S2 midfielder Azriel Gonzalez is no stranger to facing off against older opponents.
The 16-year-old prospect, who joined Sounders Academy at just 13 years old in 2014 from Heat FC of Las Vegas, Nevada, spent the vast majority of his time in the Rave Green youth system playing above his own age group. It accelerated his development and made him a much more intelligent, well-rounded player, as he had to make up for his physical deficiencies by finding space and playing quickly.
After three years in the youth ranks, Gonzalez inked his first professional contract, making him the youngest players to sign.
“Azriel was one of the first guys we brought in from out of territory,” Sounders FC Director of Player Development and Academy Director Marc Nicholls said. “When he started to excel, we thought it was really important for him to be pushed. We took him to Generation Adidas Cup and pushed him up when we could and the rest is history.”
A standout performer for his local club in Nevada, the Academy coaches were first notified about Gonzalez by his youth team coach, Frank D’Amelio. The Academy coaches were immediately impressed by this dynamic, exciting, attacking player and subsequently invited him on trial.
After a successful week-long stint, he was invited to join the Academy full-time. For a 13-year-old with aspirations of a professional career, he wanted to seize the opportunity. But it was a massive gamble for such a young player, especially moving away from home while still in middle school.
“It was definitely a tough decision, and I had a lot of conversations with my parents,” Gonzalez said. “In the end, we all came to an agreement. They have faith in me and they believe in me. I think that’s what was most important about the move.”
“I just loved the club,” he added. “I went to a First Team game and when I saw the fans it was something I had never seen before in the U.S. It was the best decision for me.”
After signing with the Academy, Gonzalez moved to Seattle with his mom, with his dad making his way up north a year later. On the pitch, the promising prospect hit the ground running, consistently finding the back of the net against some of the best youth teams in the country. He was quickly moved up to the U-15 squad, and the goals just kept coming. Within a matter of months he was promoted once again, this time to the U-16 team. It was there that Sean Henderson, the Sounders Academy U-16 Head Coach at the time, first realized Gonzalez wasn’t just another skilled kid.
“There’s always talented young players coming through, but one moment I remember was at the GA Cup,” Henderson recalled. “We got a penalty kick in the game and even though he was playing up two years, he stepped up and took it- and he buried it. That was the first moment where I thought he had the potential to become a pro.”
That confidence and goal-scoring prowess have been a hallmark of Gonzalez’s tenure with the Rave Green. In his first international trip with Sounders Academy, the Youdan Trophy in England, he was awarded the Golden Boot as the competition’s top-scorer, tallying five goals in five matches as the Rave Green won the tournament by topping storied academies like Newcastle United and FC Basel.
Throughout his three years in the Sounders youth system, Gonzalez was the top-scorer on each team for which he played, despite regularly playing above his age group, routinely averaging close to one goal per game.
His stellar displays made him a regular invitee to U.S. Youth National teams, which he credits in accelerating his development and easing the transition to professional soccer.
“Azriel been a goal threat at every level he’s played, whether that’s U-16s, U-19s or the national team,” S2 Assistant Coach Wade Webber said. “People look at him and assume he’ll struggle because of his lack of size, but it’s only an obstacle if you’re not intelligent. Azriel is very smart, and there’s been a couple of games in a row now where he’s gotten in very good attacking positions.”
A rising star for both club and country, Gonzalez first realized he was on a professional pathway when he was the youngest player invited to participate in preseason with the First Team back in 2017. When he began competing with established professionals, he wasn’t phased by going toe-to-toe with bigger, faster opponents, as he’d done just that since he first joined the Academy.
“When I first started training with S2 I was already used to the change in physicality, and I knew I had to move the ball quicker, my movements had to be sharper, and I had to know when to play one-touch,” Gonzalez said. “I already had experience doing that, and I think that helped me a lot.”
Now in his second season with S2, Gonzalez is relishing every opportunity he gets to showcase his elite skills in front of the boisterous crowds at Cheney Stadium.
“The support at Cheney Stadium has been amazing,” he said. “It’s something that gets you prepared for, if you sign with the First Team, it gives you a taste of what CenturyLink is like.”
With his first professional goal and assist under his belt, the Nevada native is inching closer to accomplishing the goal he’s had since he first moved to Seattle as a 13-year-old: playing at CenturyLink Stadium alongside the likes of Stefan Frei, Chad Marshall, and Roman Torres.
“My dream is to sign with the First Team and maybe that could be me one day down there in front of 40,000 fans.”