Perhaps the most compelling roster battle to watch during the preseason is midfield. Assuming his full fitness, Joao Paulo looks like a solid bet to start in defensive midfield. But who his partner is and how deep he looks behind him seems to be very questionable.
Not because of a lack of options. Cristian Roldan, Albert Rusnak and Nicolas Lodeiro are all favorites to fill that spot and potentially make the best XI caliber players. One way or another, though, those three players are likely to start.
Where it’s potentially more interesting – at least from a preseason story perspective – is the situation behind them. Obed Vargas (17), Danny Leyva (19) and Josh Atencio (20) have all proven they can contribute positively at MLS level and need significant first-team minutes to sustain their growth, while new Homegrown signing Sota Kitahara may have outgrown MLS. Next Pro but may not be quite ready to jump any of these players on the depth chart.
Even with the addition of the League Cup and US Open Championship Cup matches, and finding minutes for them all, will likely require some creative workarounds.
“We have four really, really amazing talents [young] Midfielders,” Sounders coach Brian Schmitzer said this week. “There is a quandary that we as a club have to think about in terms of what we are going to do with all these talented young players and how to make the most of their development.
Can they be loaned to each other? Can we sell some of them? This is Craig’s project [Waibel] You must take on. We haven’t actually sold players before. We have an excess. What do we do with this surplus? “
Here’s what looks like the best and most likely scenario for each player:
Atencio’s breakthrough came in 2021 when he opened the season as a starter alongside João Paulo and ended up clocking around 1,500 minutes. Big things were expected of him in 2022, but injuries limited him to less than 800 minutes.
What does 2023 mean: Atensio has proven himself to be an experienced player in the MLS, but his best position remains an open question. Although he mostly plays as a defensive midfielder, the idea of making him a mobile, ball-playing midfielder is still attractive. Obviously there’s still time to find out, but if a move into centre-half means more playing time, I’d love to see it.
best case scenario: The Sounders are moving into a midfield trio formation that heavily features Atencio and in 2024 they have a foundation built around him and Jackson Ragen.
The most likely scenario: He settles in as a backup defensive midfielder, takes his time out a year or two down the road when he becomes a starter and ends up playing 15 years as a very good player in the MLS.
Kitahara has played at every stage of the Sounders’ developmental system and has even gone to Europe on loan. Last year he struggled with some injuries but was still a mainstay for Wade Webber in Defiance down the stretch. A contract with Homegrown was signed at the end of last season.
What does 2023 mean: It’s not a great year for Kitahara, but now he’s 20 and definitely needs regular minutes. Spend the season on the bench with the Sounders or starting in Tacoma Challenge It might be a waste. Needs to prove that he can hang out with adult men on a week to week basis.
best case scenario: Kitahara switched between defensive midfielder and right back. It’s hard to imagine him breaking into defensive midfield with the Sounders, but it’s not outlandish to think he might be able to win the right-back back-up spot.
The most likely scenariokisa: I have to think that Kitahara is the best candidate for a loan from this group. Even if it’s high quality USL Championship apparel, I think that’s helpful. As long as he gets competitive matches every week, that’s what counts.
Leyva was quietly good last season when he accumulated more than 1,600 minutes between Sounders and Defiance and looks set to make a significant move in 2023.
What does 2023 meanIt’s hard to believe that Leyva broke into the first team in 2019 and he’s still only 19 years old, but here we go. It’s very clear that Leyva has some elite potential but he needs to show that on a weekly basis. Could he be a good enough defender to be No. 6? Is he an elite passer enough to be higher on the field? We hope to find out.
best case scenario: Leyva will be with the US Under 20s starting next week. If he can secure a place in the Under-20 World Cup squad and then impress there, it is entirely possible he could become the first big transfer that the Sounders can take full credit for developing.
The most likely scenario: He’ll either win the top reserve spot at the Sounders or go out on loan somewhere like Liga MX, hopefully after signing an extension. As long as he can score close to 2,000 minutes with the first team, I think he’s in good shape.
This time last year, I’m not sure many outside of the Sounders organization know much about Vargas. By June, he was the subject of intense tug-of-war between the United States and Mexico federations while earning important minutes for the CCL champions and on track to become the youngest player on the US U-20 team. However a back injury cost him the final five months of the season.
What does 2023 mean: The good thing is that Vargas is still only 17 years old and there is no reason to rush him. If he can show that his back injury is behind him, I think the rest will probably be a bonus.
best case scenario: Based on his trajectory from a year ago, there’s no reason he can’t make it back to the first squad. If he can do that, there’s every reason to believe he’ll be back on track to move abroad.
The most likely scenario: He’s starting the season with Defiance, back in shape and back in contention for first-team minutes by late spring.