TUKWILA — If the Sounders needed an indication how their newest player would blend with the current roster, Xavier Arreaga was there with an ear tickle.
The Ecuadorian defender walked behind Sounders midfielder Handwalla Bwana as the latter spoke with a reporter and playfully fiddled with Bwana’s ear. The two players — who had only met hours earlier — laughed.
“He’s a funny guy,” said Bwana of his new teammate, Arreaga, whose first language is Spanish. “He doesn’t really speak English, but we joke around with it and suddenly just bonded.”
Still grappling with Wednesday’s announcement that longtime star defender Chad Marshall has retired, the Sounders on Thursday welcomed a future replacement in Arreaga. He signed May 8 and arrived in Seattle on Wednesday evening.
Arreaga said through an MLS-provided translator that he’s only taken a week off from soccer, his last game with his Ecuadorian team coming May 6. The Sounders sent him a fitness program, and he said he feels his conditioning is good, so he’s available for the team.
Thursday was his first training with the club, along with his first trip to the United States. The Sounders (7-1-5) travel Friday to Kansas City for a match Sunday against Sporting KC (2-4-5). Arreaga could be available, but it’s more likely he makes his Sounders debut after playing for Ecuador in Copa America in June.
“It’s a great group of people,” Arreaga said of the Sounders, who are a blend of Spanish and English speakers. Midfielder Cristian Roldan, who speaks both languages, helps unify the locker room.
Arreaga, 24, is a rising star in Ecuador whose biggest unknown is that he has only played one match outside of his native country. Arreaga started for his national team in an international friendly in Panama City in 2018 that resulted in a 2-1 win for Ecuador.
When Chris Henderson, the Sounders’ vice president of soccer and sporting director, first spotted Arreaga two years ago, Arreaga had just joined Barcelona SC in the Ecuadorian Serie A league. In the past four seasons with the club, he’s displayed skill with his 6-foot-2 frame and strong leadership as captain, Henderson said.
Seattle signed Arreaga to a three-year deal worth about $1.5 million. He’s officially declared a “designated player,” but Garth Lagerwey, the Sounders’ general manager and president of soccer, said the tag is more for accounting purposes to remain within the MLS salary cap.
On why he chose to sign with Seattle, Arreaga said: “It’s a very competitive team, always fighting for the playoffs, always contending for titles. I’m a person of conviction and I believe that working hard with education that good things will happen. I chose this for being a competitive league and also because here I can develop both as a person and as a player.”
Arreaga started 78 of his 79 appearances for Guayaquil-based Barcelona SC, including all 10 this season. He scored eight goals and played a total of 6,787 minutes.
Marshall, a three-time MLS Defender of the Year, retired earlier than expected due to his rapidly deteriorating right knee joint. But the 34-year-old was also part of Seattle’s group of aging defenders that includes Roman Torres, 33, and Kim Kee-hee, who will turn 30 in July.
Of Arreaga, coach Brian Schmetzer said: “He’s a guy that fits into our culture. It was very nice to listen to him talk (about) what he wants to achieve here. He did research about the team, about what a good franchise we are and he wants to help continue that. Those are things that every coach wants to hear.”
Sounders midfielder Gustav Svensson returned to training Thursday after missing the past five games with a hamstring injury. Whether he travels with the team depends on how his body responds.