Plenty of soccer coaches will claim to believe that a player’s age or experience is not in itself a disqualifying trait when it comes to playing time. Few of them, however, seem willing to put that into practice.
Playing in a foreign country in the season opener with a lineup missing several key pieces, Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer looked at his roster and picked 16-year-old Obed Vargas to start. The Alaska native never looked out of place.
Vargas completed a team-high 92% of his 51 passes, was sound defensively and even found himself involved in a couple of the Sounders’ best attacking movements in Thursday’s 0-0 draw against Motagua. He did this while becoming the youngest American to ever start and the 10th-youngest player to ever appear in a Concacaf Champions League match.
“I’ve been pretty consistent — when players are good enough they get to play,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer told the media after the match. “He earned a chance to start. I thought the kid was great. I thought his understanding of the game, his stamina, his overall game was tremendous, but he has to learn some other things. He still has a ways to go, but that was certainly a very, very, very good debut start for that young man.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Vargas’ performance was how few glaring mistakes he made. A video showing all of his touches (above) shows him consistently well positioned and willing to carry the ball forward aggressively. If there was a criticism to be found it’s that he often defaulted to square or backward passing, but that seems like a relatively minor complaint in a game where even veterans were reluctant to push the pace.
None of this seemed to catch anyone who has been paying attention by surprise. One Sounders talent evaluator called Vargas “the most ready player I’ve ever worked with.” Teammates, too, seemed to see this coming.
“I was super happy for him,” Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “I’ve seen how good he can be and how confident he is for a young player; that’s good. When you have a top athlete breathing down your neck, you have to have that quality and he has all that. He has a good head on his shoulder. He wants to work and get better. I see all the right things there to contribute. He’s been working hard and has a bright future.”
Chances are, Vargas will find playing time a bit harder to come by as the Sounders get closer to full health. Not only is he still behind reigning team MVP João Paulo, but he’ll be competing for minutes with the likes of fellow promising youngsters like Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva — both of whom enjoyed similar praise at similar points in their careers.
Still, in a match that was at times a slog, Vargas was a definite bright spot.