TUKWILA — Of the list of issues the Sounders are currently facing, a backup defensive midfielder wasn’t supposed to be one. Before Obed Vargas, Josh Atencio, even Kelyn Rowe, there was Danny Leyva.
The former Sounders Academy standout made headlines as the club’s youngest-ever signing in 2019 at age 15 and backed it up when given opportunities to start. Leyva had a strong 2021 season, especially a September match where he and Atencio anchored a 3-1 win in San Jose.
But when Joao Paulo (ACL) and Vargas (back) suffered injuries earlier this season, the club was scrambling. Coach Brian Schmetzer even used the word “frustrated” when asked why Leyva hasn’t secured the spot. But Leyva’s start against Real Salt Lake might have finally been the breakthrough.
Leyva, 19, brought his youthful energy to help control possession and untangle Albert Rusnak and Nico Lodeiro, who are best when able to roam in the attack. It was apparent in the build up to Rusnak’s goal, Leyva getting the second assist for his pass to Lodeiro at the top of the box. The latter used a slick backheel pass to Rusnak for the score in the 62nd minute.
The Sounders lost the match 2-1 and are on a four-game road losing streak entering Friday’s match against the Los Angeles Galaxy at Dignity Health Sports Park. But on the list of issues the team needs to fix to get back into the MLS playoff picture, Leyva permanently plugging the defensive midfield role as envisioned would be a big help.
“Danny was great,” said Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, who recently had a stint in the role but was moved back to the right wing against RSL. “He provided that bite that we needed a little bit. Freed up Albert a little bit more and was able to be composed on the ball as well. … We can talk about tactics and all that, but if you bring that bite, that energy, sometimes that can get you out of this mess as well.”
It’s also becoming apparent Vargas won’t return to be the savior he was when Joao Paulo suffered his injury in May. Vargas still hasn’t been cleared to begin rehab since medical exams in June revealed he had a stress fracture in his lower back. The injury is X-rayed frequently, but rest is the only remedy.
“I’m not going to completely write Obed off,” Schmetzer said. “But there’s another long-term decision that’s much, much, much greater than a short-term desperate play. We still have Danny, Josh, Kelyn and I’ve put Cristian in there. I’m not going to rush the kid.”
Leyva is expected to get the start against the Galaxy (10-11-3), who are a point ahead of the Sounders (10-13-2) in the Western Conference standings at sixth place. As a connector between the offense and defense, there’s a lot of responsibility in helping the team correct both ends of the field.
The Sounders have conceded the opening goal to their opponent in six of their past eight matches, coming back to win once — the 2-1 result against Colorado in July.
Schmetzer would like the team to counter by outscoring opponents but haven’t converted the hard-fought chances they’ve created in matches. Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz returned to the starting lineup Sunday but isn’t ready for a full 90 minutes.
“There’s a mindset to scoring goals,” Schmetzer said. “They go through streaks and I need them to be angry, mad, just like ‘I’m going to score that goal.’ That hunger that they all have within themselves, I need that to come out.
“It would help if we got a goal off a set piece, we worked on a couple of things with that. Or, like Albert scored that good goal against RSL, it lifted the group. If Cristian or somebody else scores a goal, it would help the forwards. It’s a team thing.”
Leyva said he’s even trying to score. He had a shot from distance against RSL.
“I’m definitely working on it in training, even on my days off I go and work on the things I want to improve on,” Leyva said. “It’s not every time that you’re going to be perfect but the more you practice, the more you get better. It’s coming and I’m showing that I have a long-range shot.”
The Sounders defeated the Galaxy 3-2 at Lumen Field in March. Seattle has struggled in MLS competitions since then and L.A. is on a high from signing Spanish midfielder Riqui Puig from FC Barcelona and a 5-2 scoring outburst in a win against Vancouver last week.
Puig is expected to be available for selection against the Sounders. Schmetzer expects the Spaniard to be good, yet Friday’s match is an unwanted situation where the list of things that need to be addressed internally almost outweigh scouting.
With nine games remaining, the Sounders must start their three-game road stint with a win against the Galaxy. Or the list of issues continues to grow.
“We’ve struggled for a whole lot of different reasons,” Schmetzer said. “I can’t put my finger on one thing. It’s a combination of things that have put us in this spot and we’re trying to dig ourselves out.”