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Jackson Ragen’s voice catching up to his physical stature

Sounders centerback’s soft skills are a key element in league’s best defense.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at FC Cincinnati Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Jackson Ragen has always stood out in a crowd. The Seattle Sounders centerback checks in a 6-foot-6, easily the tallest player on the team and the second tallest outfield player in MLS (only Matthew Nocita, who’s listed as 6-foot-8, is taller). It has been that way for Ragen’s entire soccer career.

But for as much as Ragen’s physique has drawn attention, his personality didn’t always match.

Off the field, Ragen is relatively soft-spoken and humble. He does not seem particularly comfortable talking about himself and is quick to give credit to others. He exuded similar energy on the field, with Tacoma Defiance head coach Wade Webber previously saying that Ragen needed to improve his “stadium voice” in order to make the next progression in his career.

Now in his second year with the Sounders, Ragen’s personality — at least on the field — is catching up to his physical presence. Once more inclined to take directions than give them, Ragen has developed into a vocal presence and has been able to effectively act as goalkeeper Stefan Frei’s amplifier. It’s at least part of why the 24-year-old Seattle native has established himself as a starter on the league’s top defense and displaced a veteran international.

“I’m happy he’s an extension of my voice,” Frei said. “I can’t reach into the midfield sometimes, especially in crowds where it’s loud. He’s one line closer, so if he knows what to do, he takes that ownership of it.”

Ragen’s contributions are a major reason why the Sounders have been statistically the top defense in MLS through the first five weeks of the season, having allowed just two goals in their first five games. Based on a per-game average, that’s an improvement of about .95 over last year. It’s not just the actual goals that have improved, either, as the Sounders are about .76 Expected Goals better per game as well and have the best xGA per 90 in the league.

That Ragen is the only notable change along the back 5 is probably more than just a coincidence. He plays between two highly mobile players in Nouhou and Yeimar Gomez Andrade, and his willingness to provide cover gives them added freedom to be more aggressive in their movements.

“He’s an organizer,” said Webber, who coached Ragen at both the academy and Defiance. “I love Yeimar and Nouhou, but those guys need some corralling ... and they’re responding to him.”

Part of what makes Ragen a good messenger are the same traits that led to him being soft-spoken. Asked to explain the strengths of the defense, Ragen almost sounds like a politician.

“It’s just relationships,” he said. “We’re continuing to work on it, Yeimar and I, all of us with Stef, me with the left outside back, Yeimar with the right outside back. The relationships are great.

“We play to our strengths. I’m not as athletic as [Yeimar], but I’m a better communicator. He’s super good at stepping and I can cover for him. We try to do that more.”

Those soft skills could be his differentiator, but the reason he’s managed to overtake Ecuador international Xavier Arreaga on the depth chart is that they serve to enhance an impressive array of actual defensive talents. Ragen reads the game well, which is part of why he’s rarely beaten for pace even if he’s not the fastest player. He’s also becoming more dominant in the air. But where he really shines is with the ball at his feet.

Much has been said this year about the tactical tweaks that often leave the Sounders in more of a back 3 when they have the ball. A big part of what makes that work is Ragen’s passing, as he effectively ends up as the central cog. His ability to connect line-breaking passes has helped start several quality transition opportunities like the one that led to the Sounders’ first goal against Sporting KC.

As a team, the Sounders rank second in completed long balls (280) and have the best long-ball completion percentage (63.6%). They also rank first in total completed passes and are fifth in completion percentage (81.2%). No other team in MLS ranks in the top five in all those categories. Leading the way is Ragen, who has completed a rather astonishing 80.6% of his longballs, better than anyone else with at least 30 attempts. He’s also completing a very tidy 89.8% of all his passes, which is sixth-best among centerbacks.

“That’s why he is there because he can play simple balls into playmakers who are in the pockets, but he can also hit a 75-yard ball in behind,” Frei said. “He’s very versatile in that role.”

Despite his obvious physical tools and coming through the Sounders Academy, he wasn’t signed to a Homegrown Player contract out of college. Although the Sounders were interested in drafting him — which meant they could keep his rights without offering him a guaranteed MLS contract — they didn’t have a pick until near the end of the third round. Ragen ended up being selected in the second round by the Chicago Fire, but they didn’t offer him a contract, which allowed him to return to the Sounders organization by signing with the Defiance. Even after Ragen had a standout season with Defiance, the Sounders were still able to acquire his MLS rights by trading away a third-round pick.

He signed a first-team contract before the start of the 2022 season and impressed enough to make 14 starts, but only two over the final four months after being red-carded in a 3-0 loss to the Portland Timbers on July 9.

Rather than sulk, Ragen used that as a learning experience. He sought out the advice of veterans and recommitted himself to improving both mentally and physically.

“He’s still a young player, especially experience-wise,” Frei said. “I have all the time in the world for players like that, to make mistakes if they’re all ears and want to work to get better. I’ve never played a perfect game in my whole life and I never will. You always have to be able to listen to criticism and see if you can get better and not make the same mistakes. I want to help him however I can and from I’ve seen it’s been fantastic.”

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