Amidst all the success the Seattle Sounders have enjoyed since moving to MLS, there's been one area that has seemed to lag a bit: Developing young players. Sure, they showed they CAN develop younger players. DeAndre Yedlin is the shining example, having gone from the academy to a top college program to MLS starter and, of course, to the World Cup and the English Premier League. But Yedlin has really been the exception.
Heading into this year, Yedlin was the only one of the Sounders' Homegrown Players to see significant MLS playing time and aside from former No. 1 pick Steve Zakuani, they hadn't really developed any of their draft picks into regular starters.
Our very own nimajneb has documented this struggle with stories about their drafts and general reliance on veterans. But he's also pointed out that the young players they've used have generally done well.
But this year, that trend may change.
Granted, we're only three games into the MLS regular season, but we're already seeing some promising trends. On Saturday, Cristian Roldan became the first draft pick to earn a regular-season start for the Sounders in his rookie season since Andy Rose in 2012 (although it should be noted that Rose was not technically a Sounders draft pick, but was picked on the Sounders' behalf by Real Salt Lake). In the same game, we also saw high school senior Victor Mansaray become the youngest player to ever step on the field for the Sounders, second-year Homegrown Player Aaron Kovar got 29 minutes and 2015 second-round draft pick Oneil Fisher made his regular-season debut.
If we extend our scope of focus to Sounders 2, the picture is even more encouraging. Darwin Jones just became the first Sounders Homegrown Player to score a professional hat trick, the Sounders' top pick in the 2014 SuperDraft Damion Lowe has been looking strong and steady at center back and 22-year-old Argentinian Pablo Rossi might be the most intriguing prospect currently playing in the USL. And let's not forget Dylan Remick is still just 23 going into his third MLS season.
Add it all up and the Sounders control at least eight players who are 23 or younger that could feasibly play significant roles in the first team as soon as this year and that's before we even start talking about the likes of Jordan Morris or any other current Academy players.
Here's a closer look at each of them as well as what kind role that could play this year:
Mansaray, 18, attacker
He's the youngest of the group and probably the one with the highest upside. The Sierra Leone native has already become a regular with various United States youth national teams and has dominated the competition at the academy level. Between taking classes at Fife High School he's impressed Sounders coaches with his size, speed and athleticism while also showcasing some pretty sweet passing skills from the wing. You may remember this beauty from the S2 opener:
Best-case scenario: Getting regular minutes with the first team and developing into a rotational player on the wing and up top by the end of the year. We're probably a few years away from seeing him at his best, but that could be almost limitless.
Roldan, 19, midfielder
Even after two years at the University of Washington, the midfielder really hasn't gotten any kind of looks from the youth national team level. That combined with the fact that he's still just 19 suggests he has plenty of untapped potential. At the same time, he's probably the Sounders' most polished draft pick at least since Zakuani.
Best-case scenario: Displaces Gonzalo Pineda as a starter in the central midfield where he's a fixture for years to come.
Lowe, 21, center back
By the end of the 2014, it was fair to wonder if Lowe would even be back for a second year with the Sounders. Injuries had severely hampered his development and he had rubbed a few of his teammates wrong when he went in for harder-than-necessary tackles in training. But he seems to have returned in 2015 determined to make good on his obvious athletic abilities.
Best-case scenario: He continues to develop at S2, gets some time on the first team in non-MLS competition and competes for a starting spot next season.
Kovar, 21, midfielder
Didn't get a ton of attention in his rookie season, but did a lot of the stuff you like to see from youngsters. He was almost always the last guy to leave training and worked tirelessly on free kicks. That work has paid off as he now has a cultured left foot that's not quite on par with Marco Pappa, but dangerous none-the-less.
Best-case scenario: He breaks into the starting midfield and eventually becomes the Sounders' version of Brad Davis.
Jones, 22, attacker
After starring at the University of Washington the last couple of years, he signed a Homegrown Player deal before the start of 2015. For all his physical talent, though, he seemed to sometimes get lost and was eventually dropped to S2. In his first start with the USL team he was utterly dominant, using his body to shake off defenders and his speed to blow past them. His second goal best highlighted the kind of physicals gifts he has:
Best-case scenario: He's earning minutes with the first team by the end of the year and competing for starters minutes by 2016.
Pablo Rossi, 22, attacker
It doesn't take long to appreciate the kind of skills Rossi possesses. He sees passes few other see, has ball skills we rarely see in Americans and he's capable of striking a free kick as well as just about anyone in the world. The biggest problem is that he doesn't really have a position at the MLS level. His interest in defending is almost non-existent and he's still adjusting to the size and speed of the American player. At the same time, he's got at least one MLS-ready skill and that alone could make signing him to a senior-team contract worthwhile:
Best-case scenario: He dominates at the USL level, leads S2 on a surprising U.S. Open Cup run and is a late-season signee by the Sounders where he is used as a late-game sub before competing for regular minutes in 2016.
Oneil Fisher, 23, right back
It was a little surprising to see a player with Fisher's pedigree drop into the second round of the SuperDraft, but the Sounders were more than happy to snap him up. Fisher clearly has holes in his game, but he is fast and looks dangerous getting forward. Made one awful mistake against Tijuana, but mostly held his own in that appearance as well.
Best-case scenario: Proves a capable backup to Tyrone Mears and starts getting regular first-team minutes next season.
Dylan Remick, 23, left back
Easy to forget that even though this is his third MLS season that Remick is still only 23. At this time last year, it looked like he was being groomed to succeed Leo Gonzalez, but injuries and some poor form delayed that indefinitely. It wasn't looking much better when the Sounders signed Colombian Andres Correa. But Remick seems to have beat out Correa for the backup spot and now looks to be back on track toward eventually supplanting Leo Gonzalez.
Best-case scenario: He holds off Correa and gets some starts at left back. The upside potential on Correa is probably similar as they actually have somewhat similar, speed-based games.