by Kyle Jensen
Graduating from the youth ranks and into the first team was part of a natural progression for Seattle Sounders’ new boy Darwin Jones. After training with the first-team for the past three years, putting pen to paper seemed almost like another day at the office for him.
Jones, 22, who hails from Des Moines, signed a professional contract with the Sounders on Jan. 9th to become the club’s fifth homegrown player. Cool, composed and nonchalant, Jones doesn’t seem like he recently fulfilled his dream of becoming a professional soccer player—except for his constant smile.
“It’s exciting!” Jones said. “I’ve been around the organization for about four years and I’ve been training with the first team for two or three years, so I’m familiar with the environment.”
As a member of the Sounders youth academy for four years, Jones made noise at every level he played. After graduating from Rainier High School, he went on to become MVP at Highline Community College during his freshman year. A transfer to the University of Washington followed, where Jones became one of the stars of a hugely successful Husky team that made the Elite 8 and Sweet 16 in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
So what kind of player is Darwin Jones? Lightning quick and dynamic with silky dribbling skills, Jones can be deployed as a striker or a winger with equally devastating results. Sounders fans will see shades of Obafemi Martins and Eddie Johnson in Jones’ play, as UW Student Manager Taymour Roushdi can attest.
“His pace is unreal and he can smack a ball, that’s for sure,” Roushdi said.
Jones’ collegiate stats back up his reputation as a danger man. As a freshman at Highline Community College, Jones notched fifteen goals and ten assists as he led his squad to the 2011 Northwest Athletic Conference semi-finals.
He was equally effective at the University of Washington, where he seamlessly transitioned to a higher level of play.
In two triumphant years with the Huskies, Jones tallied 15 goals and 9 assists primarily as a winger. Along the way, he picked up two All-Pac-12 First Team selections and a Second Team All-American selection from College Sports Madness.
His qualities did not go unnoticed, as the Sounders signed Jones to a homegrown player contract, joining a list of players that includes U.S. World Cup star DeAndre Yedlin, New England Revolution forward Sean Okoli and current Sounder Aaron Kovar.
While disappointed with losing one of his star men, UW Assistant Coach Richard Reece was thrilled with the opportunity presented to Jones.
“ It’s a great opportunity for ‘Dar’—he is able to stay local and as we know, the Sounders are one of the premier franchises out there,” Reece said.
The Homegrown Player rule, put into effect in the MLS in 2008, allows teams to sign players from their own development academies directly to first- team rosters. The rule resembles the system that has been in place in the famed European and South American leagues, as well as the rest of the soccer world.
Although the rule is relatively new, the MLS currently has more than 80 homegrown players and former prodigies that currently play in Europe, including former homegrown stars such as ex-D.C. United player star Andy Najar and Stoke City striker Juan Agudelo. Perhaps Jones will be the next on the list of decorated ex-pats.
The rule represents a shift toward a grassroots soccer movement in the United States, in which developing youth talent is becoming as important as making big-money signings—an approach that can only benefit U.S. soccer in the long run.
“I think it’s good to bring players up at a young age,” Roushdi says. “Having these MLS academies promotes the talent and gives these young players a better opportunity to thrive and be seen.”
Signing homegrown talent also helps clubs save money on signings. Even more important is the familiarity these newcomers have with the players and the club, and the passion they have when they put on their team’s shirt.
“It’s another positive step for U.S. soccer in general,” Reece explains. “Having stronger youth academies is only going to be beneficial to producing top young talent.”
With Jones, the Sounders have now signed a homegrown player from the South King County area for the last two years, with Federal Way’s Sean Okoli joining last year. In addition, a number of the UW’s current players come from the region.
“There aren’t too many soccer clubs in the area I grew up in, so all the players stick together and naturally push each other to become better players,” Jones said.
The competition has served the South King County native well. After signing on, Jones will jump straight into first-team action, an environment he is already familiar with after training with the team’s stars for about three years.
Although largely deployed as a winger in his college days, Sounders coaches see the player as a striker who drifts out wide to take on defenders at speed, according to Jones.
This tactic has been an important aspect of the Sounders’ team in recent years, with players such as Eddie Johnson, Clint Dempsey and 2014’s top scorer Obafemi Martins often picking the ball up in wide areas of the field—players who have mentored Jones in the Sounders academy.
“Eddie Johnson was my mentor for a long time, but since he left, Obafemi [Martins] and Clint [Dempsey] have taken me under their wing,” Jones explained. “Oba recently pulled me aside and said that he would mentor me, something that I’m really excited about!”
Jones possesses the perfect blend of raw talent and hard work ethic—something clear to anyone who has worked with him, including coach Reece and Roushdi.
“He wants to succeed,” said Roushdi. “Everyone in the locker room knew Darwin wanted to become a professional, there’s no doubt about that. Now that he’s made it, the truly hard work starts for him because I know how much he wants it.”
Yet with it all in front of him, Jones seems unfazed by the challenge ahead—all while maintaining a smile that never seems to go away. How does he feel to be in the professional leagues?
“I try not to treat it any different than before I was a professional,” Jones said. “I want to push myself and keep my feet grounded.”