Sports

15-year-old Anchorage boy starts for Seattle Sounders to make Major League Soccer history

Obed Vargas of Anchorage turned 15 years and 351 days old on Thursday, a distinction important to note because of how he spent his day.

Two weeks before his 16th birthday, Vargas became the third-youngest player in history to appear in a Major League Soccer match.

A 5-foot-9 forward, Vargas was part of an astonishing youth movement on display by the Seattle Sounders, who started an MLS-record five teenagers in a 1-0 win Thursday night over Austin FC.

He was on the pitch Thursday when Seattle’s Raul Ruidiaz scored the game-winner with a jaw-dropping goal from about 40 yards out, and he was one of the first to congratulate his teammate.

“About a year ago I was watching this guy on TV and celebrating his goals through a screen, and now I’m celebrating on the pitch,” Vargas said by phone Friday.

Vargas grew up in Anchorage, one of five children in Obed and Marisol Vargas’ soccer-loving family. He attended Romig Middle School and played with the Cook Inlet Soccer Club before moving to Seattle at the beginning of the year to join the Sounders FC Academy, a developmental program for top young prospects.

He progressed quickly, signing with the Tacoma Defiance in May and joining the Sounders as a bench player last weekend for a match in Minnesota, where he watched the game but didn’t play in it.

While eating lunch with the team Wednesday in Seattle, he learned he was getting a promotion.

“Coach Brian Schmetzer walks into the cafeteria and he goes, ‘I’m going to give young guys an opportunity.’ And he looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘I’m looking at a kid who’s not even 16 and he’s gonna start tomorrow,’ " Vargas said.

“That’s when I knew. I was in shock and I thought, I have to show them why I’m here. After that I kind of relaxed, set my mind and did some meditation with one of our coaches.”

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He played 77 minutes in the match at Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas, and rated his performance as good but not great: “I wouldn’t say it was spectacular, but it was a good start.”

“The nerves (go) away when you step onto the field and the whistle blows,” he said. “The atmosphere was so nice you can’t not smile. I was smiling warming up.”

At their home in Anchorage, Obed and Marisol Vargas cried tears of happiness as they watched their son play on TV.

“It was a joy for us,” said the dad. “It’s a lot of years of work.”

Obed and Marisol came to Alaska from Mexico, and Obed was his son’s coach for many years. Vargas attended Government Hill Elementary and Romig but left for the Sounders Academy before he had a chance to enroll at West High.

His older sisters both play soccer -- Marisol is a goalkeeper at Centralia College in Washington and Frida plays for West High. His younger brother, Abad, is a skilled 13-year-old, “and I hope he will be heading to Sounders Academy too,” Vargas said. His grandfather, who splits time between Mexico and Alaska, is 79 and still plays.

With so many soccer players in the family, the Vargas living room has seen its share of mishaps while doubling as a practice pitch.

“We would throw the ball against the wall and hit it with our head,” Vargas said. “Dad has a big wine cabinet, and all the glass is done now. It’s just clear now. We broke all the cabinet glass.”

Vargas is one of two young players who were developed in Alaska and made it to the MLS as teenagers this season. Anchorage goalkeeper Hunter Sulte, 19, made his debut with the Portland Timbers in May.

“It’s really exciting,” said Matt Froehle, a Cook Inlet Soccer Club coach. “We’ve never had a shortage of promising talent here. Every other year there’s a kid who looks like he can’t miss, but then more often than not, that’s just not the way it goes.”

Sulte is the second-youngest goalkeeper in MLS history (and, at 6-foot-7, he’s also the tallest in history). The league dates back to 1996.

Vargas is the third-youngest player to appear in a match, trailing Freddy Adu (14 years and 306 days when he played his first match in 2004) and Alphonso Davies (15 years and 251 days when he played his first match in 2016).

He was one of four Tacoma Defiance teens who were called up this week by the Sounders, who are missing 10 regulars due to injury, suspension or international callups.

It’s a short-term loan and it’s an unclear how long he will stay with the Sounders, but Vargas has canceled plans to come home for his 16th birthday on Aug. 5.

That means Alaska’s latest pro athlete will have to go without a driver’s license for a little while longer. Vargas said he hasn’t taken a driver’s education class, which is required in Washington but not in Alaska, so his birthday plans included a trip to the DMV in Anchorage.

“But since all of this is happening out of nowhere, I won’t get home for my birthday,” he said.

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