The Sounders Academy teams recently wrapped up their regular seasons, and all three full-time age groups qualified for the Development Academy playoffs. Before the playoffs start, it seems worthwhile to take a look at how the got there, and some of the players to keep an eye on once the games start. The teams start playing games with the oldest age group going first, so that’s how we’ll start as well.
The U-19 team is full of talented players that — if you pay much attention to the Tacoma Defiance — you are likely to recognize. Stocked with U.S. youth prospects up and down the roster, the team has at times seemed to struggle to find consistency. Part of the reason for that lack of consistency could prove to be a benefit when they’re all together for the tournament, as this roster has contributed three goals and one assist, and a total of 2,016 minutes to the Tacoma Defiance. Beyond goals and assists, Azriel Gonzalez and Marlon Vargas are tied for third on the team in key passes, with eight a piece (Danny Robles is ahead of them with 9). It’s reasonable to hope that, against players their own age, more of those key passes may turn into goals.
The team will certainly be hoping for some leadership and production from the Tacoma players as they try to make their way in the tournament from their second wildcard spot as the No. 23 seed. Several of these players were part of the U-17 team that won the tournament last year, and they’ll look to repeat the feat at their new age group. Between them and that glory, at least in the group stage, stand Orlando City SC, PDA, and FC Golden State. Orlando City, the highest seed in the group, ought to be their toughest test, boasting a +44 GD and having the only defense in the group stingier than the Sounders.
One player who will certainly want to improve on his performance from last year is Marlon Vargas. Vargas won the Golden Ball in the 2018 GA Cup, and had a good tournament in the 2018 DA Playoffs but was sent off in the final game as the Sounders won 5-1 over Atlanta United. The young attacker could stand to benefit from the boost of confidence that a good tournament would provide, as he’s been one of the most frequent names in the Defiance lineup but has yet to provide a goal or an assist this season. Alec Diaz, another Tacoma-signed player, seems the most likely one to put the U-19s on the scoreboard in the tournament, as his three goals in about 700 career minutes for Tacoma is only a taste of what he can do. With 14 goals in 12 appearances for the U-19s, the US youth player is a difficult striker for defenders to handle and is sure to be an important part of the team’s success.
While players like Vargas and Diaz push the team forward, Blake Malone is going to be working to solidify the defense. Ever present on the back line, the CB has 21 appearances, all of them starts, and has even pitched in three goals. A US youth player, Malone spent preseason with the Sounders first team, and has been on the Tacoma bench three times so far this season but has yet to appear in a game. Look for Malone to help lock down the defense, and possibly be a threat on set pieces.
All three players were among the group that competed in Switzerland, and while the team managed only one goal and one point during the group stage, the experience surely helped grow their confidence as they squared up against such high level competition and coincidentally all three managed to put the ball in the back of the net either in a friendly the team played (Diaz and Vargas each had a goal assisted by the other between two friendlies) or in their 1-1 draw against PAOK during the group stage.
The playoffs start for the Sounders with the U-19s on June 17. Provided streams are available, the tournament is worth your time. Not only are you watching the future of the Sounders, and maybe the next generation of stars, but the academy is also an opportunity to see the purest distillation of the playing style that the Sounders have worked to instill at ever level of the program. It’s not just the players that are the future of this team, it’s the system and the ethos on display that will carry forward as well.