The Seattle Sounders started their pre-season training camp on Tuesday, with a season that could involve upwards of 45 games before. You may have heard that their roster is particularly thin at the moment, having signed Shane O’Neill to bring their roster to 21 players. With so many minutes to go around the team is definitely going to need more players. While Garth Lagerwey and the Seattle front office are certainly looking abroad for impact players, they’ll also be looking at players from within the organization as they chase multiple trophies. Which players from the Academy and Tacoma Defiance might have the best shot at signing a contract with the first team, though? I’m glad you asked.
Shandon Hopeau has seemed like the most likely Tacoma Defiance player to sign with the first team for the last year or so. The 21-year-old Hawaii native signed with S2 — now Tacoma Defiance — from the Sounders Academy in 2017, and since then has made 75 appearances in USL. In 2019, Hopeau made a transition to playing full-time on the right side of the Defiance midfield having previously played all across the attack. While it took some time for him to acclimate to the new role he showed himself to be a leader on the team and contributed plenty of energy and defensive work even when he wasn’t finding his way onto the score sheet in the early part of the season.
As was the case for much of the team, Hopeau’s stats improved in the second half of the season as the team gelled and stabilized, contributing 4 goals and 3 assists in his final 12 appearances. He ended the season with 5 goals and 4 assists. Hopeau is fast and strong, capable of creating separation on the dribble, finding a teammate with a pass or a cross, and he’s added consistent defensive effort in his time in USL. When he looks to score himself, Hopeau is capable of the extraordinary. His 28 appearances in USL weren’t career highs, but they were the most on the team. He added two appearances with the first team in 2019, coming on as a substitute in the US Open Cup and again as a hardship signing during that dire game against the Colorado Rapids. Garth loves a captain, and Hopeau wore the armband seven times for Tacoma in 2019, which is another mark in his favor as he’s probably already the most ready to make the jump to MLS.
If Hopeau is the most MLS-ready player on the Defiance roster, Sam Rogers has the most ideal situation as the first team currently has two players signed whose primary position is centerback. Rogers faces some competition for one of the remaining CB spots with the first team — Josh Atencio, also of Defiance, and draft pick Danny Reynolds being the main contenders — but he’s the player the organization is most familiar with. Rogers originally joined the Sounders Academy in 2013 before opting to skip college, having signed a letter of intent to play at Villanova, in favor of signing with S2 in 2017. Since then, Rogers has been one of the most highly-touted prospects in the system, earning multiple calls to play with US youth teams, but his progression hasn’t always been a smooth one. Injuries, illnesses, and family issues have kept him off the field throughout his career, but after returning to Tacoma from a trial with Belgian side Standard Liege, Rogers settled into his role in the Defiance back line and showed why so many in the organization have such a high opinion of him as a player.
A CB in the mold of Xavier Arreaga, Rogers is a remarkably smooth passer, capable of breaking lines and starting an attack on the dribble or with an incisive ball to an attacker. He’s not the most physical presence, and might struggle with balls in the air, but when he’s feeling himself he’s aggressive in his tackling and in disrupting and intercepting opposition passes. The potential — and the present — with Rogers is pretty tantalizing when he’s playing at his best, but coach Brian Schmetzer cut to the chase when asked about Rogers, saying, “he has got to grab this opportunity.” The time for him to take that next step is now. That’s not to say that this is necessarily his last chance, but it’s certainly his best. The fact that he’s fit and healthy is a good start to that.
Azriel Gonzalez was the youngest Sounders player to sign a professional contract when he joined S2 at the age of 15 in 2017. Since then he’s scored 7 goals and added 7 assists in 45 professional appearances. Gonzalez has spent preseason with the first team every year since 2017, and really seemed to have taken a step forward at the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019, showing flashes of a player capable of completely taking over a game at the USL level prior to missing 13 games due to a red card and a broken foot. During the dire start to the season Gonzalez contributed two goals and two assists, helping to secure 2 of the 10 points the team earned over that stretch with his contributions. Following a successful surgery on his foot and a much earlier recovery and return than expected, Gonzalez was added to a Defiance team that was rolling. He added another two goals and one assist to his season total in three appearances to end the season. This was one of those goals:
This Azriel Gonzalez goal against New Mexico United is ridiculous and honestly pretty offensive pic.twitter.com/I4vWFArqpJ— Joseph Mondello (@JoeMondelloFC) October 17, 2019
Gonzalez is a tricky winger most often deployed on the left side of the Defiance attack. The best player comparison for him might be the recently-departed Victor Rodriguez. Gonzalez may not be the biggest or fastest player, but is more than capable of using his understanding of the game to open up the field. He’s a well-rounded attacker, equally able to create space with a skill move or a dribble, beating a defense with a clever ball, or scoring himself with a quality shot. While it’s fair to feel as though four years is a long time to wait for a player to pan out, it’s worth remembering that Gonzalez is still only 18, and there’s every possibility that he could make the jump to MLS.
Josh Atencio signed with Tacoma this time last year after appearing for the team twice in 2018. Now, after mostly flying under the radar during his first year as a pro, Atencio has an opportunity to take his game up another level. A well-regarded player with the academy, Atencio was a stalwart in USL Championship play in 2019. He made the third most appearances on the team with 25, his 23 starts and 2,076 minutes both ranked second for Tacoma. Even for a team built on youth, it’s impressive to have a 17-year-old play such a major role. The staff of the first team were impressed enough by Atencio’s performance to have him join the Sounders for their Open Cup match, although he only made the bench in the loss to the Portland Timbers.
Atencio is physically more developed than most of the other players his age in the Sounders system, and his 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame has helped him adapt to the increased physicality of each new level of play. Capable of playing as either a CB or a defensive midfielder, he was regularly the best defender on the field for Tacoma regardless of which position he was playing. Atencio reads the game well, averaging just over one interception and a little over 2.5 clearances per 90 minutes. He’s successful on 54% of his tackles, although he doesn’t attempt a huge number of them. He also wins 55.6% of the roughly 8.5 duels he gets into per 90. He could certainly stand to improve in the air, as he wins less than half of his aerial duels. Improvement in that area in particular would certainly help his chances of earning playing time, as none of the players ahead of him at either of his preferred positions are especially strong in the air. His passing is solid with an 81.4% completion rate on 53.8 passes per 90, although a good portion of that is in the Defiance half of the field. Atencio’s versatility and ability to adjust to a new level should make him an appealing choice for a team with a lot of games ahead of them. Where the organization sees his future is unclear at this point, but he appears to have the highest ceiling as a defensive midfielder.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the players most ready or most likely to sign with the Sounders are also likely to have earned a significant amount of experience with Tacoma, and Danny Robles is no different. His 24 appearances were good for fifth on the team, although his 16 starts and 1,407 minutes place him lower. Robles managed 2 goals and 1 assist in 2019, and one of his goals and the assist both came in a remarkable 21-minute appearance against Colorado Springs Switchbacks in October that led the team to a 2-0 victory. While those numbers are hardly breath-taking, or even much to get excited about at a glance, Robles averages almost 1.5 key passes per 90. His 23 total chances created were good enough for the second most from a Defiance player.
Robles is hardly an imposing physical figure. At 5-foot-5, the 18-year-old looks a little like a cannon ball out on the field. He’s a central midfielder who is best played in a central attacking position. Robles isn’t the fastest player on the field, and his size means that he’s got to find other ways to influence the game — although he’s hardly afraid of a physical challenge. Rather than trying and failing to out run opponents or create space with quickness, Robles prefers to use his vision and excellent understanding of the game to allow the ball to do most of the work for him. As his key passes suggest, Robles has a knack for playing incisive passes that put his teammates in good positions to score, and his work rate allows him to find those spots himself. He could certainly use more seasoning in Tacoma, and would definitely benefit from being a game-in and game-out starter, but if he can showcase that vision in camp with the first team, he may prove to be a useful piece for the first team when Nico Lodeiro is away on national team duty leaving an opening for a hard working No. 10.
Other notable players
This isn’t an exhaustive list. Midfielder Jesse Daley could show well once he’s in camp. If the team needs fullback depth, Antonee Burke-Gilroy has performed well at right back and Nick Hinds led Tacoma in minutes played as a left back, while offering some significant upside. There’s also always the chance that an academy player impresses and earns a contract. Who do you hope gets the next shot?