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SSFC Spotlight: Obed Vargas standing out with Seattle Sounders

The dual national midfielder has recovered from his injury.

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Slovakia v USA : Group B - FIFA U-20 World Cup Argentina 2023 Photo by Buda Mendes - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

When a player suffers a devastating injury at the beginning of his career, his entire trajectory could be changed and result in a failure to reach the heights of previous potential. Some young talents are able to overcome these early challenges and regain momentum, seamlessly transitioning back into the lineup. Obed Vargas has already gone through the cycle of “medical issue, rehabilitation, and return,” re-establishing himself as one of Major League Soccer’s top prospects. The 18-year-old Seattle Sounders midfielder plays several ages up at the international level and is being scouted for a transfer to Europe.

Born in Anchorage, Alaska to Mexican immigrant parents who moved to The Last Frontier for work, Vargas played with Cook Inlet Soccer Club before relocating to Washington and entering the Seattle Sounders FC academy in 2019 — scouts identified him at an Olympic Development Program tournament. Two years later, the club signed him to a contract with the reserve team, having “exceeded expectations” in the youth ranks and impressing with his driven nature. He made 28 appearances in the USL Championship for Tacoma Defiance, led the team in tackles, and received a call-up to the senior squad, starting in a 1-0 victory over Austin FC and becoming the third-youngest player in league history.

“I knew I had to get out of Alaska and keep pursuing my dream,” Vargas shared with American Soccer Now. “When Seattle came out and they said they wanted me, it was pretty easy for me to say yes. But the whole process was very nerve wracking for my parents letting one of their sons go… Just having me go by myself and to a whole different state. You could feel that tension of my parents wanting to let me go. I didn’t necessarily want to leave my house, but I had to. MLS had done very well in giving young guys the opportunity. But it’s up to the young guy to take it.”

During the ensuing offseason, the club signed him to a Homegrown contract. Vargas began the schedule in the starting lineup, going the full 90 minutes in both legs of the CONCACAF Champions Cup Round of 16, featuring for 61 minutes in the second leg of the final, and drawing comparisons to Cristian Roldan due to his “defending tenacity.” He maintained his standing in the squad and made 21 appearances across all competitions before suffering a lower back stress fracture in June that sidelined him for the rest of the year, having exited a match after “feeling some discomfort.” Despite the setback, MLS named him the 15th best player under the age of 22, the youngest entrant on the list.

After rehabilitation stretched into the beginning of this season, Vargas returned to the field with a substitute appearance against LAFC. In June, he regained his starting role and has played in 17 total matches on the year, registering a single assist. The transfer market has turned an eye to the young talent according to The Athletic, as Wolverhampton was scouting him in person, with “other European clubs” observing and showing interest, including Manchester United.

“Last year was my first year, and expectations were low because it is your first season,” Vargas expressed to Transfermarkt. “But now I feel there is a standard of expectations that I have to hit every game. But that is good because I try to go up [in my development] and not down... I have to pick and choose my moments because, as a younger guy, if something goes wrong, you know the blame is going to be on me. The veterans are expected to do the hard work, you want to chip in as a younger guy, but you kinda have to let them work and pick your moments.”

At the international level, Vargas is eligible to play with the United States and Mexico, growing up a fan of El Tri. The former program has repeatedly called him up, beginning with the U-15 team. Despite missing the preceding CONCACAF Under-20 Championship with an injury, he made five appearances at the 2023 U-20 World Cup and started three times as the youngest member of the roster, including in the 2-0 loss to Uruguay in the quarterfinal round. His heart is in “two places,” and any permanent commitment will require deep reflection.

Typically lining up as a double-pivot center midfielder but also capable of playing in the holding role, as a box-to-box, and on the outside, Vargas is one of the most accurate passers in MLS from all distances, described as a “roaming playmaker” with the ability to dictate the tempo of the game. He is praised for his “engine, ball progression, and dribbling skills” when looking to advance possession into the attacking half, demonstrating evasiveness to avoid opponents. Coaches note his calm nature, “high learning capacity,” and off-ball movement while also displaying willingness to throw himself into tackles.

“He has a very [well-rounded] game and is skilled on the ball and displays a range of passes in his arsenal,” wrote Marcus Chairez for Chasing a Cup. “What has impressed me and what has impressed his coaches, is his ability to rise to each new challenge and level that is presented to him. He learns quickly, is unafraid to be aggressive in games, especially the big ones. Obed does not possess elite traits [per se], but his soccer IQ and mentality are certainly elite... He does a good job in the middle part of the pitch progressing the ball through clever first touches, dribbling and passing, but he hasn’t shown a ton in the final third yet.”

At the moment, the USMNT program is brimming with talented midfielders spread across the world. Vargas has plenty of time to develop into a top player, receiving the opportunity to take a starting role with the Sounders and making an impact in MLS. As with many young transfer targets, he will have to decide at which stage his future will be best served by jumping to Europe – whether the challenge of a move abroad should be undertaken at the soonest possible moment or after gaining a few more seasons of professional experience under his belt.