Sounders FC

South Sound soccer scene experiencing another growth spurt

The United States soccer pyramid keeps growing taller — so tall now that South Sound FC owner John Crouch admits he isn’t even sure what level his club represents.

There’s Major League Soccer up top. Then the North American Soccer League. Next is USL-Pro. Behind that is the USL Premier Development League. And then South Sound FC and its new Evergreen Premier League show up right around there: the fifth division or so.

Two of these developmental teams are based in Pierce County: South Sound FC, which plays in Lakewood; and Sounders U-23, which begins its home season Sunday in Sumner.

“The PDL is a great path to whatever the next thing is,” U-23 owner Lane Smith said. “I think it put about 14, maybe more, 15 players into paid contracts in the last two and a half years. Not all MLS; some in USL-Pro. … With the USL-Pro and MLS now much tighter, that’s another stepping stone.”

Sounders U-23 has played a key role in that, sending DeAndre Yedlin up to the MLS Sounders last season, with Sean Okoli and Aaron Kovar advancing to the first team this season.

Top prospects signed for the current U-23 campaign include Darwin Jones of the University of Washington and Jordan Morris of Stanford. Neither was with the club Friday when it opened this PDL season with a 1-0 loss at Lane United (Oregon). Morris, perhaps the top pro prospect in the Puget Sound area, is expected to come aboard next month.

“With Jordan it’s all about getting him ready for Stanford and the next level,” U-23 coach Darren Sawatzky said. “He’ll be back when Stanford’s done with school in June. Then we should get a run of games with him, and obviously he’ll head back when it’s the right time.”

Sawatzky continues coaching Sounders U-23 despite his recent departure from Seattle Sounders FC, where he served as director of youth development.

That change is not expected to affect the pipeline of young talent between the PDL and MLS clubs.

“We’re happy with the association, regardless,” Sounders FC general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “We know those owners, we know the organization they’re running. We’re comfortable with it. With Darren as the head coach, we’re very comfortable with him.”

And just as Sounders FC has funneled some of its academy players to Sounders U-23, so has Sounders U-23 directed some of its young and developing players to South Sound FC.

“There has not been a league for this level of player — a lot of D-II (NCAA Division II), D-III guys, NAIA guys,” Crouch said. “And we just wanted to give them an opportunity if they were not breaking the Sounders U-23 roster. … We realized that your lower-level college guy, blue-collar soccer player, maybe even a noncollege type of guy needed to be able to compete at the highest level they could. The D-II, D-III guys needed somewhere to play to get their level up so they could improve.”

The expanding Puget Sound soccer tree could grow another branch next season, when Sounders FC is expected to field a USL-Pro team at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila.

“Any soccer is a good thing,” Sawatzky said. “The EPL, being an organized men’s league, is an awesome thing. The reality is that the PDL level is just a little bit above that. … When the USL-Pro comes, that’s great. I’ve got nothing but support for the Sounders. I love the academy. Hopefully, our kids go right up the pyramid, all the way up to the first team.”

Don Ruiz: 253-597-8808