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Tacoma Defiance notebook: Rising tide

Defiance start their home stand with a win.

Azriel Gonzalez Charis Wilson / Sounders FC Communications

We’re going to be trying something a little different with our coverage of Tacoma Defiance. For the remainder of the season, rather than having game threads for each game, I’ll be writing up a sort of Tacoma Defiance Notebook. It will come out roughly once a week, and the goal will be to focus on the trends within the team and the development of the players. This is the first in that evolving coverage, so please let us know what you’d like to see more of, or what areas you’d like us to focus. Now, onto the coverage!

Tacoma Defiance marked the last week of a truly bizarre 2020 season with a win to start a three-game home stand. Defiance welcomed Portland Timbers 2 to Cheney Stadium on Sunday for the rubber match in the two teams’ five-game season series. Both teams came into the game with two wins in the series, T2 having won 3-1 only three days earlier down in Portland, but Tacoma put their claim on bragging rights for the next few months with a 2-1 victory.

Ethan Dobbelaere gave Tacoma the lead just over the midway point of the first half. Ray Serrano intercepted a pass just inside T2’s half and dinked the ball over a defender and into the path of Danny Robles who settled the ball with one touch before hitting a beautiful through ball into the left channel for Dobbelaere. Dobbelaere calmly picked his spot and hit a shot to the far post just beyond the reach of T2’s diving goalkeeper.

In the second half, Alec Diaz and Azriel Gonzalez combined to give Tacoma what seemed like a pretty safe 2-0 lead in the 85th minute. A T2 goal kick fell directly to Diaz who drove toward goal, drawing two defenders, before spotting the run of Gonzalez and cutting the ball across the box where he beat a defender and the ‘keeper to knock it into the net. T2 got one back in the 87th minute off of a corner, erroneously credited as an own goal off of Gonzalez, making for a tense end to the game, but Tacoma were able to hold on for the win.

What went well?

Set-piece defending isn’t exactly one of Tacoma’s strengths. There are plenty of contributing factors: a team as young as Tacoma is obviously going to be physically smaller than a lot of the teams they play, and the amount of rotation that they often have to implement makes it harder for everyone to know their assignments and responsibilities. One way to limit how much of a factor that can be is to give up fewer corners and set pieces.

While the goal they gave up to T2 obviously came from less than ideal defending on a corner, Tacoma managed to avoid giving up more than one other good look off of any sort of set piece. Maybe more importantly, throughout the season Tacoma have compounded their set piece issues by committing fouls in dangerous areas and giving opponents cheap looks at goal. Against Portland on Sunday Tacoma only committed eight fouls, and only four of those were inside their own half with none coming closer than ten yards from the midfield stripe. It’s a small thing, but when your team is already struggling to stay in games not making it harder on yourself is important.

In Wednesday’s game against Portland, Tacoma wasn’t quite as good at not giving up set piece opportunities. They committed 13 fouls with eight inside their own half, including the foul leading to the PK. That one is a confluence of issues, as Alex Villanueva committed the foul in an overzealous attempt to clear the danger from a loose ball on a corner. An attempt at good set piece defending became bad set piece defending.

First Team in Tacoma

The obvious highlight from the First Team players on loan with Defiance for this week was Dobbelaere’s goal in the 28th minute on Sunday. Dobbelaere nearly got onto the score sheet again about 10 minutes later when fellow Sounders loanee Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez played him on for a nearly identical look to his goal, but the ball he hit was wide and also just out of the reach of an on-rushing Chris Hegardt. Dobbelaere was deployed on the left wing against Portland on Sunday, a position that allows his dribbling and passing vision shine, but subbed in on Wednesday as part of the double-pivot alongside Sota Kitahara, and later Chris Hegardt. Dobbelaere’s passing from that spot was good, completing 87% of his passes and generally helping to move the ball forward, but he struggled to impact T2’s movement through the midfield as his lone tackle was unsuccessful and he only managed to contribute three recoveries and one clearance in the way of defensive actions over the course of his 35 minutes.

AOC, for his part, had a solid week. On Wednesday he had an assist in his second straight game within two minutes of entering the game after subbing on at halftime. He was less directly influential on Sunday, but was efficient with his touches (four of his 17 total touches came inside Portland’s penalty area) and didn’t miss getting involved in the scoring for his third-straight game by much. He had two successful dribbles in the attacking third, one of which involved him humiliating a defender twice before taking a shot that went over the goal. Ocampo-Chavez has been showing a passing touch and vision, along with a willingness and ability to take on defenders, that should help round out his skill set and allow him to contribute to the team’s success even when he’s not getting on the score sheet. With the Sounders’ season lasting for at least another month after Tacoma’s season ends AOC and Dobbelaere could be making their cases for MLS minutes in October and November, and beyond.

Path to Pro

A focus, if not the main objective of Defiance is to provide young players the opportunity to test themselves and prepare them for the MLS level eventually. In that pursuit, there have been three players signed to Tacoma from the Sounders Academy this season, and none of them have been more involved or more influential than Alex Villanueva. Villanueva’s signing was announced ahead on Aug. 19, and the young fullback has appeared in every game since then. Villanueva has now started in five straight games for Tacoma, with his three latest coming ahead of Nick Hinds and Danny Reynolds at the left back spot. Against Portland he struggled with his distribution a bit in both games, but on Sunday he balanced that with an active day on defense putting in two interceptions, three clearances and five recoveries as he helped to lock down Tacoma’s left side. Villanueva was to blame for the PK that effectively iced the game on Wednesday, unfortunately.

One of the biggest contributors to the team in 2020 has yet to sign a professional contract. Sota Kitahara is a 17-year-old who made two appearances for Tacoma in 2019, both at right back. In 2020 he’s made 12 appearances and is third on the team in minutes played with 966. Kitahara has started in 11 of his 12 appearances, and nine of those have come as part of Defiance’s double-pivot in midfield. With the departure of Jesse Daley in the middle of the season, and no other player stepping up to take his place, Kitahara has made himself integral to coach Chris Little’s plans for the team. He’s done it by leading the team in tackles, tackles won, duels, and duels won, while also putting up a passing accuracy of 83% and averaging 41.6 passes per 90. Against T2 on Sunday his passing took a dip with a 74% completion rate - a notable drop from his 90% on Wednesday - but in both games he active games on the other side of the ball, showing that he’s up to the challenge of his role when it comes to both winning the ball and taking care of it.

Tacoma Defiance have two games left in their 2020 season: Wednesday against Sacramento Republic and Saturday against Reno 1868 FC. Both games will be at Cheney Stadium, and I’ll be back with another status update following the game on Saturday.

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