TUKWILA — There used to be an unwritten 45-minute rule.
“You were out first, and you were the last one to leave,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said of his youth playing for the then-North American Soccer League (NASL) era of the club in the 1980s.
Veterans like Steve Buttle, Frank Barton and Pepe Fernandez nudged rookies like Schmetzer to arrive early to work on their skills and stay later for continued coaching. Along the way, the vets were there to provide guidance, critique and encouragement.
“Nowadays, we can’t do that because the athletes are built better, differently,” Schmetzer said. “We have to adjust.”
The adjustment is actually a formal program that invests in young talent, something that started with Garth Lagerwey’s hiring in 2015. Now, the organization has a true club feel with talent spotted and fostered through the system, including the team’s academy, Tacoma Defiance and first-team.
Sounders defender Jackson Ragen is the latest success story of the team’s program. The Seattle native moved into the spotlight when Yeimar Gomez Andrade — a 2021 finalist for MLS defender of the year — suffered a high ankle sprain in a 3-2 win against the LA Galaxy earlier this month.
Ragen started Seattle’s past two matches. The 1-1 draw in Mexico against Club Leon was one of the Sounders’ best defensive games despite the home side slipping a shot past keeper Stefan Frei in second-half stoppage time.
Last weekend in Texas, Ragen helped hold Austin FC to one goal after the Verde and Black combined for 10 in their opening two matches at Q2 Stadium. Ragen had two interceptions and 88.7% passing in the 1-1 draw.
“He’s Chad Marshall 2.0,” Sounders midfielder Kelyn Rowe said in comparing Ragen to the three-time MLS Defender of the Year who retired in 2019. “Even Jackson’s mannerisms, the passing, the quality of passing and ability to win just about every aerial duel imaginable, covering a lot of space, last-ditch tackles and making sure his positioning is good (are like Marshall). We all saw the quality and we’re happy it’s being seen by everyone else.”
Defiance coach Wade Webber spotted Ragen’s potential first in 2017 as a Sounders academy coach. Webber shifted Ragen from the midfield to center back and watched the 6-foot-6 amateur blossom. And then stray from home.
Instead of signing a homegrown contract, Ragen, 23, accepted a scholarship to play for Michigan. Born to parents who played tennis for Yale and New Hampshire, there was little chance Ragen wasn’t going to get a higher education.
Ragen studied kinesiology as he became Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year his senior season. He’s also a two-time All-Big Ten first-team honoree.
But in taking a chance as a college player and entering the MLS SuperDraft, Ragen was picked in the third-round by the Chicago Fire FC and ultimately not offered a contract in 2021. Ragen stayed in contact with Webber since his academy days, playing for the Defiance last season to get back on the Sounders’ radar.
“COVID messed some stuff up because my fall senior season didn’t happen, so they didn’t see me for two years because I couldn’t train with them that summer,” Ragen said of the onset of the pandemic in 2020 where the NCAA canceled seasons but gave student-athletes an extra year of eligibility. MLS formed “bubbles” where academy and trialists players weren’t permitted to mix with the first team.
“I’m happy to be back here,” said Ragen, who lives with his parents and one of his two siblings in Madison Park. He started all 16 of his appearances with the Defiance last season, recording 20 tackles won, 69 clearances, 11 interceptions and one goal.
“He was a skinny kid when he left and he’s a strong man now,” Webber said. “If he hadn’t been as good of a soccer player when he left, it (college) wouldn’t be good enough. … It’s not our preferred method because those are critical years — 18 to 22 — where there’s countless hours you can spend training six days a week, double sessions and we have a gym as well. We can provide a soccer experience that’s unique.”
Dabbling in the professional ranks is part of that structure. The Defiance will debut on Sunday in MLS’s inaugural Next Pro season. Tacoma will host Real Monarchs at Starfire Sports in Tukwila.
The second-division league kicks off Friday with 21 teams — 20 directly affiliated with MLS clubs — playing 24 games, the regular-season ending in September. Matches that are tied after full time will be decided by a penalty shootout and the postseason will be a single-elimination tournament.
Tacoma played the 31-team USL Championship last year, narrowly missing the playoffs.
Ragen will be among the first team players to have MLS Next Pro loan contracts to play in Defiance matches, whether for development or to retain fitness. And those with second-team contracts will look to move up the ranks, Ragen being the latest example.
“My year with Tacoma helped a lot,” said Ragen, who also works with first-year Sounders assistant Andy Rose, a former defender. “There’s a lot of competition. Definitely, Yeimar and Xavi (Arreaga) have the spots, but the fact that I came in and am helping the team will push them to be better and help the team overall.”
Note: Ruidiaz, Delem return to training
Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz was in full training this week after nearly a month recovering from a hamstring injury. The Peruvian is expected to be available for selection when the Sounders travel to play Minnesota United FC on April 2.
Jordy Delem, a backup defensive midfielder during Seattle’s 2019 championship run, also joined full training this week. He tore his ACL in May 2021 and had his contract option declined last winter. A decision will be made soon regarding whether the club will sign Delem, 29, to a new deal.
The Sounders are monitoring minor injuries to internationals Alex Roldan (El Salvador) and Albert Rusnak (Slovakia). The midfielders were supposed to join their respective national teams — Roldan for World Cup qualifying matches and Rusnak for friendlies — but opted to stay with Seattle.
“They’re dinged up,” Schmetzer said. “They had conversations with their national teams and they’re here with us. We’re monitoring their injury status.”