Vargas enjoying early success with Sounders & U-20s, but now aiming for silverware
April 06, 2022
THE MLS SEASON is still young and there is plenty to go in 2022, but one of the more impressive stories from the perspective of youth development has been Seattle Sounders midfielder Obed Vargas who has played a significant role on the team in the early season and in the team’s CONCACAF Champions League run. On top of that, he is also taking a growing role on the U.S. U-20 team despite playing an entire cycle up.
Vargas, 16, has been through a lot in just the past two months but all that has done has set the stage for important challenges in the near future.
“I think I have a pretty good life support group that keeps me grounded,” Vargas told ASN. “They've all helped me stay humble and know that it's a little bit I've done. I've really done nothing, really.”
Along with players such as Josh Atencio, Reed Baker-Whiting, and Daniel Leyva, the Sounders have a number of young players with the first team. But Seattle is among the biggest MLS teams and in 2022 is expected to be a favorite to win MLS Cup again.
Playing time can be difficult to earn when competing with some of the best players in the league and other top prospects for minutes. But Vargas insists it is friendly but professional. The players want what is best for each other and the veterans are there to help out the young players.
“It's a special thing when you're very young and you have guys like Nico [Lodeiro] and Raul [Ruidiaz] around you. They've been to World Cups, played against the best players in the world, and know what it feels like being in those moments. They’ve transmitted that to me and given me confidence - and that I have to do my job. If I don't, I will not play. It's been a balance between giving me that confidence that I'm good enough and that I have responsibilities and a job to do on the field.”
Thus far, Vargas has appeared in all five of Seattle’s MLS games including three starts. He has also started in three of the team’s four CONCACAF Champions League games – most impressively the 3-0 win over Leon. This week Seattle will open semifinals against New York City. The winner will face Pumas or Cruz Azul in the final.
“It means everything to us,” Vargas said. “We want to become that first MLS team to win that tournament and put the Sounders in history forever.”
#Sounders??? midfielder Albert Rusnák praised Obed Vargas when asked about the 16-year-old's play this year.— Niko Moreno (@ELROLONW) March 3, 2022
???? He's been fantastic since the day preseason started
In June, Vargas will likely take his first major steps at the international level when the U.S. U-20 team will attempt to qualify for both the U-20 World Cup and the Olympics at a single tournament in Honduras.
After a strong camp in January, Vargas backed up his effort with an even better camp in March where he played in a 2-2 draw with Argentina and scored in a 5-3 win over River Plate all while being the team’s youngest player and eligible for the following U-20 cycle in 2025. All this has put him in a great chance to make the roster in June.
“Obed did really well at the camp, and I would say Obed was one of the biggest surprises at the camp,” U.S. U-20 head coach Mikey Varas said after the January camp. “I have given Obed the challenge to play his way into this group. He is a really strong player and it's a tough position. But he did a really, really well. He's a top talent.”
The most recent camp in Argentina was likely the last for the team’s top players before qualifying and Vargas is excited by what he’s seen from the group.
“We all get along very well,” Vargas said of the U-20 team. “That always helps building team chemistry. We all have each other's backs. The last camp was even better than the first one. I got to know people better. At the end of the day, it just reflects on the field -our movement and how we know each other. It's going to help us in the long run and to hopefully qualify.”
“The pressure is on when you're wearing the United States badge and you're expected to win everything,” he added.
As U.S. Soccer has grown, the background of the top players has become more diverse as scouting and opportunities have increased across the country. Vargas, in particular, stands out. He is one of the few professional players to emerge from Alaska and play at the MLS level.
Vargas was born in Anchorage and developed at the Cook Inlet Soccer Club. His parents are immigrants from Mexico who moved to Alaska for work. His father played at the youth levels of Mexican club Atlético Morelia and was Vargas’ coach for most of his teams in Alaska. Part of Vargas’ development came from playing up several age groups and often making him the smallest player on the field. He credits that with helping him become smarter on the ball.
Here’s your daily Obed Vargas appreciation gif. pic.twitter.com/MKBlzL1feD— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) March 18, 2022
While Alaska is not viewed as a soccer hotbed, Vargas insists it helped make him into the prospect he is today.
“I take a lot of pride being from Alaska,” Vargas said. “A lot of kids don't come out of Alaska as soccer players… I hope I can inspire a lot of kids from Alaska to do the same.”
“The players there pushed me,” he added. “You look at Alaska and you think: Oh, there's not many good players. But there might not be a lot of teams, but they have decent players. They have competitive players that push themselves and will fight.”
While Alaska was a good place for Vargas at the start of his youth career, he knew eventually he had to leave. In his early teenager years, he was identified by Seattle Sounders scouts at a regional tournament. The Sounders offered him a spot in their academy with a path to the USL team and, if successful, an opportunity with the first team.
For Vargas and his parents, the move to the “lower 48” was daunting but Vargas knew he had to take it.
Obed Vargas has certainly been been a bright spot for #Sounders??? right from the moment he made his debut in Honduras. This is what Brian Schmetzer said about the 16 year-old midfielder, who Cristian Roldan mentioned reminded him of himself when he started in #MLS. pic.twitter.com/kUCD7baO8C— Niko Moreno (@ELROLONW) February 28, 2022
“I knew I had to get out of Alaska and keep pursuing my dream,” Vargas explained. “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,” Vargas said of the league. “But it's up to the young guy to take it.”
Without doubt, the move has worked out. Vargas has taken advantage of every opportunity so far and he has an opportunity have more success in 2022 than any other 16-year-old American player. But yhat success only opens more doors and potentially raise more difficult questions.
One question could be over his international future. As a player eligible for both the United States and Mexico, Vargas is firmly on the radar of both programs – at least at the youth level. He takes great pride in his dual citizenship and considers both “beautiful countries” who are historically the best in the region.
Mexico has been aggressive in recruiting young Mexican-American players but Vargas insists he will take his time with any decision.
For him, there are numerous factors at play. For Mexico, he grew up a supporter of El Tri through his parents and regularly watched their games. For the United States, he grew up in the country and is having positive experiences with their U-20 national team. He currently indicates that he will continue to play for the U.S. youth teams before making such a big decision – something that could favor the United States as long as the experiences continue to be positive.
“I grew up a fan of Mexico,” Vargas explained about how he could view a choice. “But the United States has given my family and myself so much that I feel I could also play for the United States and be immensely proud of wearing the badge. I don't really worry about it too much right now. I am still very young and I'm happy to play for the U.S at the youth level. When the decision is closer, I'll think about it more deeply with my family and close friends.”
For now, however, such decisions are only hypothetical and are for another day. At just 16, he has put himself in a position to contend for the CONCACAF Champions League, MLS Cup, and earning berths in the U-20 World Cup and the Olympics. That alone has put him among the top American prospects of his age group.