-centerback formation that heavily features Atencio and in 2024 they have a foundation built around him and Jackson Ragen.
Most likely scenario: He settles in as a backup defensive midfielder, biding his time for a year or two down the road when he becomes the starter and ends up playing 15 years as a very good MLS player.
Kitahara has played at every rung of the Sounders developmental system and has even gone on loan to Europe. Last year he battled some injuries but was still a starter for Wade Webber at the Defiance down the stretch. He was signed to a Homegrown contract at the end of last season.
What 2023 means: It’s not quite a make-or-break year for Kitahara, but he’s now 20 and definitely needs regular minutes. Spending the season on the bench for the Sounders or starting for the Tacoma Defiance is probably a waste. He needs to prove he can hang with grown men on a week-to-week basis.
Best-case scenario: Kitahara has moved between defensive midfielder and right back. It’s hard to imagine him breaking into defensive midfield rotation with the Sounders, but it’s not too wild to think he might manage to win the backup right back spot.
Most likely scenario: I have to think Kitahara is the best candidate for a loan out of this group. Even if that’s to a high-quality USL-Championship outfit, I think that’s useful. As long as he’s getting competitive games every week, that’s what is important.
Leyva was quietly very good last season when he accumulated more than 1,600 minutes between the Sounders and Defiance and seems poised to take a significant step in 2023.
What 2023 means: Hard to believe that Leyva broke into the first team in 2019 and is still just 19, but here we are. Leyva very clearly has some elite potential but he needs to show that on a weekly basis. Can he be a good enough defender to be a No. 6? Is he an elite enough passer to be higher up the pitch? Hopefully we find out.
Best-case scenario: Leyva will be with the United States U20s starting next week. If he can secure a spot on the U20 World Cup team and then impress there, it’s entirely possible that he becomes the first big transfer the Sounders can take full credit for developing.
Most likely scenario: Either he’s going to win the top backup spot on the Sounders or head out on loan to somewhere like Liga MX, hopefully after signing an extension. As long as he can log close to 2,000 first-team minutes, I think he’s in good shape.
This time last year, I’m not sure many outside of the Sounders organization knew much about Vargas. By June, he was the subject of intense push and pull between the United States and Mexico federations while earning significant minutes for the CCL champs and on track to become the youngest player on the United States U20 team. But a back injury cost him the last five months of the season.
What 2023 means: The good thing is that Vargas is still just 17 and there’s no reason to rush him. If he can just show that his back injury is behind him, I think the rest will probably be bonus.
Best-case scenario: Based on his trajectory from a year ago, there’s no reason he can’t break back into the first team rotation. If he can do that, there’s every reason to think he’ll get back on track to a big move abroad.
Most likely scenario: He’s starts off the season with Defiance, works himself back into fitness and is back competing for first-team minutes by late spring.