Tacoma Defiance’s inaugural match was defined by newness. New name, new kits, new players, new coach and new tactics. In Friday’s 1-0 victory over Rio Grande Valley FC the most interesting of these changes was Head Coach Chris Little and his tactics. The Defiance opened up this season playing the same formation, but in a much different way than they did under John Hutchinson at the close of the teams last season as S2. Little’s system is defined by two things; playing out of the back (almost) no matter what and pressing hard and fast up top, especially after turnovers.
At the match’s start the Defiance executed the later of those two principles well, swarming RGV in masse from the opening whistle. They turned over RGV a couple times in areas that allowed Tacoma to quickly start their attack. They created a few good chances but were unable to finish them. Once RGV were able to start breaking the press trouble started for the Defiance.
They were able to deal fairly well with the original attack but once Tacoma took possession of the ball deep in their own half it became seemingly impossible to get it back out. RGV employed a moderate press but the Defiance were their own worst enemy. Part of their struggle was due to deficient passing from Trey Muse, Modou Ndow and Jonathan Campbell but they were also unable to properly implement Little’s tactics. He wants to fullbacks high up the field, the centerbacks split and one of the center mids dropped in between them. The problem was that the centerbacks, Ndow and Campbell, stayed too central and the fullbacks, Saad Abdul-Salaam and Matt Nance, pressed too high which made it too easy for RGV to clog those passing lanes. The central mid, Danny Leyva, was often slow coming back, but even when he was able to get the ball and push it upfield Alex Roldan struggled to transition the team into attack. This left the Defiance with a bunch of dead ends and RGV were able to keep the ball pinned in the Defiance half. This made all of Tacoma’s turnovers dangerous and RGV were able to create chance after chance. With better finishing RGV could have easily been up 2 or 3 goals at half.
Luckily Tacoma were able to make some adjustments at half, mainly switching Roldan and Leyva and letting the fullbacks drift back more often to provide passing lanes for the centerbacks. This paid dividends almost immediately with a Defiance goal in the 49’. Tacoma were able to transition out of defense and get the ball to Leyva in his higher position. With his excellent vision and passing Leyva lifted a ball over the RGV defense into the box where it found a Defiance head past the back post. The ball was headed back into the center of the box where Shandon Hopeau sent the ball towards goal with his head. The ball hit the post but Alec Diaz was the first to the rebound and placed the ball in the back of the net to make it 1-0.
The goal upped Tacoma’s energy for the next ten minutes but they were unable to add another goal despite creating chances. Soon RGV upped their pressure and began to take control of the match again. As RGV pushed for the equalizer the Defiance made their own task more difficult by pressing recklessly deep in their own half. This left RGV with tons of space and they again started to create chance after chance. Only a combination of last ditch defending from Tacoma and awful finishing from RGV kept Tacoma ahead to the final whistle.
Ultimately it was a match that the Tacoma Defiance shouldn’t have won but it was exciting to see them execute a high-pressing possession style of soccer and succeed at it for stretches. The first ten matches of the season might be a bit rough as the Academy players adjust to playing this style at the USL level and the new players learn how to play it. If they stick with it though, they have the players with the skills to become a formidable team later in the season. The one thing they lacked last year was an identity but it looks like this team, with this coach, might soon have one.