The STATE of Soccer in WASHINGTON
Darren Sawatzky grew up in Federal Way. He played for and then later coached Thomas Jefferson High School to a state title. goalWA.net talked with the technical leader of the new Sounders U23s and he made it perfectly clear he wants to build a winner for South Sound.
by David Falk
In the aftermath of last week’s announcement that Tacoma Tide FC would become the Sounders U23s, the dust is settling and the process of deciding working relationships and roles is underway between the Tacoma-based ownership group of the U23s and Sounders Women and Seattle’s Sounders FC.
Darren Sawatzky is the link between the U23s and the MLS side. He already sees positives to the growing partnership. “The relationship between the MLS Sounders and the entity in Tacoma (U23s, Sounders Women) is a good one. Having both myself and Amy Carnell on board has basically interconnected the clubs in a very good way,” Sawatzky says.
“The ownership group of Lane Smith and Cliff McElroy operate the U23s/Women franchise; they are the team that I work for (when it comes to PDL). Mike Jennings (minority Tacoma owner) and I work together on pieces of the technical (soccer) side, and Lane and Cliff are the business side. When it comes to brand awareness and rules we are all working together. We need to check off boxes to make sure the Sounders brand is used appropriately. In the end the guys that own the team (Smith, McElroy) are the people I answer to.”
Pierce County Pride
So why did the two ownership groups get together and create this connection? “The reason we are doing this is to help both entities, and local soccer in general,” Darren explains. “I’m from Federal Way. I whole-heartedly support PDL in the greater Tacoma area. I think South Sound needs a team to support within that community. It makes a heck of a lot of sense to play in Pierce County. To represent that community, to have people come out and watch it. I’m actually very, very excited about it. I mean, I used to be one of those little gym-rats down at the Tacoma Soccer Center when I was a young guy back in the Tacoma Stars MISL days. Just seeing those guys around was huge. We need to try to help build that.”
Sawatzky thinks the South Sound will respond. “If you win people come, and if you are associated with something exciting people come. We are planning on doing both of those things. We want to play attacking, exciting soccer that people want to watch. We are going to play full-pressure football. We want to entertain and we want to enjoy it. We want to get those kids ready for the next level. For their college seasons, and then the pros. We will not be a practice twice a week kind of team. The U23s are for a driven group. We want to mirror the first team as much as possible.”
Fill That Roster
Sawatzky is the guy in charge of the PDL U23s, but he has a deep pool of resources to draw from when he seeks input. “As the head coach I will put the names on the roster, but I would be remiss to not consult and talk on a daily basis with the staff on the first team here (Sounders MLS). They have great insight, and a full scouting network. In fact, we have already started working on all of those different things. At the end of the day I have a fairly large say in what’s on that (U23s) roster, but when it comes down to it it’s a collaboration. You also have the ownership group down here in Tacoma who want to make sure that if there are Tacoma players good enough in the group then we want to have them for the local club. There will be kids from the South Sound playing on that team.”
Sawatzky doesn’t want fans or player hopefuls to get thrown off by the name U23s. PDL rosters can have up to eight players older than that. “I am one of those kinds people, and you can see it in our academy system, that I don’t get hung up on ages. If a player is good enough to compete and help a team win, then he’ll get his opportunity. Right now there is a very, very good pool of players in that under 23 group, both from our academy and local, who can represent our community.”
Not only that, but Sawatzky sees the logic in a player or two who was drafted and then cut by the first team hanging around with the U23s, like goalkeeper Bryan Meredith did last year with the Kitsap Pumas. “It makes sense to do that. If a player is not quite ready for the professional team…not quite ready but they are close…they probably want to stay as close and attached to the MLS team as they can. The best way to do that would be through our feeder programs. If a player is good enough, and they are an amateur, they can play on our team.”
Style and Substance
Sawatzky will be gathering a talented group this spring, and then let those talents decide the formations he teaches. “The best coach I ever played for was Clive Charles, and he said ‘players always dictate formations.’ You go get the very best players that you can. When you put a roster together obviously you look at things positionally, but out of the roster you put together, it decides the style of play.”
Sawatzky’s belief in South Sound soccer as its own unique and important community is reflected in a statement he wanted to make known and repeated to me several times when we spoke. He wanted to thank Tacoma Tide FC’s Mike Jennings for keeping soccer alive at the PDL level in Tacoma. “Mike Jennings has done an important job of keeping soccer at this level alive in the South Sound. Six years of operating a USL franchise, and the trials that can come with that, so he should be commended.”
Up Next: A Venue Choice and Open Tryouts
Sawatzky would not go on record as to which venue he hopes the U23s eventually call home, but multiple sources have told me that the current target is Puyallup’s Sparks Stadium.
“Next up is setting the venue and then Open Tryouts,” Sawatzky says of his PDL checklist. “There aren’t a lot of secrets out there, but it seems that every year (at tryouts) you find a diamond in the rough. We want to have our venue in place and then hold tryouts there (in March).”