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Josh Atencio’s emergence gives Sounders even more options

Early-season performances are making it easy to rest veterans.

MLS: St. Louis CITY SC at Seattle Sounders FC Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

SEATTLE — By his own admission, Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer leans a bit conservative in his lineups, who tends to err on the side of experienced veterans. But like a poker player on a good run, sometimes you have to ride the hot hand.

Especially when you get dealt pocket rockets (two aces, for the less degenerate among us).

Apropos of rockets, Josh Atencio isn’t new to the Sounders fanbase, having raised eyebrows back in 2021 with a string of promising performances before injuries derailed his progression. But with João Paulo held out for precautionary reasons, Atencio got another opportunity in midfield to show he’s ready for prime time.

Lift off.

Already arguably the best player on the field, Atencio took a pass from Nicolas Lodeiro in the 65th minute and launched it, beating a rooted Roman Bürki and announcing his presence in style. It was Atencio’s first MLS goal and first goal at any level since 2019, his first full season as a professional.

Atencio’s ball-winning and calmness on the ball was on display through much of the match, particularly as St. Louis City’s pressing and physicality caused the Sounders some trouble in the first half. The 21-year-old led all players with 22 duels — winning nine — and seven interceptions, while also winning three tackles and 15 recoveries.

“It was a fight from the start, the first play was back and forth like ping pong,” Atencio said. “That was definitely the game we were in [with] a lot of second balls a lot of fights and duels. We had to be prepared for that.”

Atencio’s aggressiveness on offense was perhaps a bit unexpected, driving toward goal and taking three shots from distance that were all on frame. In any case, the match-winning goal was a well-deserved reward for the performance.

“A lot of times when you’re in your groove, the game kind of plays itself,” Atencio said. “Nico set the ball and I knew I had to rip it. It sure felt good.”

Schmetzer said that João Paulo could have played if necessary, but they wanted to play it safe and also give Atencio another chance to start. Atencio had started each of the previous two games, both road wins.

“JP was just precautionary, we were just holding him out,” Schmetzer said. “Josh took total advantage of the opportunity. He struggled a bit in the first half, but in the second half the kid turned it around and had one hell of a half. I don’t usually do what I did for younger players, subbing him off to let the crowd applaud, but I did because of the quality of that goal.”

Schmetzer was impressed enough with Atencio’s performance that he even pulled him for a late substitute just so he could get an ovation from the fans.

Much of the talk early this year has centered on the depth in the Sounders attack, with both Raúl Ruidíaz and Heber seeing some time off the bench as they worked their way back from injuries. Now with Atencio making a case for more minutes and 17-year-old Obed Vargas working his way back to fitness, Schmetzer said he may have even more sleepless nights.

“What this group of players gives us as a coaching staff is options,” Schmetzer said. “They all want to play, but they all understand that the team comes first. When Josh is playing well, he’s going to continue to get opportunities.

“Maybe it’s Josh, maybe it's Obed, maybe it’s someone else. We will rotate the squad throughout the year. That group is fully committed to each and every player trying to do what they can do to drive the performance of the team.”

No matter how things shake out in the middle of the field, Atencio said he will be his own person and try to impact the game in his own way.

“I just try to go out there and play my game,” Atencio said. “There’s definitely things over the last few years that I’ve tried to incorporate into my game that JP does because he’s a special player. When I go into a game, I’m not trying to be a JP decoy, I’m trying to go out there and play my game.”

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