By NICHOLAS MURRAY – firstname.lastname@example.org
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
From General Manager Andrew Opatkiewicz’s perspective, the inaugural season for Seattle Sounders FC 2 couldn’t have been more enjoyable.
“Having Garth [Lagerwey] come on just at the beginning of preseason [as Sounders FC President and General Manager], he’s a guy I’ve known for a while, and getting the chance to work with him was really exciting,” Opatkiewicz said recently at the USL Winter Summit. “Also getting to work with [Coach] Ezra [Hendrickson], a guy with a ton of professional and international experience as well leading the guys, having Djimi [Traore] involved, the group was a fantastic group for Year 1, and it was all really enjoyable.”
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In terms of performance on and off the field, S2 couldn’t have asked for much more. A strong start to the season paved the way to a playoff berth, and the club’s local support embraced the new side as it provided a crackling atmosphere at Starfire Stadium.
“It gave me chills, to be honest with you,” said Opatkiewicz said. “For the team to jell so well, for academy guys to contribute, for the first team guys to really get excited about being able to play consistent football, because they knew if S2 didn’t exist they’d be sitting on the bench or not making the 18s for the first team. To see the fans get behind it, the Emerald City Supporters, one of our biggest supporters groups get behind it, and then for the performances on the field to match that environment was really special.”
And, to cap it all off, there was the historic moment when Andy Craven became the first player to make the move from S2 to Sounders FC. The former University of North Carolina standout was a standout in the USL as he recorded not only the first goal in S2 history, but went on to record five goals and five assists in his 14 appearances for the club.
For Opatkiewicz, Craven became the role model for the club’s young players, and did so with a style that endeared him to all of those he encountered.
“Andy not only on the field had an incredible work rate and work ethic, but off the field was a great guy,” Opatkiewicz said. “He was a leader in the locker room, and very well respected by the first team guys even prior to him making that jump, but he also made our job easy in the sense that we were promoting S2 and pitching S2 and selling S2 both internally and externally as a mechanism to develop an MLS player. That was in everything, from the crest design to how we were coaching and teaching the younger academy players to play in S2, had to do with development and making the leap to the next step.
“Andy making that transition early on, halfway through our first season, really showed them the pathway, showed all of our players what we had been talking about for the previous four or five months, so it was fantastic for that, and we thank him for that and are glad that he’s going to continue with the Sounders for the foreseeable future.”
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Since the season’s conclusion, goalkeeper Tyler Miller has joined Craven on the Sounders FC roster for the 2016 season, and the duo could be joined by a handful of others who have received invitations to Seattle’s preseason camp ahead of the 2016 MLS season. Opatkiewicz said defender Ashani Fairclough, midfielder Sergio Mota and forward Qudus Lawal will all get the chance to make the jump this spring when the club convenes for camp.
While those players look to make the move into the first team, Opatkiewicz is also looking forward to building a new squad for the club’s second season. After seeing young academy players like Choong Sil Lim get the chance to compete at the professional level this past season, Opatkiewicz is hoping for more of the club’s top prospects will not only compete, but maintain the standard the club set for on the field success.
“We’ll focus more and more attention on getting younger and incorporating our academy even more,” Opatkiewicz said. “We’ve spent a lot of time and effort and thought into advancing our academy over the last couple of months. We’ve begun to think about things like residency, we have a fully-fledged host family home state program now where five of our academy athletes are actually in a home-stay environments, and we’re looking to add two or three more before the season starts. Those are guys who we bring in and fully expect to factor into S2 as well.“In addition to that there will be a series of other Academy players, hopefully even more so than last year, that we will look to bring up and play with S2 as well, and then when you look at the 14 players we signed to USL contracts last year, that number will probably stay about the same, but what you’ll see is they’ll continually get younger as well, because that young, 18, 19, 20-year-old athlete is really the type of player we’re looking to get into S2 and develop into a first team player within a couple of years. That’s what will change behind the scenes, and if we can replicate the results on and off the field in terms of the environment is concerned, having a winning culture, then we’re going to be happy.”