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This could be the year Sounders’ investment in youth really pays off

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There finally appears to be a confluence between opportunity and talent.

Kayla Mehring / Sounder at Heart

No team has been more consistently successful than the Seattle Sounders during their 12 previous seasons in MLS. They’ve got the most points, the most wins, the most playoff appearances, and the most trophies since 2009. They’re also tied for the most trips to MLS Cup and have won more of them than all but the LA Galaxy.

For the most part, they’ve gotten there by relying mostly on veterans while sprinkling in enough younger players to keep them fresh.

While that won’t dramatically change anytime soon, this year does seem to present a bigger opportunity for a more substantial change than any other before it.

The big reason for that is a confluence of events. On one side, the Sounders will be without four regular starters from last year’s team which is creating opportunity. On the other, they’ve got a talented group of relatively unproven youngsters who could feasibly carve out regular roles and fill that void.

“We have a talented group of young players,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said following last Sunday’s scrimmage. “We just need to build them up and see where they can get some minutes.”

This is, to some degree, by design. The Sounders have consistently been among the league’s older teams, and with so many players on the wrong side of 30, Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey has long known he’d have to rip off the bandage at some point. It would probably be a stretch to say that he’s literally forcing Schmetzer to use some of the young talent that’s been pooling at the bottom end of the roster — there are still enough veterans with proven track records to soak up the available minutes — but he’s clearly built the roster with that in mind.

“There are big clubs all over the world that play one or two young guys at a time,” Lagerwey said during his appearance at YachtCon: Back to School. “I think that’s really the key to it, right? No one is trying to reinvent the wheel and saying we’re going to go to Columbus on the road and start five teenagers. That’s not a recipe for success.

“If you can introduce one young player into the team in most games, whether that’s in a reserve role or a starting role — and we have a number of young players that are knocking on the door — I think that’s the way to approach it successfully, to have young players playing next to experienced veteran players and then maintaining the standard.”

Among the players who could feasibly establish themselves as regulars this year are teenagers Josh Atencio, Danny Leyva and Ethan Dobbelaere. All three have been seeing extensive time with both the first and second teams during preseason games and scrimmages.

Lagerwey insists this does not herald some sort of grand philosophical change. The Sounders still expect to make the playoffs and contend for MLS Cup, just as they always do. It’s just that they think they can pull off proverbially walking (winning now) and chewing gum (developing young players) at the same time.

He has to look no farther back than last year when the Philadelphia Union managed to do just that while winning the Supporters’ Shield with a roster that had seven Homegrown players and a host of others who were either drafted or came up through their USL affiliate.

“One thing I feel pretty strongly about is it’s not really an either/or, that’s the wrong question,” he said. “Are you committed to winning? We’ve been to four of the last five MLS Cup finals, that seems objectively certifiable that we’re trying to win. That goes without saying. Once we get fans back in the building — I hope we’re still getting 40,000 fans a game — we’re always going to owe it to those folks to do our bet to win every game.”

Even if none of the young players really “pop” this year, there’s a good chance the Sounders can still be competitive enough to at least make the playoffs. But if they can kickstart the process of turning promising young players into productive professionals, that could lay the foundation for years of ongoing success.

“That’s the great thing about young players — they may be a little up and down but if you put them in the right structure, the right system, and you coach them up, they’re going to get better,” Lagerwey said. “Really, they’re only going to get better. Your starting point is just that, a starting point. That means your team is going to improve over the course of the season.”