The Shorecrest and Washington product has been the surprise of the camp for the MLS champs.
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Every day after school, Henry Wingo carried a soccer ball outside his family’s Shoreline home to kick against the curb.
The ball would hit the curb, ricochet back at him and he’d turn and kick it again, sometimes for hours. Anybody peeking out their window on Beach Drive could spot Wingo and his ball as he made and received imaginary passes off the concrete.
Little did they know, those outdoor sessions were honing technical skills that would eventually lead to Wingo joining his hometown defending MLS Cup champion Sounders when they open the regular season next weekend in Houston.
“I’d just pass against the curb, take the ball and pass against the curb on the other side of the street,’’ Wingo said. “Then, I’d turn and pass the ball against the other curb. Just back and forth.”
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The Sounders knew they were getting a speedy midfielder when they signed their homegrown former academy player last month out of the University of Washington. Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer had seen Wingo’s speed even before the academy stint, having coached his older brother, Teddy, on the Emerald City FC youth team from 2004 through 2009 when a preteen Henry would tag along and even participate in side drills.
But no one was prepared for what they’ve seen here. For how mature the 6-footer’s technical skills have become for his age, something that’s emerged as perhaps the most interesting story line of the team’s preseason thus far.
Wingo, 21, was born athletically gifted, just as his brother, who played at the University of Vermont and professionally in Norway, had been. He’d grown up in the same Lake Forest Park area as DeAndre Yedlin, who was friends with his brother through soccer and school and got to know him a bit as well.
But Wingo, six years younger than his brother, realized if he was to take his career where Yedlin’s was going, speed alone wasn’t going to be enough. He’d need to work on those technical skills; whether by bouncing a ball off the curb by himself or staying after practice at Shorecrest High School with a small group of teammates who’d pass to each other or set up cones to run extra drills.
“That’s something I’ve always tried to practice,” Wingo said. “I’ve always known that being technical is more important than being fast or athletic. The best soccer players in the world aren’t the fastest one a lot of the time. So, that’s something I’ve always tried to work on. From my days in the academy, that’s when I knew I had to start getting better at having the ball at my feet.’’
And he worked on it with the Huskies the past three seasons as well.
Not only at controlling the ball, but sizing up situations.
It helped that Huskies coach Jamie Clark moved Wingo further back into a defensive midfielder position his sophomore year due to a teammate’s injury. Taking a turn as a defender forced Wingo to see the entire game unfolding in front of him — much like a catcher in baseball — and observe things he never had before.
“You understand the game and how to defend, individually and as a team,’’ Wingo said. “You watch players differently. When you step on the field, you need to know whether he’s right-footed or left-footed. Whether he likes to pass and move, whether he likes to dribble. Those are things I didn’t really pay attention to prior to that.”
And he has played the game much smarter than the Sounders expected when Wingo joined them in camp last month.
That in-game intelligence was on display Wednesday night against an Atlanta United FC squad of mostly starting players. Wingo used some nifty footwork to create space between himself and defenders.
He’d pass the ball, find a lane and dart toward the goal. That happened on a few occasions playing alongside teammate Will Bruin, who would feed the ball back to Wingo for a scoring chance.
One such give-and-go led to Wingo’s first professional goal. He took a Bruin feed near the top of the box in the second half and slotted the ball past Atlanta keeper Alec Kann.
Schmetzer raves about how Wingo has “been lighting it up” with his technical skills throughout camp. At this point, Wingo is not only a lock to make the team but may also receive more playing time than anyone would have expected a month ago when camp opened.
Wingo played only the final minutes of a loss to Columbus here on Saturday, though he got some time in on Sunday in a scrimmage against the College of Charleston as the Sounders wrapped up their South Carolina camp. Schmetzer is keeping Wingo fresh in case he needs to lean on him more heavily when the season opens.
While Wingo has looked good as a midfielder, his dual-status as a defender means can also slot in at right back — which could be needed if Brad Evans doesn’t start the season. Evans has been dealing with a calf-muscle injury and the Sounders will likely ease him along slowly.
Gustav Svensson would replace Evans as starting right back if he can’t go, with Oniel Fisher normally backing him up. But Fisher is still in concussion protocol and needs to pass a test Monday to be cleared to play.
So, it’s not yet known how much or where Wingo will factor in.
For now, the Sounders are just glad to have him.
Schmetzer remembered Wingo from his academy days and prior as “a quiet, smaller kid’’ but says he’s now bulked up considerably and become even more explosive. And his uncanny technical skills, he added, have allowed him to use that speed as a much bigger weapon.
“What he’s shown is something I’d call ‘consistent technical ability under pressure,’ ” Schmetzer said, adding USMNT coach Bruce Arena first used that term with him years ago to describe what most separates national team players from ordinary pros. “Which means, when under pressure from an opponent, you’re going to keep the ball, find the right path to take and then help your team regain possession or start an attack.”
Off the field, some of the pressure in camp was eased for Wingo by having former Huskies teammate Cristian Roldan there. The pair had been a year apart at UW, but became road roommates and close friends with Wingo often leaning on him for advice.
He said Roldan’s biggest advice upon entering camp last month was to have fun. But Wingo said playing with a championship team has helped him elevate his own level of play.
“It’s no wonder why they won the championship,’’ he said. “They all know each other so well. They know their tendencies. They just move the ball so fast and are very smart players. You get better every day playing with these guys.”