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Josh Atencio is just the start

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Garth Lagerwey discussed what’s next for the Sounders youth movement.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

Josh Atencio’s standout performance on Friday night against Minnesota felt like more than just a great performance from a teenager. If you zoomed out, it seemed like a possible sign that the wealth of talent in the Seattle Sounders development pipeline might be breaking through. Garth Lagerwey spent a significant portion of his conversation with Jackson Felts on 950 KJR’s Sounders Weekly show discussing that performance, what it means, and the plans for the ongoing youth movement at the club.

With Atencio’s 90-minute performance in the heart of the midfield, as well as Ethan Dobbelaere’s substitute appearance for the final eight minutes of the match, Lagerwey was pleased with what he saw as those two Sounders Academy products and the coaching staff demonstrated to the rest of the kids in the system that there’s a pathway to the First Team if they keep working.

“That was something that we had really chatted about in the offseason, about finding opportunities to get young players involved in games and you know from the very first game our coaching staff did that and was able to get Ethan into a match. That was great, and that was an implementation of what we had talked about a lot in the offseason,” he explained.

Atencio’s emergence in that game, and the development of all the talent alongside and behind him, didn’t come out of nowhere. Fans who have followed the Academy, or watched Tacoma Defiance games have seen the quality on display, but as Lagerwey put it, “this is six years of work that’s coming together finally. We’ve talked, and talked, and talked, and we’ve worked, and worked, and worked ... because it’s such a long process to fill the talent pipeline to have success with the teams. To win the national title, to be the first team to ever win the GA Cup, and this is the last summit. Like if we can climb this mountain we’re there.”

That’s not to say anything’s done, or that the work is finished. “Nobody’s made it yet. Atencio hasn’t made it, Ethan hasn’t made it, Danny [Leyva], but they’re all on the cusp. They’re beating the door down, they’re creating competition, they’re giving the coaching staff options, and that’s what we want.”

The departures of players like Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam and Gustav Svensson this offseason have left spaces for younger players to step into. That doesn’t just mean minutes on the field, it also means that there are roster spots open. “You could see us sign a guy or two from Defiance to come up and join the First Team, that’s still in discussion,” said Lagerwey. “We’ve had a number of young guys that have been with the first team for a long time, so we’re still excited about that, we’re still monitoring that, and there’s still a bunch of those guys that are training with the first team.”

With players being called into their national teams, there will be plenty of minutes for the young guys to earn. Some of them, like Leyva, will need more minutes than are going to available with the Sounders, though.

“Part of the answer for Danny may be to go and play a bunch of games for Defiance, because we have all these elaborate data algorithms and stuff, but the thing that pops in every single one of them is the kids have to play. And last year was an unprecedentedly hard year for young players.”

Being able to train with the First Team is great, and was a significant part of how Atencio made his way into the Starting XI last week, but nothing beats competitive games.

“Play your kids” is a meme at this point, echoed in the halls of Twitter, but’s more than that for Lagerwey and the Sounders. It’s not just about signing young players, it’s about bringing in people with ties to the region and the community, whether that’s Academy products or the Roldans who both went to school in Seattle and have adopted the city as their own.

“This is what ties us the Sounders back to our community, and makes us relevant with our fanbase. So it is critically important to the culture of our club that we succeed in this endeavor.” It’s not just players, either. “That has been one of the big themes for us, right. We promoted Wade Webber, a local Seattle guy, to run Defiance, to get in the trenches with a lot of local kids to keep developing them. We hired Craig Waibel, a Seattle guy via Idaho and Spokane, to come in here and say, ‘how do we integrate this whole player development pipeline,’” Lagerwey said to emphasize the organization’s commitment to their community. That connection is the team’s path to future success, both on the field and off of it.