Tacoma Defiance officially came into being back in January, re-branding from Sounders FC 2 and becoming a fully-integrated part of the Sounders developmental pipeline. That integration may have seemed like somewhat of a formality for anyone who had been watching the team in the previous years as current and former academy players filled the XI and the 18 every week, but formally making the team an extension of the Sounders academy system was a commitment to the plan of producing players for the first team.
This wasn’t the beginning of a new process, but a continuation of one, and there was hope that a team of young players that struggled but had gotten important experience in 2018 would yield better results this season. A quick glance at the team’s record might leave you skeptical, but there’s plenty of reason for continued patience and even some excitement.
Looking at the team’s record in terms of wins, losses, and draws it’s hard to see much difference between the first and second halves of the season. The first 17 games saw Defiance go 2-11-4 and scoring a meager 14 goals while their defense allowed 44. Since the halfway point, though, they’ve started to turn things around, even if just a little. In the 13 games they’ve played in that time the team has scored 17 goals and given up 34 on their way to a 3-8-2 record.
Chris Little, the Tacoma manager, attributes the difference between the two halves to a difficult adjustment period for some of the players.
“I think it’s a little bit of, either the younger guys adjusting to the level,” he said. “Marlon Vargas, for example, or Danny Robles didn’t have a lot of USL or very, very limited USL experience, so it took a little while for them to catch up. And then new guys that came in. Justin Dhillon learning our system, what we expect from him, so it took a little bit of time for that to happen. I would also say the fullbacks are very important to that. Nick Hinds is brand new, basically, at left back, he’s learning that position, and Denso [Ulysse], we’re asking more of him going forward than he’s probably been asked before, so it took a little bit of time for that to happen. I think that the guys have a pretty good understanding of some of the principles we’re looking for.”
All of that is to say it takes players time to get accustomed to new levels, new teammates, new positions, and new roles. Once they’ve had the chance to settle in, though, they’re able to take a step forward.
Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, for example, has been dangerous at every level he’s played. He’s one of the leading scorers for the US U-17s as they head into the U-17 World Cup, he’s performed well with the academy, and he signed a contract with the first team largely based on that promise. But he hadn’t been able to put numbers on the board until Tacoma faced off against Las Vegas Lights on a Wednesday in July when he came in at halftime and grabbed not only his first professional goal, but a brace and an assist in his 45 minutes. In the second half of the season, Ocampo-Chavez has 5 goals and 1 assist. He managed to reel off three consecutive appearances with a goal, and he’s averaging 0.8 goals+assists per 90 minutes. It took some time to get there, but AOC is making good on some of his promise, and he’s going to be taking that production into the U-17 World Cup later this month.
Shandon Hopeau wasn’t exactly new to USL competition this season, but he was being asked to make some changes as he moved from one wing to the other.
“I think the beginning of the season was a big learning curve for me, having a new coach coming in from last year, and different styles. I think that the biggest thing for me is that if you’re coachable it’s easier for you to learn, so the main thing for me was to come to practice every day and listen to Chris and learn his style of play, and I feel like I just got better throughout the season,” said Hopeau.
He’s clearly gotten better as the season has gone. Hopeau has 5 goals and 3 assists on the season, but 4 of those goals and 2 of those assists have come in the second half of the season. Not quite hitting the same heights in terms of per-90 production as AOC, Hopeau is still a constant threat to opposing back lines and is averaging 0.61 goals+assists per 90 minutes while also doing a lot of defensive work to help lighten the load for his teammates.
While there have been improvements on both sides of the ball for Tacoma, the team lacks a real sense of stability even as players become more comfortable in the team and in the system. Some of that lack of stability is an inevitable result of the intended role of the team, acting as a proving ground for young players, a place for some first team players to keep up their fitness, and also a potential landing spot for guys like Ever Rubio or Dhillon who might just need a change of scenery and a new opportunity. There are guys going back and forth between Tacoma and the academy, and Tacoma and the first team, as well as guys leaving Tacoma for their national teams. Not only have players like Danny Leyva and AOC regularly been pulled away to play for US youth teams, but Denso Ulysse has been a part of multiple different Haiti teams, and Alec Diaz was called into the Puerto Rico national team during Concacaf Nations League. There’s been no shortage of reasons for the fluctuation that the roster has seen throughout the season.
That lack of stability can be seen when you look at the team sheet from game to game. In the second half of this season, the fewest changes in the starting line-up from one game to the next is three. Even with players being more used to the league and to their teammates, it’s always going to be difficult to get consistent results with that amount of change.
Still, this team has taken steps forward. With four games remaining, they’ve already racked up as many points as the team did last season. They’ve managed to improve on both sides of the ball, and it’s reasonable to expect them to continue to improve and develop in the future. It’s worth remembering that the goal of this team is to bridge the developmental gap between the academy and the first team, and Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey has specifically pointed to the target of getting youth players 100 professional appearances before they turn 20. We’re only just reaching the point when 100 appearances is within reasonable reach for a player, as Shandon Hopeau currently sits at 75 professional games. He won’t get there before he turns 20 — he turns 21 in December — but it’s important to put into perspective where we are on this team’s path.
In a sense, the Defiance are on a similar path too. This is their fifth year and while they aren’t quite where they want to be, they at least have a clear direction.