The 2023 season of Major League Soccer is well underway, with certain players beginning to stand out among the crowd. While attackers typically receive the headlines, defenders can take on even an greater importance at the international level. One emerging talent is Jackson Ragen, who is rapidly becoming a key player for the Seattle Sounders. The 24-year-old centre-back is impressing with his combination of size and passing ability.
Born in Seattle, Washington, Ragen played with Seattle United (which won its division at the 2015 Dallas Cup), the Olympic Development Program, and University Prep, earning All-State honors as a sophomore and junior. Other youth awards included selection to the U.S. Soccer Nationals Best XI and NSCA All-American team. After joining the Seattle Sounders for his final academy season, often lining up as a holding midfielder, the developing prospect made three appearances for the club’s reserve side in the USL Championship.
Ragen matriculated to the University of Michigan, enjoying a highly decorated collegiate career in Ann Arbor. He compiled 69 total appearances and scored ten goals, while also suiting up for amateur side OSA Seattle FC in the National Premier Soccer League. His awards included two-time First-Team All-Big Ten, All-Big Ten Tournament Team, and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
Halfway through his senior year, which was pushed to the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ragen was drafted by the Chicago Fire with the 33rd overall pick in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft, but he opted to remain at Michigan for his final season. After graduating, the midwestern club allegedly came to “not rate him” and didn’t offer a contract following several training sessions. The defender rejoined the Sounders’ reserve side, now named the Tacoma Defiance, and appeared for every minute in 16 matches, earning USL Team of the Week honors and also scoring his first professional goal in a 3-0 victory over Orange County SC.
Prior to the start of the following season, Seattle acquired his MLS rights from Chicago and signed him to a senior contract. “Jackson’s performance in preseason so far has earned him this opportunity with the First Team,” said Sounders Head Coach Brian Schmetzer. “He joins a strong position group alongside a number of talented center backs, and we’re excited to see how he continues to improve.”
Great recovery from Jackson Ragen! pic.twitter.com/GsLPP5DBgG— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) May 8, 2022
Following an injury to a teammate, Ragen began the season in a regular starting role, aided by the veteran core which helped “keep [him] focused” and deal with errors. He appeared in 12 of the first 17 fixtures, being praised as “great” and a “handy piece” who “changes the dynamic” with his passing. The league named him to the Team of the Week for Week 15 following “a pair of stellar defensive displays” that included “several crucial plays, including blocking a goal-bound shot from close range and a last-ditch slide-tackle to deny a clear breakaway.” However, in a July match against the Portland Timbers, the defender picked up two yellow cards and left proceedings early in the second half. While his playing time lessened, the club continued to utilize him as a substitute and occasional starter.
“Sometimes I was complacent last year,” Ragen told the Seattle Times. “As I started playing a good amount, I thought it would just come to me. What got me playing and having the coaches trust me was preparing and not making mistakes — being my best self. I got away from that after I started playing a lot. I didn’t think I needed to prepare myself as best as I could and just showed up.”
Jackson Ragen rules pic.twitter.com/lO16h92UmP— CONCACAF NATIONS LEAGUE STAN (@JordanDunathan) April 14, 2022
This year, Ragen was tabbed as a figure who could “lift the Sounders back to their previous heights,” having reclaimed a spot in the starting lineup after putting on muscle and improving conditioning. There has been little ambiguity regarding his role in the squad, playing every available minute in the FIFA Club World Cup and MLS schedule. Sounder at Heart notes that there will be “growing pains” but points to a high baseline and “the potential to be something special” with MLS Defender of the Year quality.
Standing at a towering 6’6”, Ragen is among the world’s tallest first-division centre-backs and is described as “an aerially-dominant defender capable of picking out passes all over the pitch,” routinely nailing field switches and through balls to spring the counter-attack. He is “very smart” and displays a sound “decision-making process,” allowing him to compensate for a slower pace by “using his body and angles” to rarely get beaten, in the 94th percentile in MLS when tackling opposing dribblers. Teammates also praise his stability and calmness under pressure, maintaining a high passing percentage.
Phenomenally well worked goal by Seattle. From Jackson Ragen’s switch, to Cristian Roldan’s cross to Will Bruin’s movement and finish. pic.twitter.com/i780Ed87zN— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) June 25, 2022
“I’m a big fan of Jackson’s,” said Seattle teammate and USMNT attacker Jordan Morris. “He’s an incredible player and has a really good mentality. As a center back, he’s so poised on the ball, he can get us out of tough situations and can play really good long balls to break pressure. He’s a really good defender as well. He has all the tools to be super successful. We’ve all been really impressed with him. He’s going to continue to grow and get better.”
At the 2022 World Cup, the USMNT roster featured several centre-backs who will likely age out of international soccer by the start of the next competition. That presents the opportunity for new blood on the back line, with Ragen potentially filling a spot. After unexpectedly taking on more responsibility last year, he appears to be in the midst of a breakthrough season at one of MLS’ most decorated clubs.