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Josh Atencio hoping to do more with less this year

Sounders midfielder enters Year 4 with a new mindset and ready to break out.

Mike Fiechtner / Sounders FC Communications

As a young player, there’s almost a constant temptation to do as much as possible. These are the guys who stay after training to do extra work and come in on off-days. When they actually get on the field, they’re also the players inclined to do a bit of extra tracking and chasing.

Josh Atencio has historically ticked all those boxes. Since joining the Sounders ahead of the 2020 season, Atencio has routinely been among the last players to leave the practice field and is only challenged by the famously mobile Nicolás Lodeiro in terms of ground covered per 90 minutes. Deployed mostly as an 8 or a 6 in the Sounders’ midfield, Atencio’s mobility is often considered one of his best attributes.

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, though, Atencio’s path to increased playing time may be in doing less.

“That’s been the thing the last couple of years,” Atencio said after a recent training session. “Looking at the numbers, usually I’ve run the most, but in the two [preseason] games we’ve played, I was still up there but not my usual amount of running. It’s interesting, I think it’s a good thing that I’m not blowing my meters out of the water.”

One of the downsides of Atencio’s mobility is that he sometimes finds himself out of position, something he’s been keen to improve.

“It’s a mental thing you have to think about in the game,” he said. “You want to chase the ball, but are you in the right position? I think a lot the stuff we’ve done in preseason — it’s a lot of positional stuff — has really helped me know when to move. The drills have made things really clear for me.”

The effort appears to be paying off. Atencio was a somewhat surprising starter in the Sounders’ first competitive match of the season, getting the nod over Danny Leyva. Although the Sounders ultimately lost 1-0 to Egypt’s Al Ahly in the Club World Cup quarterfinals, Atencio barely put a foot wrong in his 68 minutes on the field. He completed 24 of 28 passes, won 4 of 10 duels and was credited with six interceptions as Al Ahly was mostly forced to play around him and fellow defensive midfielder Albert Rusnák.

As promising as his play was, Atencio is well aware that he’s most likely only keeping the starting spot warm while João Paulo works himself back to 90-minute fitness and that just winning time as the first player off the bench is itself a significant challenge. In addition to Leyva — who may have started the Al Ahly match if he hadn’t missed a couple of weeks of training while he was with the United States U20 team — Atencio will also be fighting for minutes with last year’s “it” prospect, Obed Vargas, and up-and-comer Sota Kitahara.

The competition should be reasonably familiar, though, as they’ve also faced off for minutes with Tacoma Defiance and in some cases as far back as their academy days.

Fresh off an offseason in which he spent significant time “experimenting” with various fitness regimens he picked up from places like the Huberman Lab podcast which helped him add about 10 pounds of muscle, Atencio is embracing this new challenge with open arms.

“We have six guys for two spots,” he said. “Competition is great, but we all push each other. The young guys can learn from each other and there great veterans we can learn from, too. Having that competition and relationships makes everyone better.”

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