No fan of the Seattle Sounders was particularly surprised to learn that several teenage products of the Sounders Academy had joined the first team’s preseason training camp. That’s, of course, how Danny Leyva earned his MLS contract last year, and Azriel Gonzalez has been spending his Januaries and Februaries with the team for years now.
Part of Garth Lagerwey’s mission when joining the Sounders was to turn the academy into a legitimate, high-quality talent pipeline; to construct a development system that would connect the academy, Tacoma Defiance (Sounders 2 at the time), and the Sounders first team. Last season, provided a glimpse into what the fulfillment of that mission might look like as the Sounders signed both Leyva and then Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez to first-team contracts and had them each contribute in important games as the team collected points during the regular season. Meanwhile Tacoma Defiance consistently fielded teams primarily composed of current and former academy players.
The 2020 season brings with it a shift in the philosophy. It makes sense that as the talent in the pipeline matures, the expectations would increase, but the circumstances of this season have provided an increased urgency. Following their second MLS Cup victory, with several key players departing and Concacaf Champions League fast approaching, it’s not enough for academy kids to be invited along simply for the experience of training with veterans like Nico Lodeiro and Gustav Svensson.
As coach Brian Schmetzer put it at the opening day of camp, “we changed it a little bit this year. The academy guys have to understand that this is pro sports. They are invited to camp, but there might come a time where I have to say, ‘OK Pete, you’re not doing so well, you’re not at that level, and I might have to send you home,’ because they have to learn that lesson: That they have to raise the level of their training so that I don’t have to say those words. So we’re trying to figure out ways how we build continuity. I love inviting the young kids there, but they have to perform.”
It’s not enough to be full of potential and promise, the guys hoping to follow behind Leyva and Ocampo-Chavez have to prove that they’re ready to compete and contribute. When Leyva signed last February, Lagerwey felt good about where the talent coming through the system was.
“Danny Leyva is the tip of the iceberg, I think we’re looking at a half dozen of these kids coming through in the next year or two,” he said. “If anything we’re excited that our first team staff has embraced these kids and developed them and spent so much time with them in preseason. They’ve become very much a part of what we’ve done in preseason, we’ve worked on their development.”
That half-dozen from last year have now spent another season sharpening their skills with the Defiance, and their ranks have grown as seven players signed to Tacoma and four current academy players joined the first team for preseason. If those players can rise to Schmetzer’s challenge, they’ve got an opportunity to sign their own Homegrown contracts and show what they can do during a busy MLS season.
“We want to sign another couple of kids to the first team this year, and we think we’re going to have the opportunity to do that,” said Lagerwey at that first day of training. “It’s part of the evolution of the club; we started this process four years ago now, I think this is year five ... and we’re making progress.”
While some of the young players will surely sign with the first team, the rest will continue their development with a Defiance team that grows along with them. As Seattle provides an opportunity for the top tier of Tacoma’s prospects along with a number of the top age-group players in the academy, Tacoma welcomed a dozen or so of the top prospects from the U-15 and U-17 academy teams this week to join the six Defiance players who hadn’t traveled to California with the first team as they started their own training camp.
There’s still the potential for an academy player to sign their first professional contract with the first team, but there’s a system in place now with defined steps along the way. Academy players are encouraged to test themselves against the highest level of competition possible, with kids playing up an age group or two and even joining Defiance as amateurs. When they’re ready for the next step, they sign a professional contract and spend their time training and playing with Tacoma.
The organization is being patient as their young players mature, but the development system that’s now in place is gaining momentum and picking up steam. Leyva and AOC will have the chance to increase their own contributions to the Sounders, while their Tacoma and academy teammates amass a wealth of USL experience in preparation for their own chance.