When the Seattle Sounders first started seriously investing in their academy in 2015, it was not primarily pitched as a sort of lottery ticket. Even without that investment, the Sounders had already seen the high upside potential that came with getting the area’s most talented youth into their development program when they collected a $3 million transfer fee on DeAndre Yedlin in 2014.
Rather, what then-general manager Garth Lagerwey had in mind was something arguably more transformational. Lagerwey could see the direction MLS was going and it was obvious to him that for the Sounders to maintain their competitive advantages, they needed to create something more akin to a production line that regularly pumped out MLS quality talents to help provide real roster depth. The secondary benefit would be that signing more Homegrown Players would also be like buying extra lottery tickets.
Although Yedlin’s outgoing fee remains a club record nearly a decade later, the fruits of the Sounders’ investment continue to be on display virtually every week. There are currently 10 graduates of the Sounders Academy on the roster and at least two have started every game this season. With seven potential contributors unavailable for a variety of reasons on Saturday, the Sounders’ academy-fueled depth has rarely been more important.
They responded with a 1-0 win over the Houston Dynamo that set a new standard with eight Sounders Academy graduates making an appearance, including Paul Rothrock who scored the game’s only goal. Rothrock and fellow academy graduate Cody Baker — who started and played all 90 minutes at left back — were both playing on short-term loan agreements.
“We’ve been working for many years trying to develop the academy,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said on Saturday. “It’s not winning the tournaments, it’s about developing players. That’s the key. The club has done a good job of developing some of these players who you are seeing now and they’re prepared for MLS.”
Rothrock is a good example of how the Sounders take a varied approach to that development. The Seattle native didn’t actually join the Sounders Academy until his senior year of high school, where he was recruited by current Tacoma Defiance head coach Wade Webber. Rothrock played well enough to earn himself a scholarship to Notre Dame, but not so well that the Sounders seriously considered offering him a professional contract.
Rothrock would eventually transfer to Georgetown where he’d win a national title, but still hadn’t done enough for the Sounders to offer him a MLS deal. Instead, he entered the SuperDraft where he was picked by Toronto FC in the third round.
After two reasonably productive seasons spent almost entirely with TFCII in USL League One and MLS Next Pro, the 24-year-old felt he needed a change of scenery in order to move his career forward. He briefly considered an offer from Wycombe Wanderers of England’s League One, but was ultimately drawn back home where he had maintained connections to the Sounders and Webber.
Since signing with Defiance, it has gone better than he could have imagined. In six MLS Next Pro appearances, Rothrock has a goal and seven assists. He also has goals in each of his three Sounders appearances — the first two came in the U.S. Open Cup — the first player in team history to accomplish that feat. He’s doing this while living at home with his family after spending most of the last six years on the other side of North America.
“If I could put one word on it it would be joyful,” Rothrock said when asked to describe how the last few weeks have been. “I had some other options in other countries. I chose somewhere I’d be valued and had a good culture. It’s starting to pay off. The older guys have been great about welcoming us in, especially me and Baker on this trip.”
While Rothrock represents the way the Sounders tend to maintain ties with players even after they’ve ventured outside the ecosystem, Baker is pretty much the opposite. The 19-year-old has been playing for clubs at least affiliated with the Sounders since he was 12 years old, signed his first professional contract with Defiance in 2021 and now seems poised to become the team’s 22nd-ever Homegrown Player.
Making his second start in four days, Baker barely put a foot wrong while completing 73 of 80 passes and easily handling any of the rare attacks the Dynamo tried on his side of the field despite having still only played the position a handful of times.
Given the level of young talent the Sounders have stocked on their roster, it seems only a matter of time before they start selling some of these players for notable fees. But even if that doesn’t happen, the kids are providing plenty return on investment.