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Sounders roster assessment: Finding help from within

Which youngsters can help Seattle in 2023?

MLS: Concacaf Champions League-FC Motagua at Seattle Sounders FC
Samuel Adeniran is an example of a player who excelled on loan and should be expected to help the Sounders in 2023
Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

With the Seattle Sounders tight against the salary cap for 2023, one of the routes they’ll need to take to find help will be via the youngsters whose MLS futures they control. If one or two of their talents can pop like Obed Vargas, Jackson Ragen, Josh Atencio, Danny Leyva and Abdoulaye Cissoko have, that will go a long way toward helping the team compete for MLS trophies again.

Mostly, they’ll need players who can help in wide spaces, as there are already too many young defensive midfielders and even centerbacks. This year, Tacoma Defiance and the Sounders had a few flashes of who that could be. There are also a handful of players who were loaned during the past season who could have a future in Rave Green.

MLS talents that did not feature

These youngsters were on MLS contracts, but saw very little MLS time, and not much with Defiance either. That hollow spot is where Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva were in 2020, which means it isn’t impossible to turn a lost year into an MLS future.

It also means their time is limited.

Ethan Dobbelaere

Just 992 pro minutes in 2022, Dobbelaere was loaned but did not play for MFK Vyškov due to injury. His loan ended early when he healed from that injury and then immediately started.

There are some questions about his permanent position. Dobbelaere was at the U-17 World Cup (with Leyva and Ocampo-Chavez) as a winger, but his professional future seems to be as a right wingback, a position that Seattle didn’t use much last season. For him to transition to a right back in four-back sets, Ethan will need to continue to develop his on-man defense.

Hope for ‘23: Dobbelaere needs regular developmental time as a right back, not a winger. He must earn that time over Baker-Whiting and Cody Baker, who got most of the time at Defiance this year. Those two chasing him should be inspiration for off-season refinement. The expected opportunity to start semi-regularly in secondary competitions should be a great carrot.

Dylan Teves

With Defiance, Teves filled in everywhere, sort of a young Kelyn Rowe or Brad Evans. His versatility is an asset, but that may only be true at lower pro levels. He was never used in a defensive role (DM, fullback, wingback) with the first team. In MLS, Dylan seemed to be a deep attacking replacement, probably channeling some hope that his scoring with UW may be a boost.

There needs to be a way to get Dylan inserted in roles with the ball at his feet pointed toward goal. That may be as an either-side winger or wingback (if Seattle returns to odd-back sets). He’s been strong doing that on a very good college team and in limited opportunities in Next Pro. He’s not fast. He’s a space-and-move guy, who should be on ball-side of the action.

Hope for ‘23: Seattle has lacked an all-around attacking player since both Roldans held that position in their first pro years. Teves has the skills to help on each attacking wing and even step back to wingback or fullback roles in emergency use. Dylan should be a permanent fixture in the gameday 20 with the MLS team, and a frequent sub.

Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez

One of the joys of watching developmental soccer is when a player takes massive steps forward. Ocampo-Chavez did that in the 2022 MLS Next Pro season when he displayed two new traits — effective heading and defensive pressure. He was already somewhat capable with speed on the wing and good at ghosting into space. As a poacher in the early season ‘Fonz was very good.

By the end of the year, his xG finally matched his goals scored. But that was because he went cold after starting the season with a massive scoring streak.

If the first team thought he was ready they would have used him, but they didn’t. That was despite the fact that AOC scored well and the Sounders didn’t. There has to be a gap they see. That gap is probably related to him being undersized for forward and not fast enough on the wing. He may be too much of a tweener for MLS play.

Hope for ‘23: Unlikely to have his option picked up, ‘Fonz should seek a USL Championship or foreign team that can take advantage of his development into a wonderful poacher. He may get a final shot at the Sounders roster during preseason. Seattle tends to have veteran bench forwards and plays those men ahead of their youth, but there’s no more like-for-like player to replace Ruidiaz than AOC.

Reed Baker-Whiting

The most important question about Baker-Whiting is what position is his future? For the USYNT he’s a dynamic wingback. For Defiance, he was at his best as a defensive winger. They also tried him as a 10, an 8 and a 6 over the years. Reed’s ++ skill is understanding space. He’s constantly controlling areas without the ball, both in attack and in defense. He’s a large, unconventional runner who is still young and is already hyped as a future great.

For the Sounders to maximize that potential they should work hand-in-hand with the YNT coaches to establish a growth path for RBW. Help him contribute for the season-and-a-half he has available and then give him the space to do greatness elsewhere. He should join the list of Sounders prospects who have succeeded in Europe (Yedlin, Wingo, Rogers).

Hope for ‘23: Reed needs regular, consistent time as a swing fullback/wingback. His lack of final product paired with an extraordinary understanding of space works quite well as a modern wingback. His on-ball defense is already among the best in the organization.

Club-controlled but elsewhere

These guys spent some (Adeniran, Kinzner) or all (Serrano, Villanueva) of the season in USL. Unlike the Sounders and Defiance players, I did not watch every single minute they played.

Sam Adeniran

Discovering his abilities on the wing late in ‘21, the Sounders signed Adeniran to the first team. He played wing for a bit with Defiance early in the year and then, because he was between league qualities, the club sent him on loan to eventual USL Championship shield-winning San Antonio FC.

With SAFC, Slammin’ Sam still showed his stunningly powerful shot. Mostly in a two-forward set, Adeniran was used as a swing wide forward to either side of former Sounder Justin Dhillon. He still has the great speed you learned to love. He may be slow on the turn with his hold-up play, but Sam is great when doing that hold-up winger thing. On a team of USL stars he was the biggest, leading San Antonio with 10 goals.

From John at USL Tactics and Backheeled to Sounder at Heart:

Adeniran is one of the best two-way forwards in the USL, active in the press and ruthlessly efficient as a finisher and transition threat.

Hope for ‘23: Jordan Morris and the other winger cannot start and play 70+ minutes when the team will likely play at least 40 games and potentially more than 50 matches. Adeniran is a high-pressing energetic wide player who can hold up on the flanks. He’s also been goal-dangerous for two straight years. It’s time he plays and maybe even features on the wing.

Ray Serrano

In the final year of his first pro deal, Serrano played for Louisville City, the second-best team in the USL Championship. In their conventional 4-2-3-1 he was almost solely a wide midfielder, after playing some of last season as a wingback.

His box score numbers may be down, but his quality is not. If Lou City makes a playoff run it may just be because of Ray.

From John at USL Tactics and Backheeled to Sounder at Heart:

Playing as a full-blown winger with Louisville City, Serrano is increasingly able to use his speed and technical skill while still providing a wingback’s defensive instinct.

Serrano was also featured in the final USL Championship power rankings by John:

Ray Serrano was a constant point of interest. He’s in the 71st percentile for Goals Above Replacement and above average in essentially every statistical category, but his versatility on the pitch is my favorite aspect of Serrano’s game. Tacoma used him as a wingback, but he’s adept as a winger-turned-centerman in the wonky, fluid Louisville system. His deep drop, forward movement to create an overload, and hockey-assist cross helped earn Paolo DelPiccolo’s sweet volley to open the scoring.

Hope for ‘23: Serrano absolutely deserves an invite back to Sounders camp. Though he’s out of contract, Seattle holds his MLS rights and he showed that he deserves MLS time. If they don’t want him back they should trade those rights for allocation money. Let Ray cook.

Alex Villanueva

On a squad known for both winning and selling, Villanueva and all of Orange County did not do much of either in 2022. In years past Alex was used as a winger, a wingback and a left back. With OCSC he was basically just a conventional left back, a near waste of his speed and talented dribble.

Alex is at his best blazing down a touchline, not confined to a defensive role.

From John at USL Tactics and Backheeled to Sounder at Heart:

Villanueva struggled with his defensive role in a messy Orange County side, but he’s still keen on the overlap and has taken a step up physically.

Hope for ‘23: Villanueva probably needs another year in the USL Championship. Now as a pure left back, he’s shown he can learn the role, but he needs some time. Alex probably doesn’t get another look from Seattle, but could still wind up netting them allocation or a low draft pick at some point in the next 18 months.

Eric Kinzner

Unable to beat out two MLS players and two college graduates, the teen phenom from Tacoma needed playing time. Seattle sent Kinzner down to FC Tucson. Once they saw him as a regular starter they rose from the wooden spoon to nearly making the playoffs.

Like most young defenders, Eric is a bit foul prone. His vision on long balls feels like Jackson Ragen or Gustav Svensson, as he’s always looking for big switches. A hard defender, he’ll need reps to develop his positioning.

Hope for ‘23: Kinzner should start every game for Defiance next season. He’s too good for USL League One. His time is in Next Pro is now. Centerbacks develop late and there’s plenty of time for an MLS future.

From Defiance or Academy

Marlon Vargas

Though Marlon Vargas has already said goodbye to the Puget Sound region, he should still be considered for an invitation to Sounders camp in January. Outside of national team players and DPs, no one else in the organization is as capable of playing the Y (6, 8, 10, wing).

Marlon exploded onto the scene in 2022. Now a leader, scorer, and assist man, the Bakersfield kid turned into a Tukwila man. He ran everywhere, constantly seeking ways to get the ball in the back of the net. Working harder than in any previous season, Vargas demonstrated skills that had previously only been hinted at. His passing tree finally looked full and varied. His scoring touch was delicate and powerful. Finishing in the Best XI and as a finalist for the MVP, there was nothing else he could prove in Next Pro.

But, he didn’t get a shot in MLS — maybe a deeper Open Cup run would have helped that. After five years as a pro, the now 21-year-old is a free agent.

Hope for ‘23: Marlon is already a free agent, as his contract is out and he has said his goodbyes. There’s nothing more he can prove in Next Pro or even on a bad USL Championship team. An MLS team should sign him. Whoever signs this man will get a player whose motor stops at the final whistle and whose vision is always towards the goal.

Georgi Minoungou

Minoungou has abs with abs. Fitness will not be what keeps him in or out of professional soccer. His ability to learn the tactics of the game are what will be what will determine his length of career.

Georgi is fascinating to watch with the ball at his feet. An intriguing dribbler with decent vision, he consistently looks to beat his man and another with skill moves that could blow up TikTok. Still raw, there’s a potential for something special in the next year.

Hope for ‘23: Here on loan in 2022, Minoungou should be expected back with Defiance in 2023, starting every match on the right wing. This isn’t about sinking and swimming. This is about refinement, and the only way to gain further understanding of space and when to pass or go it alone is by getting reps. There’s a story arc where Georgi finishes the season on the first team. He’s that special.

Randy Mendoza

Mendoza told me after the Defiance playoff win that his sole focus after having jaw surgery following a harsh tackle that knocked him unconscious was to play for the Sounders-Defiance organization again. It was a long process that helped him understand how much the game meant to him, how hard he would have to work, and how much pain he could tolerate.

He came back stronger, faster and a leader. The 2022 captain almost solely played at left back in his best season ever, a season after his jaw was sealed shut for weeks.

Mendoza’s a lockdown defender at lower levels who will never quit on his team. He may struggle if he ever gets the chance to play up, but he’ll fight and then fight again. Because this is a man who pursues dreams like General Kirigan pursues a white stag.

Hope for ‘23: A late-bloomer, Mendoza’s status for 2023 is unknown. Any club looking at Mendoza next year knows they have a player who never quits on plays or on his team. His ability to play any defensive role saves roster space and his leadership will inspire the squad. If Seattle can figure out a way to get him into their practice squads they’ll find that he’s unwilling to go easy on veterans who attempt to coast through the day-to-day.

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