On April 20, they were on a hot field in Texas playing for the 2019 Generation adidas Champions Division tournament title. Last Wednesday, the hyped boys in jeans or khakis with black shirts adorned with the Sounders logo walked a 50-yard red carpet carrying a silver trophy.
Ray Serrano, a 16-year-old from Moses Lake, had jackknifed a header into the goal in extra time to give the teenagers a 1-0 win against Spain’s Valencia CF, resulting in Wednesday’s championship celebration before the Sounders’ match against San Jose. But unlike other nods to titles won within an organization that I’ve seen — softball teams or rowers being honored at a football game — the boys weren’t an afterthought or obligation.
The approximately 37,000 fans at CenturyLink Field sounded genuinely excited in taking ownership of the title. Their cheers showcased the community vibe often talked about around soccer.
Other American pro sports have junior leagues or even developmental leagues for youth players. Most of the time, though, the athletes aren’t directly under the wing of the actual pros and their staffs like they are in soccer. Since Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey began the team’s eight-figure investment into molding the academy in 2015, youths and pros have intermixed around Starfire Sports in Tukwila with a shared vision of being the best in MLS.
The boys represented the Sounders Academy U-17 team, but many of the players, including Serrano, also play for the USL’s Tacoma Defiance while 15-year-old midfielder Danny Leyva, who was named MVP of the GA Cup, made club history by being the youngest to sign a contract with the first team.
The GA Cup win is a big deal, not only because of the top-tier clubs across the globe that the Sounders defeated in Flamengo (Brazil), River Plate (Argentina) and West Ham (England), but also because Seattle is the first MLS club to win the title.
“I know everybody is excited. I get it, but it’s still a long ways to go,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said of the significant benchmark the boys established in just four years of Lagerwey’s overhaul.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re the best academy in the United States,” Schmetzer said. “We’ve produced some good players and there are some good players coming up in the pipeline. … As long as I’m here as the coach, I want to promote kids from our academy, that are good enough, to make the first team.”
Some U-17 and Tacoma Defiance players were on the training field with the Sounders on Friday, filling voids left by starters resting due to playing two games in a four-day span.
The Sounders Academy has about 150 hand-selected players between its three part-time and three full-time teams. In addition to training at Starfire, the full-time members also participate in what is called “Pizza School,” where a modest pizzeria in the facility doubles as an educational space.
Leyva is adamant he’ll use the funds provided through his MLS contract to get an online college degree while others are applying to Ivy League colleges or retaining NCAA eligibility to nab athletic scholarships.
There’s no denying the goal is to develop the next Jordan Morris, DeAndre Yedlin or Henry Wingo. And for the MLS, the academies brimming with local talent provide the belief it can expand to 30 teams by 2021 — which would be a boom of 15 teams since Seattle joined the league in 2009.
It’s another indicator of the league’s goal to compete on soccer’s world stage. Considering soccer had the largest participation increase among high school boys sports year over year nationally in 2017-18 at 6,128 athletes, the interest is there.
“Obviously when you’ve been doing something for decades, you have an advantage,” said Marc Nicholls, the Sounders Academy technical director, of his native English Premier League’s clubs that were established in the 1800s. “We’re closing the gap very quickly and sometimes when you’re doing that, it enables you to become more innovative and you can build something from scratch. Sometimes history and tradition can get in the way of progress. My point is, we don’t have any excuses, we have opportunities and that’s what we’re trying to maximize.”