TUKWILA — They can’t pinpoint when it happened.
Somewhere between the heat wave and the hot run to the Leagues Cup final. But as the Sounders wind down the MLS regular season, midfielders Danny Leyva and Josh Atencio aren’t viewed as teenagers anymore by their teammates.
At least not on the soccer field. Atencio, 19, still lives with his family in Bellevue. While Leyva, 18, has his own apartment, he’s watched over by Sounders forward Raul Ruidiaz, the striker carpooling to training and games with Leyva.
The teens met when Leyva moved from Las Vegas to join the Sounders academy in 2017. He signed with the first team at age 15 in 2019. Atencio was the new kid when he inked a deal in 2020.
“What impresses me sometimes is when you have a young guy who kind of becomes the not young guy,” Sounders keeper Stefan Frei said. “The way Josh plays right now and the confidence that he exudes is that of a senior player to me.
“It’s always really nice to see young guys prove you wrong, that they’re not so young. You almost absorb them as one of the veterans right away, and that makes it easier for the older guys, because you have one in your own ranks, again, that can lead by example and everybody is going in the same direction.”
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer also trusts Atencio and Leyva. The duo anchored the midfield together as starters three times this season, helping Seattle post a 2-1 record in those road matches.
The 3-1 win Sept. 29 at San Jose’s PayPal Park was a benchmark. The connection was apparent, both players completing more than 80 percent of their passes.
Atencio has started the past three matches and could be called on again when the Sounders (16-5-6) host the Vancouver Whitecaps FC (9-8-10) on Saturday at Lumen Field. The game was rescheduled after the Sounders advanced to the Leagues Cup championship match in September.
Global soccer is in the midst of an international break, and the Sounders typically don’t schedule games during those FIFA windows. They will be without internationals in midfielders Cristian Roldan (U.S.) and his brother Alex (El Salvador), Ruidiaz (Peru) and defenders Xavier Arreaga (Ecuador) and Nouhou (Cameroon) because of World Cup qualifying matches.
“It’s different from playing an academy game together,” Leyva said. “The first few games, it was kind of tough for us to be on the same page. The confidence maybe wasn’t there. As time goes by, we gained experience and we learned from the mistakes. … The communication is really important between me and him.”
Atencio and Leyva helped the academy win the 2018 Generations Adidas Cup and the club’s first U.S. Soccer Development Academy national championship. While Leyva advanced to the first team in 2019, Atencio had his pivotal year in 2020.
MLS shutdown play in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the league returned to play that summer, teams had to adhere to strict safety protocols, eliminating opportunities for the academy players to train against the first team at Starfire Sports in Tukwila.
Schmetzer and his staff decided Atencio would benefit more if he stayed in the first-team bubble than with the USL Championship side Tacoma Defiance even though he didn’t play. Leyva was also with the Sounders but suffered a season-ending foot injury in July 2020.
“He’s only 19, so I wouldn’t call him a veteran yet. But certainly, he is showcasing his abilities in a good way,” Schmetzer said of Atencio. “I go back to the growth of 2020 and COVID being such a messed-up year. It actually was a great year for Josh because he was with us in our little bubble and I think he learned a lot. He was in that environment and he just kind of felt it and he kind of just took off.”
Leyva and Atencio are also benefiting from playing alongside Joao Paulo. The Brazilian midfielder is making noise with the seamless way he transitions from defending to an offensive attack, textbook assists and football grit.
Joao Paulo’s pairing with either Leyva or Atencio is a throwback to when Sounders legend Ozzie Alonso groomed Cristian. It can almost make an onlooker forget the Sounders are playing without co-captain Nico Lodeiro due to a knee injury.
The Sounders are first in the Western Conference without Lodeiro, who led the club to two MLS titles. Seattle can push its league-record consecutive playoff berths to 13 straight with a win or draw Saturday against Vancouver.
And in the middle of it all could be two teenagers, err, Leyva and Atencio. Leyva has started eight of his 21 appearances this season while Atencio has 13 starts and two assists.
“They have personalities now, and we can see that in every single practice,” said Sounders forward Fredy Montero, who returned to the club this season after nearly a decade playing around the world, including the past two years with Vancouver.
“I’m really impressed with both of them,” Montero said. “Anytime that they have to be on the field, it doesn’t matter if they have to play 10 minutes, 45 minutes or 90 minutes, they always give their best and show that they are players with quality and up for this big thing.”