Sounders 2 is at least a couple weeks off from their own training camp but their involvement in the opening week of first team training is starting to offer an outline of what S2 will look like in 2017. It is clear that the organization is looking to further solidify the connection between its MLS, USL and Academy sides: Four Academy players (Shandon Hopeau, Azriel Gonzalez, Sam Rogers, Sam Fowler), two S2 signed players (Irvin Parra, Lorenzo Ramos), and three former S2 players (Zach Mathers, Jordy Delem, Nouhou Tolo) have been ever present during this week’s reconvening of the first team. Sounders 2 Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson was also present and involved in all four practices - often running additional drills while the media interviewed other coaches and players at the conclusion of practice.
Realistically, only Delem, Mathers, and Tolo have a shot at making the first team prior to the beginning of the season. So far only Tolo has won a first-team contract (his “promotion” was most likely decided on before this last week). His former head coach, Hendrickson praised the youngsters raw athleticism, “Very fast, he was the fastest guy in all the speed testing on the team today. He is a physical specimen. Now he is not as polished as Joevin [Jones] is, tactically or technically, but his starting point is very high, and that is something we appreciate, and his ceiling seems also to be very high.”
It should also be noted that the 19-year-old Cameroonian has other attributes that seem ready to translate to MLS. He has a solid first touch and several times this week displayed the vision and touch to complete difficult switches. The LB also possesses a dangerous, probing cross. At the end of practice Tuesday Hendrickson was running a drill that concluded with a fullback sending a one time cross into the box. Of the four fullbacks who participated (the others being Fisher, Dominic Oduro, Kyle Bjornethun), Tolo’s were consistently the most dangerous and accurate.
The other former S2 men aren’t blessed with the same athleticism as Tolo and at times struggled to hang with the increased speed of the game. When put in the midfield, Delem struggles a bit to cover enough ground laterally to defend the better players and consistently takes too many touches—barring some radical improvement it is difficult to imagine Delem making an MLS roster. Mathers looks much better on the ball, he has good vision and can pick a pass, but also struggles with lateral movement. Mathers’ biggest knock is his defensive effort - and given the team's interest in him as a DM - something that he needs to improve. His disinterest can be shocking at times. It is unclear whether Delem and Mathers will be offered S2 contracts should they fail to make the first team but the trend has been to purge S2 of players who saw a full year with the team last season.
While Delem and Mathers have been underwhelming, some of the Academy kids have been downright impressive; namely Shandon Hopeau and Azriel Gonzalez. For a 15-year-old, Gonzalez has been unfazed playing amongst the big boys and his composure and finishing are of a quality that breeds excitement. Where Gonzalez has looked good for a young kid, Hopeau has looked like he can genuinely hang with the second-choice guys in training. Shandon is a direct, attacking winger who isn’t afraid to take players on; his is a skill set that the Sounders have never really replaced after Zakuani’s injury. It will be interesting to see how quickly Hopeau can progress because there is certainly room for a player of his ilk at all levels of the organization.
It is highly unlikely any of the Academy kids see the first team this year but their inclusion signals improving confidence in the Academy and a desire to saturate all levels of the organization with Academy products. Hendrickson, who sees himself as the bridge between the Academy and MLS side, acknowledged this improvement, “As our Academy improves so will S2, so will the first team. The Academy is improving - we are getting better players in so that is why you are seeing a lot more Academy players in the first team training and you will see them also in S2 training.” The Vincentian sees this improvement continuing, “Before too long 99 percent of players with S2 will be players who have come through the Academy” though admits that the Academy is not there yet.
S2’s current roster probably serves as a decent representation of where the USL side stands vis-à-vis Academy versus outside players. Lorenzo Ramos is the only Academy product signed to Sounders 2. Ramos has been respectable while playing in the middle during camp this week. His vision is decent and he has been able to keep the ball moving, his play during camp indicates that he could be a key cog and tempo keeper for S2 this year. The other S2 player training this week was Irvin Parra, the only veteran-for-a-developmental-side to survive the offseason, who has shown up looking stronger and faster this year. Last year he was an all-purpose attacking player but his increased bulk and his play the past week make it look like he may be making a move to a traditional No. 9-type role: He has looked pretty good there. The final current S2 player, Javorn Stevens, has yet to arrive in Seattle as he prepares to play in U20 CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers for Antigua and Barbuda. Hendrickson, who scouted the player at the Caribbean U20 championships describes Stevens as a fast, powerful striker who is an excellent finisher.
Even with heavy Academy participation S2 will need more than three contracted player and Ezra provided some clues on how they plan to fill out the roster. “We have 6-7 [players] that are gonna be coming through with their U20 teams that we won’t see with S2 until early march, which hurts S2 in the immediate but it is a good problem to have - if you can get 5-6 U20 internationals on your squad it is a good thing.” This may indicate a move away from stocking S2 with rejected college players, which makes sense given their poor hit rate, and allows for more control over the development of your players.
What S2 will be this year is far from clear at this point but we can start to fill in the edges. The upcoming signing of a slew of U20s and the increased involvement of the Academy make it apparent that S2 has thrown in fully for development. They may still hope to put together a winning team but it is clearly no longer a priority. The drama will lie less in points and more in the fulfilment and destruction of promise.