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Predicting the next crop of Sounders Homegrown Players

Seattle has been sowing seeds in Tacoma that could be reaped in 2021.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Their impact in the First Team has been limited to date, but the Seattle Sounders have shown that Tacoma Defiance is the preferred proving ground for potential Homegrown Player signings. Five current HGPs started their journeys in the professional game with Defiance, and with the impacts of the pandemic on the Sounders Academy in 2020, it’s even more likely that any new Homegrowns signed in 2021 will come from the USL team’s ranks.

As we approach the coming season and the start of training camp with a roster undeniably in flux in a number of positions, it makes sense to gaze to the south and try to determine which players could potentially see the lights of Lumen Field in their immediate future. Let’s take a look at five players who could get the call.

Alec Diaz — Regardless of what formation the Sounders use, the depth at forward is limited. Behind Raúl Ruidíaz and Will Bruin there’s no significant MLS experience. With Jordan Morris learning to train his dragon in the Welsh wilds, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez is the only other player currently on the roster with any sort of experience as a forward. AOC has shown improvement in his general play — and particularly in his ability to serve as center forward — in the time since he first signed with Seattle, but if the team wants another piece to back up the vets there’s only one clear option. Enter Alec Diaz. The 19-year-old forward has played his way into the Puerto Rico national team on the back of a solid 8 goals and 5 assists in 34 career USL Championship appearances, averaging 0.61 goals+assists/90 minutes since his first appearance in September 2018.

Diaz burst onto the scene at the end of that season, putting up an impressive 2 goals and 2 assists in only 312 minutes, but he struggled to find the same success in 2019 as he became a more regular part of Tacoma’s team. In 2020, Diaz found himself as the main option at forward for coach Chris Little due to the circumstances caused by the pandemic. With the starting spot firmly in his grasp, Diaz rattled off 6 goals and 2 assists, plus 7 key passes thrown in for good measure, in 854 minutes. Only averaging 12.5 passes per 90 minutes, Diaz’s involvement in build-up and possession was limited, but he was consistently able to help get his side on the score sheet. If he can translate his 0.84 g+a/90 from 2020 in any capacity to the next level, he’d be a great option for the Sounders.

Azriel Gonzalez — There’s a funny thing that can happen to a young player whose first professional contract comes around the same time as most teens are getting their driver’s license. Particularly for a player who shows glimpses of spectacular talent early on, gradual development and growth can become boring to watch as expectations outpace reality. To some extent, that’s been the case for Azriel Gonzalez. Still just 19 years old, he has racked up plenty of USL experience, playing 3,336 minutes in 61 appearances since he first stepped on the pitch in 2017 at the age of 15. While his younger teammates have made quicker jumps into the first team ranks, Gonzalez has become one of the more experienced players with Tacoma.

Gonzalez is a left-sided player who can be an absolute menace on the dribble and cutting inside to create his own shot or set up a teammate. He’s shown flashes of being a dominant player in USL, but injuries have limited his ability to turn it on consistently. In the shortened 2020 season Gonzalez was able to avoid any injury issues and, although his production and minutes were somewhat limited as Tacoma regularly used a platoon approach to keep the players on the wings fresh, he was able to be the only player to appear in every game his side played. Preseasons spent with the first team have practically become a tradition for Gonzalez, and a good showing this year could provide him with the springboard he needs to take his game to the next level.

Danny Robles — The Sounders have more depth in the center of the midfield than anywhere else on the field. The starting three of Nico Lodeiro, João Paulo and Cristian Roldan is undeniably in the conversation for the best in the league, and behind them they have experienced players like Jordy Delem and Kelyn Rowe as well as promising young talents Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva. All of those players are capable of stepping into a double-pivot, and João Paulo and Roldan can both provide their own twist on the role of a No. 10 in Lodeiro’s absence, but the team does lack a true understudy for the Uruguayan maestro. If Schmetzer needs a more like-for-like replacement for Lodeiro so that the preferred double-pivot can be kept in place when Lodeiro’s unavailable, Robles offers a pretty good option. Robles plays with a similar style and spirit to Lodeiro, as the all-action string puller in Tacoma covers tons of ground, puts in his share of tackles and defensive work, and uses off-ball movement to create space while consistently serving as the primary chance creator.

Robles, a 19-year-old who can also play as a part of a double-pivot, has played 2,541 minutes with Tacoma since 2018, and has been a near constant in the team’s lineup since the end of April 2019. While he’s been a part of the furniture for the better part of the last two seasons, he took a significant step forward in his game in 2020. Only two players on the team played more than his 1,089 minutes as he made 12 starts in 14 appearances. Robles led the team with 12 key passes to compliment his 3 goals and 3 assists. As mentioned above, he does more than just create chances. Last season he put in 20 tackles (4th on the team) with a 60% success rate, 102 duels (3rd) of which he won 53%, and even added 6 interceptions (11th). When working to keep possession, Robles is a tidy passer, but is capable of picking out a pass that will split a defense or find a teammate in a pocket of space, while also developing a talent for finding himself in dangerous spots inside the box. While the Sounders aren’t necessarily a “System Team” built to plug-and-play players in specific roles, having someone who can more directly replicate the way that Lodeiro plays could serve as a great depth option.

Sota Kitahara — Sota Kitahara only just signed his first pro contract with Tacoma Defiance this offseason after forcing his way into the lineup and never letting go of his starting spot as part of Chris Little’s double-pivot. Kitahara started in 13 of his 14 appearances, appearing in every game after the league restarted, and playing 1,146 minutes — a sum good enough for second on the team behind only Taylor Mueller’s 1,350. All but one of his appearances in 2020 came in the center of midfield, but it’s the position he played in that one game that gives a hint of why he’s on this list ahead of some of his teammates. The center of midfield is pretty well stocked in Seattle, but heading into this season the roster only has one player with significant experience as a right back. That lone player, Alex Roldan, has only really been a RB for one season, and while there has been talk of other players as an option at that position or as a right wing back should the team trot out a 3-5-2, there’s some sense in adding more depth at that spot. Kitahara’s one start outside of the center of midfield in 2020 was as a RWB, and his two starts prior to last season with Tacoma came as an RB.

Reasonable people can disagree about Kitahara’s best position, but it’s undeniable that he has the tools to succeed as right-sided defender. Kitahara has the pace and work rate to cover the entirety of the sideline, and his team-leading 27 tackles (56% successful) and 124 duels (55%) show a clear willingness to put in the dirty work on defense. As he grew more accustomed to the professional game, Kitahara’s success rate in tackles and duels improved, growing more comfortable with the physicality, able to both dish it out and take it. Still, he could at times be overpowered, and moving him to the outside could provide for some increased cover as he continues to grow and develop. Kitahara’s greatest strength, regardless of where he’s played, is his vision and passing ability. With Seattle’s use of fullbacks in possession, those strengths would be a huge asset.

Reed Baker-Whiting — The midfield is crowded, but not all signings are made for the current moment. Reed Baker-Whiting is a central midfielder who has been brought up as fully in the Sounders development system as is possible, playing for three years in the Sounders Development Program before joining the academy full-time and eventually signing his first professional contract in July last year at only 15 years old. Baker-Whiting’s already been name-dropped by both Garth Lagerwey and Brian Schmetzer, having participated in first team training following the end of the 2020 USL Championship season, and is expected to join the first team for preseason this year. RBW struggled at times with the physicality and speed in Tacoma, particularly in his earlier appearances. Even in those moments, though, he never looked out of place, as his understanding and ability to read the game helped him to compensate.

Baker-Whiting is a technically adept player, comfortable playing in a number of midfield roles. He’s most likely to find his permanent home as a professional as part of a double-pivot, with the style of his game likely lending itself to a ball-playing 6. In his 264 minutes with Tacoma — an admittedly small sample size — his passing accuracy wasn’t great, 63% on an average of 34 passes/90, but that’s largely due to the types of passes he attempted. 45% of all of his passes were towards goal, making them more difficult, but with greater potential reward. When passing in his own half, his passing accuracy was a more respectable 77.8%, still not great but acceptable with his partner generally carrying much of the water when it came to keeping possession. Baker-Whiting showed a willingness to put in challenges, averaging 3.4 tackles (50% success) and 10.9 duels (41%) per 90 minutes, despite being significantly smaller than his opposition. Being able to practice alongside players like João Paulo and Cristian Roldan, and learning from Gonzalo Pineda should provide an environment where Baker-Whiting can grow into his potential while honing his craft.

These are, obviously, not the only players who could earn Homegrown contracts in 2021, including Joe Hafferty who was acquired in the SuperDraft but is eligible for a spot. The Sounders Academy is full of potential first team players, working to earn their shot. There are Sounders products making their way in the college ranks, now that the NCAA is playing again. Unfortunately the pandemic meant that there was no academy season for the Sounders in 2020, and they’ve yet to begin their 2021 season, and many college programs took a hiatus during the Fall, meaning that it’s been difficult to watch or evaluate all of that talent. That’s to say nothing of the other players currently on the Tacoma Defiance roster. There’s plenty of talent in the pipeline, and these are just a few of the talented youngsters who could get their shot this season. Who would you like to see become the next Sounders HGP?

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