Already eliminated from playoff contention, Tacoma Defiance went into the final week of the 2020 USL Championship season with home games against the two top teams in Group A, Sacramento Republic FC and Reno 1868 FC. The group front-runners provided Chris Little’s side with difficult tests that served as both opportunities to show that their struggles in the middle of the season weren’t necessarily who this team is, as well as for players to make their case for more prominent roles in 2021; and for some players the week may have served as a bit of an audition for Brian Schmetzer and Garth Lagerwey.
The first of the two games, a 1-0 win over Sacramento on Wednesday, featured immense efforts from centerbacks Abdoulaye Cissoko and Taylor Mueller, as well as goalkeeper Eric Klenofsky stepping up when he needed to in a bit of foreshadowing of the game he’d have against Reno. Cissoko and Mueller did a ton of work to clean things up in front of Klenofsky, amassing a combined 14 clearances and eight recoveries. The duo also pitched in a few blocks — Cissoko had two and Mueller had one — and Cissoko also had three interceptions. To seal the result, Danny Reynolds, having received an incredible ball from Mueller, played a perfect pass into the box that Alec Diaz confidently put home in the 71st minute. Defiance faced waves of pressure over the final 10 minutes, but held strong on the way to victory.
A few days later Tacoma’s fortunes weren’t quite as good as they took a lead in the 16th minute against Reno, but ultimately fell 2-1 to the Group A leaders. In that game, coach Chris Little fielded a team that included all of Alec Diaz, Ethan Dobbelaere, and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez in the attack, but substituted Reed Baker-Whiting for Danny Robles as the 10. While Diaz, Dobbelaere and AOC had moments of quality, including a golden opportunity early in the game when Dobbelaere took advantage of a bad touch from Reno’s goalkeeper to give Diaz the ball in front of an empty net before his shot was blocked by a sliding challenge, the absence of Robles meant that Defiance often struggled to connect their attack. AOC opened the scoring in the 16th minute with a great goal from the top of the box, but Tacoma were eventually undone by poor marking on both Reno goals. The result feels especially disappointing as the game winner came only minutes after Klenofsky saved a penalty to keep the score level.
What went well?
Eric Klenofsky isn’t going to be sticking around Tacoma, as he’s on loan from TFC II and seems certain to return to his parent club. Regardless, this was his best week with Defiance, even if the team only managed a win and a loss in their pair of games. In both games he came up with a save just about any time he was called upon, including saving a penalty against Reno. The responsibility for the two goals the team did give up against Reno rests squarely on the shoulders of the defense, who left both goal scorers wide open — Antonee Burke and Mueller both failed to pick up Brent Richards following the initial service from a corner on his goal, while Mueller and Danny Reynolds both opted to mark space rather than Foster Langsdorf for Reno’s second.
Those two goals are clearly an issue, as is the team’s fullbacks’ apparent love for giving up penalties, but these two games seemed to demonstrate the defensive system being used by Tacoma. If you look at the their defensive stats, one notable thing is how few tackles the Defiance CBs attempt. Against Sacramento neither CB even attempted a single tackle, and in the Reno game the only tackle attempt by a CB was a successful tackle by Taylor Mueller in the first half. Instead it seems like Tacoma’s playing system when they don’t have the ball requires that the other eight outfield players put in tackles and generally try to make it difficult for their opponents to play from one end of the field to the other, ideally creating turnovers and transition opportunities, while the CBs work to clean up anything that makes it into their defensive third as they rack up non-tackling defensive stats. That means that rather than making tackles and creating second balls in their defensive third, Tacoma’s CBs spend more time blocking occasional shots and recovering the ball. Against Reno that didn’t prove to matter much, but the system allows the responsibilities of the defensive players to be simplified, which should help as they work to integrate young players at the position going forward.
First Team in Tacoma
The two Seattle Sounders First Team players loaned to Tacoma had relatively quiet games against Sacramento. Ethan Dobbelaere was deployed on the left wing and showed some confidence as he attempted four dribbles in his 59-minute outing, but none of those dribbles were successful. His passing was clean, completing 16 of his 19 pass attempts, but they were often either lateral or backwards. AOC spent most of his outing against Sacramento playing as a lone forward, and did well to show that even if he’s not the biggest or strongest player at that position in the Sounders pipeline, he can still offer the hold-up play required of the role. He completed 14 of his 16 pass attempts, helping to get teammates involved in the attack — notably linking up to create some great chances for Ray Serrano — as Tacoma transitioned out of defense, and still got into good positions as he got two shots off from inside Sacramento’s penalty area. Things looked worrying when he came off in the 68th minute as it appeared as though the team were checking his right knee.
AOC’s substitution against Sacramento proved to be precautionary, as he joined Dobbelaere in the starting XI once again against Reno. The highlight from this game is obviously going to be AOC’s gorgeous strike to open the scoring.
AOC did well to recognize that his defender was giving him space, and then hit his shot well and into the bottom corner at the far post. Dobbelaere nearly made his way onto the score sheet about ten minutes before AOC’s goal when he took advantage of a loose touch from Reno’s ‘keeper and hit a ball to Alec Diaz right in front of goal. Diaz put his shot on frame, but unfortunately in the only spot where a sliding block from a defender could stop it. Beyond that Dobbelaere often looked like the most likely player to make something happen as he continued to take defenders on and attempt dangerous passes, although few of them actually came off.
The next step for these two, if they get the opportunity and are cleared to do so, is to rejoin the First Team for training to see if they can translate the confidence and success they’ve built up with Tacoma to the level of MLS training. Particularly for AOC, it has seemed like he’s been more able to stand up to the physicality of USL, while also using his quickness and vision to find, and more importantly to create, space to make a pass or get a shot off.
Path to Pro
Two players still currently playing for Tacoma as amateurs combined to play a total of 340 minutes over the two games this week. Sota Kitahara and Chris Hegardt both started each game, with Hegardt being the only one to get subbed off at any point when he came out in the 70th minute against Reno. Both players are quality passers and showed that off against Sacramento as they combined to complete 64 of 79 pass attempts, helping to limit the danger posed by maintaining possession. Against Reno their defensive responsibilities took a larger role, as their passing dropped off (both in terms of success and volume) while they stepped up their contributions off of the ball. Against Reno they contributed 13 recoveries, three clearances, and three interceptions.
One area in which both players have occasionally struggled is giving up the ball under hard challenges in the middle of the field, and while they were both largely improved in that regard, Reno did get one dangerous look at goal when Kitahara was muscled off the ball in a dangerous spot. Fortunately Klenofsky stepped up and kept the ball out of the goal. One mistake doesn’t undo the good work Kitahara has done to adjust to better use his low center of gravity to both improve his ball retention and help him win more challenges and regain possession for his side.
Both players certainly looked up to the level of USL competition during these two games, and even though neither of them was taking over games, they were able to be quietly consistent in helping Tacoma win and keep possession and transition into attack. It remains to be seen what happens for these two in the offseason. Kitahara played every game since the restart for Tacoma, starting in all but one of those matches and clearly establishing himself as one of the team’s top choices in the center of midfield. Hegardt made six starts in his 11 appearances in all of 2020, and while his talent level is clearly high enough to play for Tacoma, he still is adjusting to the speed and physicality at this level. Hegardt is a college student who was able to play with Tacoma as his college soccer season was impacted by COVID-19, so his immediate future is likely a bigger question. Kitahara seems likely to be the next Academy player to get a contract, whether that’s with Tacoma or the First Team.