TUKWILA, Wash. – More than most, Josh Atencio understands the weight a player's shirt number can carry.
Atencio hails from a multi-generational soccer family. His grandfather coached for nearly four decades in the Tri-Cities area; his father, aunts and uncles all played; his family moved from Maple Valley to Bellevue in large part to accommodate the soccer aspirations of his older brother.
The No. 8 jersey may not have quite the lore of the 10 (primary playmakers), 9 (goal-scoring forwards) or 6 (hard-tackling defensive midfielders), but it's certainly in the pantheon of revered numbers. By donning the 8, you're at the very least a presumed starter, but there's also a general assumption that you are just as willing to sacrifice yourself on defense as you are on offense. There's an expectation that you are a hard-working player, one who will cover a lot of ground and do the sort of all-field work that lets the specialists do their things.
When Atencio was informed by Seattle Sounders “kit man” Nolan Myer last year that the number was available, Atencio didn’t hesitate to put in his request.
When he showed up on Tuesday for his first day of training with the Sounders, he learned the request had been granted.
“I’ve always wanted to be the 8 for the Sounders,” said Atencio, who joined the Sounders Academy as a 14-year-old in 2016. “That’s always been a goal of mine from when I was in the academy forever and watching players performing. It’s honestly a dream come true to get it. It’s silly but it means a lot to me.”
Since signing his first professional contract with Tacoma Defiance in 2019, Atencio has worn the No. 84 jersey. The Sounders have a practice of assigning higher numbers to Defiance players, who often keep those numbers when they graduate to the first team. Atencio had kept the 84 through his first four MLS seasons, but after establishing himself as a regular starter down the stretch in 2023 felt he had finally earned the honor.
It was particularly fitting that he learned of it fresh off returning from two weeks with the United States national team which culminated in him receiving his first senior national team cap, a start in a 1-0 loss to Slovenia.
“It’s still sitting in a little bit,” Atencio said about his first cap. “It was a great experience. It hit me during the national anthem, looking down at the badge and up at the flag. It was awesome.”
Atencio didn’t go into camp necessarily expecting to start. He said it was a bit of a “grind” to move into the position, but that's nothing new to him. Even with the Sounders, Atencio has seemingly always been competing against more celebrated players. For a player so young, he's had a remarkable number of false dawns, moments where it looked like he was poised for a breakout only for one thing or another to set him back. Given the opportunity, though, he tends to break through. With the USMNT, that apparently came through in a scrimmage a week before the friendly. Coming in at halftime, Atencio was his all-action self, culminating with a goal that came in signature style.
“The goal wasn’t too eloquent,” Atencio admitted. “A corner came in and there was a ‘skerfuffle’ in the box. I won a 50/50 and kinda went into a challenge on the scoreline and poked it in. It was the kind of goal I’d score.”
Never one to shy away from sharing his opinions and someone who is fond of various self-improvement exercises, Atencio said he enjoyed his time with the USMNT and gushed about Gregg Berhalter’s leadership and organization. He particularly appreciated that coaches were open with their feedback.
Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said he could already sense a difference in the way Atencio carries himself, observing that “he was full of confidence, chest puffed out.” Schmetzer, though, was careful not to be too effusive with his praise.
“Getting the start was a job well done but other than that I’m going to try to keep him grounded," he said. “He’ll have competition here. He knows that is a good experience he can build on with a successful season with us.”
Atencio wouldn’t have it any other way, especially now that he has his long-sought number.
“I’m excited to come out every day and earn it,” he said.