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S2 about to start new, younger era in Tacoma

The youngsters on Sounders 2 Tacoma can look to Henry Wingo, Handwalla Bwana and others to see their own future.

Cheney Stadium Photo by Randy Meeker

TUKWILA, Wash. — While the First Team is getting ready for their next match in CONCACAF Champions League, their future is preparing for its first season in Tacoma. Sounders 2 has a final preseason match Saturday night and then opens their USL season against Timbers 2 Friday March 16 at 7:00 p.m.

“The games at Starfire have been great,” Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer told media after Saturday’s practice. “Over the years there’s been a long history there of Open Cup games, of other games. Cheney is new, it’s different. I think the timing is good. The atmosphere is going to be great. It gives a chance so that the people down south that maybe couldn’t drive up here couldn’t see our games can still get a taste of some of the future pros that we have.”

Currently the expected crowd for the opener is bigger than could even fit into Starfire at full capacity. But crowd size and passion is an ancillary benefit for S2. Its purpose, more than anything else, is to develop First Team talent. On the current First Team players like Seyi Adekoya, Tony Alfaro, Calle Brown, Handwalla Bwana, Jordy Delem, Aaron Kovar, Jordan McCrary, Lamar Neagle, Nouhou, and Henry Wingo can all look to USL as a major reason why they have First Team contracts.

S2’s direct signings, with several teenagers and about 50/50 split between Academy and outside takents, know that Schmetzer and Lagerwey will be watching their development.

“Consistent. Technical. Ability. Under. Pressure.” Schmetzer counts off his key traits on his fingers as he answers. “A good work ethic, which [S2 coach] John Hutchinson is good at instilling in that group. Certainly the quality has to be there, but we’re looking for guys that can handle competitive games at the USL level and continue to grow as players. I would start way back in the USL days with Brian Ching. Brian was on the fringe with LA, came up to us, got 30-odd meaningful games and jumpstarted his career. The vehicle of having a second team is a very, very good one. It’s a very positive one. We can jump forward to lots of different examples — Jordy Delem, Nouhou. There’s lots of guys that needed those games to fulfill whatever career they are going to have.”

Wingo played 12 games each in USL and MLS last season, but the difference in minutes shows the difference in expectations at each level. In USL he put in 859 minutes and started 9 games. In his 2017 MLS season, there were no starts and just 131 minutes. Wingo already has 161 competitive minutes in 2018 in two starts and two sub appearances. He credits the time with S2 with helping him learn.

“When you don’t play games regularly you get out of a rhythm, so when you play every weekend, whether the First Team or with S2, when you can get 90 minutes in a meaningful game it does a lot for your confidence and it does a lot for your game,” Wingo told Sounder at Heart Saturday. “You can settle in and when you’re out there you are not afraid of making mistakes. When you feel the confidence at that level it translates to the First Team. It helped me a lot and it was a good experience to play in a lot of those games.”

Back in 2013 and 2014 while with the Academy, Wingo played up in USL. Now, teenagers are signed to full pro deals. Sam Rogers, Azriel Gonzalez, Shandon Hopeau and Ray Serrano all signed as teens to play for S2. It’s a major step that Wingo didn’t have available.

“It’s awesome. It means a lot to them, but also to this club. It’s a huge step forward in development. You are going to see more and more kids take that path and more of them can progress to the First Team.” Wingo is thinking about the future of the Sounders, beyond just himself. “You’re going to see a lot more guys at a younger age, like Handwalla [Bwana] signing with the First Team. It means a lot for their future. The sooner you can get into a First Team games and those trainings the better player you are going to be.”

Bwana, like Wingo, played up with S2 while just an Academy player. The 18-year-old just started his first competitive match, but that wasn’t necessarily the plan when he signed.

“They brought me in as a kid to develop and take my time to reach my full time, but obviously you have to train every day as you want to play,” Bwana explained to Sounder at Heart, “you have this coaching staff — Preki, Gonza, Djimbo — they all want to develop young guys. Having those guys help me every day that’s what got me to where I am. They taught me the level of play. They taught me to play quick and take advantage of play and playing styles.”

But without his time playing up while just 15 and 16 maybe he doesn’t get the opportunity he has now.

“It was a good opportunity to see what the pro level is like,” Bwana said. “It’s a good program for the Academy kids to come up and play at a higher level and see how far they are from the First Team or second team. You can’t just go from Academy to First Team and adapt really quick. You have to see USL or college and develop. To be able to get minutes there showed how far the game is at from where you are.”

The difference between Academy and S2 is significant.

“Body movements, and finding spaces and positions. That’s more like tactics that you have to know and how to read the game. I’d say that mostly the speed from the Academy too.”

Next week in Tacoma players from the Academy, from college, from Cameroon and Nigeria, will be taking their next steps in their pro careers. They will hear an anthem in Tacoma and know that their future could be at CenturyLink Field.

Note: I will be part of S2’s broadcast team working with Andrew Harvey (play-by-play) and Jason Farrell (analyst). We will only do home games for S2. Harvey also writes for Sounder at Heart, among other outlets. Farrell is Director of Development and Communication with Seattle United.

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