The Seattle Sounders have emerged as a model franchise in Major League Soccer, reeling off a decade of consistency. While the club spends to sign impact players, there is a strong investment at the youth level that is reaping long-term benefits. The newest standout is Josh Atencio, who is already three years into his professional career. The 19-year-old defensive midfielder enjoyed a breakout season in 2021, overcoming an injury to become a frequent contributor for the Rave Green.
Born in Bellevue, Washington, Atencio played for Crossfire Premier before joining the Sounders Academy in 2016. He was “one of the youngest members of the U-15 squad” and played “over 100 matches for [the] youth teams.” His decorated amateur days included winning the 2017 Youdan Trophy in England, the 2018 and 2019 editions of the Generation adidas Cup, and the 2018 USSDA National Championship, while being named Player of the Tournament in the Super Group at the 2017 Manchester City Cup and earning All-American honors.
Atencio began appearing for Seattle Sounders FC 2 – now Tacoma Defiance – in August of 2018. He scored in his debut, a 4-1 loss to Portland Timbers 2, benefitting from a fortuitous deflection. The midfielder earned his first start the next week, a 3-0 loss to Oklahoma City Energy.
“Josh’s performance didn’t come as a surprise to us,” said then-Director of Player Development Marc Nicholls. “Whenever we challenge him at a higher level, whether it’s training with the First Team or playing with the national team, he doesn’t seem to be phased by much. We’re constantly pushing and challenging him, and he continues to rise to the occasion. He’s a pleasure to have in the club, I can’t speak highly enough of his character, and I’m so glad that we have him as part of our Academy.”
A few months later, Atencio signed a contract with the USL Championship side. In his first professional season, the teenager made 25 appearances, contributing one goal and one assist. For many matches, the teenager served as captain and began playing more as a center back, demonstrating “elite composure and superb passing.” The club described him as a “talented product” that “leads by example” and “is an extremely popular character among his peers.”
Atencio began the next year with two starts at the USL level, prior to the COVID-19 break. In June of 2020, Seattle promoted the “consistent, steady, and reliable” player to the first team with a Homegrown contract, and the club’s website trumpeted his ability to “control the tempo of the game.” He made six brief appearances at the MLS is Back Tournament and in the league for a total of 13 minutes, slowly adjusting to the new level. Manager Brian Schmetzer believed the player would benefit more from training with the senior squad instead of being locked into the reserve team’s bubble.
Very nice from Josh Atencio here. pic.twitter.com/aslrrzMpve— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) October 10, 2021
Validating the decision, the most recent season represented a significant step forward. Atencio was in the starting lineup on Opening Day, playing 90 minutes in a 4-0 victory over Minnesota United and impressing teammates with his intelligence. Following another start against Los Angeles FC, the midfielder encountered the first stumble of his career, suffering a muscle injury requiring almost two months of rehabilitation.
After recovering and working through a broken rib, he ended the season with 27 first-team appearances, including being trusted by the manager in higher stakes Leagues Cup and MLS Cup Playoffs fixtures. In the latter competition, Atencio entered into the Western Conference quarterfinals at the end of regulation and maintained the stalemate until his side ultimately fell in penalties. His rapid adjustment and seamless transition is a credit to the Sounders’ integration process, establishing a culture and observable development path.
“It’s a combination of guys that are willing to step up when they’re giving the opportunity and just the winning mentality that the club has had for so long now,” Atencio shared with American Soccer Now in October. “When you’re going through the academy, they teach the kids that you have you have to win every game that you step into, every time you have an opportunity and a game and practice, anything — you’re trying to win as much as possible. That mentality starts in us when we’re young and it definitely translates up through every factor in the club.”
I quite enjoyed this from Josh Atencio!— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) April 24, 2021
Brad Smith has repeatedly gotten into good spots and done nothing with it today for the Sounders. Needs to be better from him. pic.twitter.com/VN3BDMaSOf
At the international level, Atencio was a regular inclusion for United States youth sides but has not received a call-up in recent years. He made several appearances for the USMNT U-15 team, winning the Torneo Delle Nazioni in Italy and finishing runner-up at the 2017 CONCACAF U-15 Championship. With the U-17 squad, the midfielder played in two matches at the 2017 Nike Friendlies. The canceled 2021 U-20 World Cup would have presented the chance to re-join the program, with the 2024 Olympic cycle appearing the logical next opportunity.
Standing 6’1”, the versatile Atencio is capable of lining up at defensive midfielder, box-to-box, and center back, “doing the dirty work” while “always in motion.” He covered the second-most distance in MLS, running 11.21 kilometers per 90 minutes. While not too involved in the build-up or possession, his defensive work rate is solid, constantly intercepting the opponent, blocking shots, and winning aerial duels. As an academy player, coaches praised his intelligence and ability to read the game. Sounder at Heart gave a measured review of his 2021 performance, describing him as “someone [to] build around” and at times a “guaranteed starter” but also “struggling with some of his defensive responsibilities” and “increasingly timid with the ball.”
“I think Josh is a smart player, a player that always wants to improve, is eager and will take information extremely well,” said Sounders teammate Cristian Roldan. “He was doing extremely well last year, and you could see the progress he has made… There’s still things that he can improve on, learn. Like I said, one of his characteristics is that he’s eager and sometimes that can get the best of him with wanting the ball in tough situations. So, he’ll learn those situations, but he’s impressed, he’s obviously good enough to start on this team.”
Considering this my Josh Atencio appreciation thread. Love how he's confidently pushing ball forward. pic.twitter.com/zaIz8WVtiy— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) April 17, 2021
The first few years tend to be the most difficult in a professional career as players attempt to establish a foothold in a challenging and constantly shifting environment, with many failing to adjust. Atencio has risen through the ranks at one of the top clubs in North America and should take another step forward next season. With continued growth and development, he could eventually emerge as a midfield option for the national team.