With the news that several MLS teams would be pulling their affiliates out of USL, along with reports of a new MLS-operated reserve league, the question was reasonably raised as to whether Tacoma Defiance would continue to compete in the USL Championship. During a media availability on Wednesday, Oct. 14, Seattle Sounders General Manager and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey settled the issue, at least for next season.
“I’m pleased to announce that we will remain in USL for 2021. That’s a league that we think has been key in developing our players,” Lagerwey announced. “Basically we’re going to continue trying to challenge these kids, we’re going to continue to put younger teams playing against guys with a little more experience.”
While the organization plans to stay the course for the near future and continue challenging their young players at the highest level possible for the sake of their development, he indicated there’s potential for that to change as MLS develops a league-wide development pathway.
“We’ll be a participant in all those discussions as to how a potential pro player pathway is developed. But for 2021 only, which is — again — I say only just because, again, in this world we don’t know what’s happening six months from now, let alone a year from now, but we’ve made a one-year commitment to be in USL in 2021... Certainly we want to be part of whatever the MLS decides going forward, as well. You know, it won’t just be what’s best for the Seattle Sounders, it’ll be what’s best for our league.”
Tacoma Defiance’s life in USL hasn’t exactly been filled with on-field success — the team has only qualified for the playoffs once, in the inaugural season in 2015 when still playing as S2 — but that doesn’t mean that the team has been a failure.
“We’ve felt, and I think we’ve signed … seven or eight homegrown players from our Defiance team in the last 18 months, roughly. So in that sense it’s been a good launching pad,” said Lagerwey, emphasizing Tacoma’s role as a development team for the top talents from the Sounders Academy. “Now signing those kids is the first step, what we need to do now is get those kids to break through and start playing meaningful minutes for our first team. But I do think that having some sort of development team is a critical piece in that process, and I think for the past couple years the USL has been a good space for us.”
Lagerwey has been quick to note that, while Tacoma’s been an important part of player development, 2020 has proved particularly challenging in that area. In a normal season, players on the bottom end of the Sounders roster would have been able to move between Seattle and Tacoma, training with the First Team and getting minutes with Tacoma. COVID-19 protocols have made that effectively impossible, which led to Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez and Ethan Dobbelaere being sent to Tacoma on season-long loans.
“We actually wholesale just took them [AOC and Dobbelaere] down to Defiance ... and had them be there full-time because getting games was so important to their development. And now they’ll come back up after quarantine and eventually rejoin the first team,” he explained.
Lagerwey praised the roles that his staff have played in navigating such a challenging year, saying, “Look, our development staff has done a great job as well — Chris Little and Wade Webber — keeping the guys safe and keeping them going forward, and Henry Brauner, our director of player development, to really manage what was a difficult season at Defiance, if we’re honest.”
Beyond the difficulty of training during a pandemic, Tacoma’s season was further complicated as they had to play an unbalanced home-and-away schedule that included nine straight away games, “in part because of conflicts with stadium availability at Cheney Stadium, because the MLB season was disrupted.”
In a conversation with KJR’s Jackson Felts, Lagerwey further discussed the importance of getting those players who were loaned down to Tacoma back to help bolster the First Team. “With Joevin hurt, and with three guys called up, and with Leyva still hurt, you’re down five, six guys and we’re gonna need everybody down the stretch.”
Having gotten some significant playing time during their month or so with Tacoma, Dobbelaere and Ocampo-Chavez now have the challenge of not only integrating back into the Sounders squad, but also trying to push their teammates and earn playing time. They don’t have to do that alone, though, as they join fellow Defiance alumni in Josh Atencio, Justin Dhillon and Shandon Hopeau as they all try to break into Brian Schmetzer’s side. To help them in that quest, and with their development, the Sounders brought back former S2 coach John Hutchinson to guide those young players.
“He’s the guy that’s overseeing all of these young players and their development once they get signed to the first team,” Lagerwey noted. “He’s been working with them extensively on both an individual and team basis, and he’s done a ton of stuff for us.”
As the Sounders play out the MLS regular season and look toward the playoffs, there’s going to be a need to keep players healthy and fresh, and that likely means Schmetzer and his staff will need to rely on every player on the roster to step up. Fortunately, thanks to the opportunity provided by Tacoma Defiance and the USL Championship, none of those players are strangers to competing against men playing with something on the line. That’s the kind of developmental benefit that led to the Defiance’s commitment to stay in the USL Championship for 2021, regardless of what comes after that.