The Sounders’ developmental system has been been going through a metamorphosis of sorts since the arrival of Garth Lagerwey in 2015. Nowhere is the change more obvious from the outside than at the newly rechristened Tacoma Defiance. In S2’s first year they were a team of just graduated college players, a few internationals and MLS rejects, with just the occasional appearance from current or former Academy players. At the end of last year and this offseason S2 finally emerged from their cocoon as a fully formed, Academy heavy Tacoma Defiance. With this change comes a plethora of storylines — some new, a few old — to watch this season in the also rebranded USL Championship.
How will a young, mostly Academy team fare in a league of grown men?
Aside from their inaugural season, S2 has struggled mightily to gain a competitive foothold. As the team has gotten younger, smaller and more local over the years, its struggles seem to have intensified, at least from a granulated view. If you look more closely though, their struggles seem to have come from somewhere else. There has been no correlation between the makeup of a particular lineup and the result in that game. Lineups of mostly younger Tacoma Defiance and Academy players have just about the same points per game as lineups with more First Team players. The problem, it seems, has been one of cohesion — lineups change almost every game — not talent. So while physicality will likely still be a struggle for this young team, there is no reason to think they are doomed to sit at the bottom of the league.
Which of the first wave of Academy signings will take the next step?
Three Academy players — Shandon Hopeau, Sam Rogers and Azriel Gonzalez — have been playing for Tacoma longer than the others. This will be their third season on professional contracts within the Sounders organization. Most players are only with the Sounders’ USL affiliate for a year, a few have been around for two, but no one else has actually started a third season with them. This is likely a big year for the trio.
Hopeau improved the most of the three last year, showing an increased ability to play quick passes in tight spaces and cut inside to take players on. That said, he doesn’t look like a player that will be the metronome of the midfield or play deadly final passes from the middle of the field. What he does look capable of being is a real scoring threat. Last season the results weren’t quite there, though, so while he looked dangerous, it didn’t lead to many goals. If he can change that this season and score 5-7 times he may have a future playing in MLS.
Gonzalez, 17, is younger than the other two so he likely has more time left with Tacoma. Still, it will be important for him to show improvement this year because in his first two seasons he has not been able to really get involved or impact many Tacoma games. He did show something in the last few games of last season though, scoring a few goals and looking more comfortable at the USL level. If that Gonzalez shows up this season it could be an exciting year for the youngster.
Rogers had the best inaugural season of the bunch and it looked like his progression to the First Team would be sooner than later. Unfortunately last season he struggled with injuries and illness all year. He again starts this season carrying an injury that kept him from participating in the First Team’s preason, so the big question with Rogers is whether or not he can stay healthy enough to get the game time he needs to improve.
How good can Denso Ulysse be?
Last season S2’s best player was Ulysse and the two players who were closest to him, David Estrada and Rodrigue Ele, are both gone. If Ulysse can continue to improve at the rate he did last season his future in MLS looks certain. One wrinkle will be the Sounders’ desire to develop Henry Wingo as a right back and the likelihood that they’ll want to keep Saad Abdul-Salaam sharp. How the Sounders balance playing time between all three will likely inform how they view the position long term.
Can Nick Hinds play left back?
2018 was a bit of a lost season for Hinds because the Sounders thought his future was brightest as an attacking winger. That didn’t pan out and it looks like he will be playing left back this year. The few times he played at left back last year he looked lost and struggled with both positional and one-on-one defending. Hinds has the tools to be a good left back so the question is how quickly he can learn to defend and how quickly he can learn how and when to get involved in the attack. Unlike Ulysse, he’s unlikely to face much competition for minutes from the First Team.
Who will play forward?
In the offseason Tacoma lost David Estrada and Felix Chenkam, and the First Team moved on from Lamar Neagle. Those three players provided 89% of Tacoma’s goals from the forward position and 45 percent of their total goal-scoring output last season. That is a lot of goal scoring to lose. It is perhaps an indication of how highly the organization thinks of the two remaining under-contract forwards, Alec Diaz and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez. Both were signed at the end of last year but impressed in their limited appearances. Tacoma will probably sign a few more forwards as Diaz and Ocampo-Chavez will spend time with the Academy but for now a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old will be responsible for holding down Tacoma’s frontline.
Is Danny Leyva as good as he has looked?
A fair number of Academy and Tacoma players have looked good with the First Team during preseason but none have looked as good or as confident as Danny Leyva did this preseason. We probably won’t see him play with the First Team in a game for awhile, but he should get plenty of time with Tacoma to show just how good he might be. The 15-year-old has been converted from a No. 10 to more of a defensive midfielder with the hope that he can develop into a player in the mold of a Sergio Busquets (no pressure).
Those are just a few of the many things to watch for from the Tacoma Defiance in 2019. Cheney Stadium is where you can see the future of the Sounders happening right now.