TUKWILA — If the Sounders were part of any other professional team sports league in this country, they would be making national headlines and sparking heated debates.
Due to injuries and international call-ups, coach Brian Schmetzer is expected to select five teenagers for the maximum 20-player roster for Sunday’s match against Minnesota United FC. This month, when Seattle defeated the Houston Dynamo at Lumen Field, six teenagers were part of the rotation, two making an appearance in the 2-0 win.
“I have to be the (age) of their dad, it’s pretty crazy,” said Sounders keeper Stefan Frei, 35, during the broadcast of the Houston match. The 13-year MLS veteran suffered a knee injury in May and remains out due to a blood clot.
The Sounders went from having the fifth-oldest roster to open the 2020 season — with an average age of 26.46 years — to the youngest in the organization’s MLS history.
Teenaged phenoms are commonplace in soccer. Most notably forward Bukayo Saka, 19, and midfielder Jude Bellingham, 18, helped lead England to the UEFA Euro 2020 championship match, losing on penalty kicks to Italy. The young Black men had to deal with an onslaught of racist social media posts immediately following the final.
Under the guise of wanting to protect youths and develop talent, U.S. pro leagues outside of soccer place limitations on eligibility. The NHL and MLB are least strict with a minimum age limit of 18 (17 for international baseball players) but the National Women’s Soccer League was recently sued by 15-year-old Olivia Moultrie regarding its requirement players be at least 18.
Moultrie was granted a preliminary injunction in her lawsuit, clearing a path for her to sign a three-year contract with the Portland Thorns FC. She made history as the youngest player to appear in a NWSL match this month.
The NFL requires players to have been out of high school at least three years and use up their college eligibility (or get approval) while WNBA prospects must be at least 22 during the year of the draft and either renounce or expire their college eligibility.
The NBA put a cap on the prep-to-pros pipeline in 2006 when it increased the minimum age to 19 and required players to be a year removed from high school. The league recently created a lane for elite teenagers to get a jump on their pro career with an NBA G League Ignite team. Four players from the inaugural squad are expected to enter the NBA draft July 29 while five-star point guard Scoot Henderson, 17, recently inked a $1 million deal to skip his high-school senior season and play for Ignite.
“Since I was a kid, competing at the highest level in the world has been my main goal. Becoming the youngest professional American basketball player is just icing on the cake,” Henderson told USA Today in May.
None of the Sounders’ teenagers will be paid more than $101,000 this season. But, perhaps because they’re young, money isn’t the point. Adults can argue ethics and disparities when it comes to age limits while the Sounders’ teens enjoy playing at a high level.
Josh Atencio, a 19-year-old from Bellevue, made his MLS debut start against Minnesota in the league opener in April. The Sounders scored four goals in the second half, Atencio keeping possession of the ball in a sequence that resulted in a volley score for midfielder Joao Paulo.
On Sunday, Atencio will likely flank Joao Paulo with midfielder Danny Leyva, 18. The formation shift is to counter the absence of right wingback Alex Roldan, who’s playing for El Salvador in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Kelyn Rowe likely will take Roldan’s spot on the wing.
“The club does an outstanding job of progressing us through the different levels to make sure we’re prepared,” said Atencio, who’s a homegrown signing along with Leyva, Ethan Dobbelaere (18) and Reed Baker-Whiting (16). Walla Walla’s Juan Alvarez, 16, signed a short-term contract under the league’s hardship rule due to injuries to seven veteran Sounders players.
“The full transition from the Sounders Academy to going to the Tacoma Defiance to playing in front of however many fans you pull at (Lumen Field),” Atencio continued. “Getting the taste of the professional environment. Growing into it … especially learning from the guys in the locker room to now getting more minutes, the progression is amazing.”
The teens are part of an initiative the Sounders put in place in 2015 to spot young talent. Garth Lagerwey, the Sounders general manager and president of soccer, has long said he wants the club to develop its own talent, which also could benefit it financially in terms of loaning players to other clubs.
Sounders forward Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, 19, was recently loaned to FC Pinzgau Saalfelden in Austria for an approximate $220,000 transfer fee.
Frei, Joao Paulo and striker Raul Ruidiaz are among the veteran players who’ve worked to quickly integrate the young players and make the locker room feel like a cohesive unit. Schmetzer said the younger players do a solid job in not allowing the competition at training to dip without the veterans around.
Seattle (8-0-5) is currently atop MLS standings and riding a league-record 13-match unbeaten streak. The club also has never lost to Minnesota, going 7-0-1 all-time. Tough stats for a youthful lineup to uphold, but the Sounders don’t have a choice.
“This is the youngest roster that I’ve ever been with,” Sounders defender Yeimar Gomez Andrade said in Spanish. The 29-year-old Colombian was signed in 2020. “But they’re all very good, and they’re learning with us. The important thing is that they are all part of the team.”