“Thanks for reminding me,” growled Darren Sawatzky, coach of Seattle Sounders FC U-23, sarcasm dripping from his voice. The 44-year-old was responding to a question about his biggest U.S. Open Cup moment. It was a famous upset and he was on the wrong side when his Colorado Rapids lost in the final to Rochester’s Raging Rhinos in 1999, the last time a team from outside the U.S. top flight won the Cup. “Funny thing is I don’t remember a damn thing about it. Nothing at all.”
Sawatzky, a member of the inaugural MLS class of 1996, was knocked out cold early, after in an aerial challenge with former college teammate Yari Alnutt. Long before modern concussion protocols, he followed the standard procedure of the day. “I rubbed some dirt on it and got back out on the field. But I don’t remember the day. I watched a recording of the game later and I was surprised by how well I played!”
A native of Seattle, in the soccer-mad Pacific Northwest, Sawatzky came up through MLS when many players made peanuts. $24,000 was the infant league’s minimum salary in ‘96, and “a lot of guys were on the minimum,” he remembered, recalling his first training session with the New England Revolution. “You’re trying to live in Boston where 24k won’t buy a loaf of bread. You’re picking out five guys you just met to see if they want to split the rent on a place in the city.”
Sawatzky speaks now the same way he played then – full of energy and enthusiasm. He’s opinionated, gruff and pivots from one topic to another in the same manner that he cut in off the flank at the old Foxboro Stadium, a concrete bowl that lives only in the memories of MLS nostalgia freaks. He’s a veteran of all tiers of the American soccer pyramid, from the collegiate ranks to the buzzing dasher boards and deflections of the indoor game. His post-playing CV is even more varied. He’s coached high school and college. He was a pro scout; coached indoor and even stepped in as the interim manager of Guam’s national team. But what excites him most is developing young players, pushing them on to those elusive professional ranks. It’s in this unsure space that he’s found a home.
Losing to win
“It’s our job to get kids into the professional game,” said Sawatzky, getting his side set for a second-straight Open Cup this May. As an independent affiliate of the Seattle Sounders – of old NASL and current MLS fame – they wear the same shirts but are all amateurs between the ages of 18 and 23. They play in the Premier Developmental League (PDL), which was started in 1995 and now boasts 72 teams. Informally it constitutes part of the fourth tier of American soccer, and Sawatzky, in his signature way, boils the job down to its most basic elements. “Every summer, college kids come in to continue their development. Last year we drafted seven guys from the club into the pro ranks, so we have to re-build the team every summer.”
Adam Jones, in his junior year at Simon Fraser University in Canada, is one of the players returning from last season. “The most important thing for a college athlete is to stay fit, and the only way to stay match fit is to play matches,” said Jones, a marketing major who travels from his hometown of Port Moody in British Colombia for the Sounders summer season in the six-team Northwest Division. He calls Sawatzky a “players’ coach” who’s “been there and done it,” and when he tells you something, he knows what he’s talking about.” His affection for his boss is obvious. So is his respect.
“It’s all about winning. That’s our only concern. You can’t replicate that intensity of these all-or-nothing games. And that can make all the difference for a player down the road.” - Seattle Sounders U-23 head coach Darren Sawatzky
Sawatzky’s a good sport when reminded of the flowing blond ponytail he used to sport on the field in the mid-90s that led to the unfortunate nickname, beloved by opposing fans: My Little Pony. “The look didn’t age well, but it’s part of a cycle of bad haircuts in soccer that lives to this day,” he said, decent enough not to point the finger directly at former Sounders U-23 alumnus, DeAndre Yedlin.
Developmental coaches, by nature, are stuck in the gray zone between success on the field and making sure their young charges suffer the adversity that will serve them in the future. It’s the curse of the youth-team coach.
“Americans like to win,” said Sawatzky, who was bit by the coaching bug when he played for the legendary Clive Charles three hours south down the I-5 at the University of Portland. “You’ve got kids being coached like pros at eight and nine years old, which is insane. If you want to develop players, sometimes you have to lose to win. It’s hard, but that’s the job. I’ve put guys in games knowing they’re going to get knocked around, but also knowing it’s just the lesson they need.”
The win is years down the road for Sawatzky, and many like him in the developmental ranks. The final whistle isn’t the final whistle. He speaks with pride about his success stories. “[DeAndre] Yedlin is going back to the EPL next season, and I had him when he was just a kid and didn’t have a pot to piss in.” For Sawatzky, a ferocious competitor in his playing days, it’s the long game that matters now. “I bounced Jordan Morris on my knee and know he’s the man in the U.S. National Team.”
All-or-nothing Open CupBut there’s still a time when winning is all that matters: The Open Cup. “It’s all about winning. That’s our only concern,” Sawatzky said, admitting his squad will likely be incomplete for the First Round game against local amateurs OSA FC of Seattle. “You can’t replicate that intensity of these all-or-nothing games. And that can make all the difference for a player down the road.”
Seattle Sounders U-23s head coach Darren Sawatzky (center)
Young Jones, a compact and tidy midfielder, agrees completely and is looking forward to his second straight tilt at the Open Cup. “The motivation is built in. It’s all on the line all the time,” said Jones, admitting that the Sounders’ shirt he and his teammates wear acts as a spur for the teams they face.
“They come and they go,” Sawatzky said about his players, who roll over every year when they get drafted into the pro ranks or throw in the towel and join the working week. That’s the nature of things and he accepts it. But he has the way of a coach who cares, and there’s a player inside him that still wants to win every game.
Jones, who’s collegiate eligibility expires at the end of the calendar year, hopes to go pro right away. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t, but in the meantime there’s the Open Cup to prepare for. “The motivation is huge for us,” he said, standing unsure at the crossroads of professional and amateur soccer. “The more you win, the better the chance you could play against a pro team, maybe an MLS team, and maybe get seen.”