Monday night in Sacramento, Calif., Tacoma Defiance played their first game in over four months. Facing Sacramento Republic FC in their home stadium would usually mean playing in front of 11,000 of their loudest fans, but this time Papa Murphy’s Park was empty. As USL returns to play this strange sight will become less uncommon, and contrasted with the scenes from Louisville City FC’s stadium opening, the empty stadium seemed the less strange of the two.
It didn’t always look like Defiance were going to come away with a result that they’d be happy with. After an Alec Diaz goal in the opening minute, Tacoma was almost immediately put under pressure as Republic’s constant attack kept them pinned in their defensive end. That pressure turned into a goal when a poor tackle in the box from Sam Rogers gave Sacramento a penalty, which was easily finished when newly-loaned goalkeeper Christian Herrera was sent the wrong way.
Things seemed to go from bad to worse quickly as Sacramento swarmed creating several more chances before eventually gaining the advantage in the 23rd minute off of a corner, then nabbing a third goal in the 37th minute when former Sounder Jordan McCrary got in behind and played a ball to the top of the box which was cleanly put away.
That’s where the score stood at halftime, but Defiance coach Chris Little’s team talk seemed to turn things around. To start the second half Tacoma’s passing was cleaner and more positive, and the team started placing more pressure on Sacramento as they tried to play through them. The improved passing eventually resulted in a drive into the box and shot by Marlon Vargas, the rebound of which fell perfectly for Jesse Daley outside of the box whose shot curled into the far upper corner to bring Defiance within one in the 58th minute.
From that point Tacoma had the better play for much of the rest of the game, including a well-worked goal by Ray Serrano which started when Danny Robles won a tackle in midfield and drove forward before playing Serrano in to seal the result in the 81st minute.
It was far from a perfect game — the roughly 44 minutes of quicksand that the team was stuck in in the first half will surely be something that coach Little will want to work on — but even under normal circumstances a point away from home with multiple goals would be a positive result.
This game wasn’t played under normal circumstances, though. Tacoma came into this game without several leaders in the team from last season, or even the beginning of this season all those months ago. With all players signed to First Team contracts away in Orlando with the Seattle Sounders, Chris Little was without seven players who played in the opening two games of this season, and eight players who appeared for the team in 2019, including key players like Josh Atencio, Justin Dhillon and Shandon Hopeau. To add to that USL vet and new signing Collin Fernandez was a late scratch, leaving the team with six subs on the bench as 17 year-old Sota Kitahara was forced into the starting lineup to play next to Jesse Daley in the midfield of the team’s customary 4-2-3-1.
A 3-3 draw is exciting. A point is a satisfying result, especially given how they earned it, and how the first two games of the season turned out. Earning a result from a deficit is better than giving one up. Tacoma Defiance aren’t a team built only to earn results, though, they also want to develop players. In the starting XI Tacoma featured five teenagers, including the aforementioned Sota Kitahara and the opening goal scorer, 18 year-old Alec Diaz. As the team made subs to add energy and rest tired legs, they brought on another 18 year-old, Ray Serrano, a 15 year-old Reed Baker Whiting, and 20 year-old French centerback Abdoulaye Cissoko, among others. For the last 20 minutes or so, the midfield duo were a 15 year-old and a 17 year-old, and while they may not have been perfect they made it frustrating to play through them, and they helped to facilitate possession. Sota Kitahara, who played the full match, was especially sturdy, hardly ever putting a foot wrong.
Tacoma’s next game will be on Saturday, July 18 against Portland Timbers 2. The closed-door game will be played at Cheney Stadium at 5 PM PT, and you can watch it on ESPN+.