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Promise and potential: Craig Waibel tasked with helping youth break out

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New sporting director recognizes challenge of breaking young players into a championship-contending first team.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

In his five years as General Manager, Garth Lagerwey and his team have done an admirable job of remaking the Sounders youth development, racking up awards and titles at the youth levels. But translating that success to the first team is arguably the final frontier of the Seattle Sounders youth development strategy, and as of yet, they’ve haven’t conquered it.

Unicorns aside (see: Morris, Jordan and Yedlin, Deandre), the Sounders have by their own acknowledgement not quite been able to turn that talent into consistent, productive first team players. So when new sporting director Craig Waibel lands in Seattle next week to officially begin his duties, cracking that code will be near the top of his considerable to-do list.

It’s a tough puzzle to solve. Young players are notoriously inconsistent, and the Sounders have long had the luxury of not needing to rely on the fits and starts of youth while consistently contending for MLS Cups. Whether or not that has created something of a blind spot is debatable, but the time is approaching where the Sounders will need to see what they have with all of these promising players.

“We preferred, if we could get it, somebody that had a youth development background,” Lagerwey told reporters on Friday. “Looking at the (2021) Olympic team with five Real Salt Lake products on it and five kids on the U-20 team before that, Craig’s really done a remarkable job in terms of getting players onto the first team. I think that’s an area where he can really help us.”

The Sounders have begun signing more of their promising talent to Tacoma Defiance and first-team deals, but few have translated that into regular first-team minutes. That does provide Waibel with a base from which to work to get them to the next level.

“The foundation, a lot of the hard work has been done,” Waibel said. “I know that our first team staff is excited about several of [the youth players]. When your first conversation with the staff [and] they’re naming a couple of young guys that have potential, that’s an exciting moment for me, knowing that the door is open. We all understand the potential here and now it’s just a matter of refining that process.”

That process will involve exploring multiple avenues to to see what they have with their promising academy, Defiance and Sounders talent. The Sounders have already sent one of their prized prospects, Trey Muse, on a season-long loan to the San Diego Loyal of the USL Championship, and he may not be the last, according to Waibel.

“We have some young players right now, that I’m already familiar with, that are going to be on player progression planning that are expedited because they need to be challenged at a higher level,” Waibel said. “It involves everything from loaning players out, training them ourselves, playing them before they’re ready, putting them at levels to psychologically show them specifically what we’re referring to as an organization what they need to improve on and then communicating that back to them an training them appropriately.”

While throwing some of their talent into the deep-end, so to speak, may be tempting, Waibel was adamant those decisions will remain with the coaching staff, and he won’t have input in game day decisions.

“The most important thing is that the coaches choose the players, and the players earn their right,” Waibel said. “It will not be my position to speak on behalf of the coaching staff. Those decisions are made by Brian and his staff.

“In terms of preparing those players to earn those minutes, I’m really excited to get on the ground and see where I can help. I don’t think the organization is lacking for young talented players, perhaps just tweaking little things. At the end of the day, players have to earn their opportunity.”

Waibel said it will be something of a change from his tenure at Real Salt Lake to work with a bigger staff and budget, and knows that the Sounders ability to bring in quality, high-priced talent will present a new challenge in breaking young talent into the first team.

“It increases the challenge of developing a young player to a level that they earn that opportunity,” Waibel said. “When you’re spending a bit more money, the theory is you’re bringing in a higher level of player and therefore the level of that young player to earn an opportunity has to be a little higher than it was.

“It’s a very stable roster brooding with remarkably talented players on the first team, and therefore it’s a narrower scope of young player that’s going to earn that opportunity. In my previous experience, we had a broad canvas of youth player to say ‘let’s see if this one works.’ Now, those are far more narrow opportunities.”