An influx of young talent has been the story of the 2021 MLS season. The Seattle Sounders’ win Thursday night showed that in a way the league had never seen.
The Sounders, which have dealt with significant absences due to injury and international duty all season, deployed five teenagers in the lineup in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Austin FC. It was the first time in MLS history that five players under the age of 19 started in a game.
“That was a massive team performance,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer. “The message to the group for the last day and a half was, ‘We didn’t come down here to play a bunch of young kids, to make it a good story.’ That was never our intention. Our intention, and the winning culture of this club, is, ‘I don’t care who we put out on the field.’
“The culture of what this club is about is about winning,” he continued. “Those young kids did a great job of demonstrating to all of you that that’s what they believe. Those kids believed they could win.”
The Sounders maintained the top spot in the Western Conference with the win. The Sounders have only lost one match this season and have allowed only nine goals.
Some of Thursday’s starters, such as 16-year-old winger Reed Baker-Whiting and 21-year-old Abdoulaye Cissoko were called up from Seattle’s USL affiliate Tacoma Defiance under MLS’s extreme hardship rules.
Others are breaking into the first team with the Sounders. Fifteen-year-old Obed Vargas made his MLS debut on the right wing. Central midfielder Daniel Leyva, 18, made his 13th appearance this year and seems next in line as a Sounders academy player to make his way as a regular contributor.
“It’s a great moment for the whole team and organization,” said Leyva. “It just shows that there is a pathway for the Academy players coming up to the First Team. It’s a tremendous game to play with some of my former teammates with the Academy, and especially to win away, it was a great performance for all of us.”
Lineup shuffling has been nothing new for Schmetzer. The Sounders are missing starters Stefan Frei, Nicolas Lodeiro, Nouhou and Jordan Morris due to injury. The absences of Christian Roldan and Alex Roldan because of the Gold Cup brought the youthful Sounders lineup on Thursday.
Raul Ruidiaz scored the game’s only goal in the 67th minute with a spectacular long-range effort that caught Austin FC goalkeeper Brad Stuver off his line. Most of the teammates Ruidiaz, 30, celebrated with were at least 10 years younger than him.
“Brian talked to me before the game and informed me that we were going to be starting with the boys,” said Ruidíaz. “I was fully supportive. This is a great opportunity for the young players to start. They did a great job, they played 100% during the game, they put all the effort in to achieve what we needed to achieve. The victory is an outcome of the work that they have done.”