With the start of the 2020 USL Championship season upon us, it’s time to look at what the season has in store for the Tacoma Defiance. Life has been rough for the USL Championship part of the Seattle Sounders development system, as the team has largely served as a place to provide players from the Sounders Academy experience at the professional level. But strong ends to their last two seasons have shown glimpses of what this team is capable of. With some changes to the roster, including a couple of experienced USL veterans joining the team, there’s plenty of optimism that Tacoma can be more consistent throughout the campaign.
How did they finish in 2019?
The 2019 season saw the Defiance finish second from the bottom in the Western Conference in 17th with a measly 31 points from 34 games played and a -40 goal difference. While the season was disappointing from a results perspective as a whole, the Defiance were decidedly better in the second half of the season when they had 6 wins, 4 draws, and 7 losses. Improved results came as a result of improved team chemistry and strong performances from players like Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez who contributed 6 goals and 2 assists in 11 appearances over the final 17 matches of the season. Tacoma ended the season with a 5-game unbeaten run that saw them win three of their five games and outscore their opponents 11-4.
What’s the biggest change from last year?
Taylor Mueller is a native of the Puget Sound area who understands what it means to be part of this team — he wears No. 74 for good reason — and joins Tacoma with more than 18,000 minutes of professional experience, all of it earned playing for USL teams. At 31, Mueller is the oldest player ever signed to a Defiance contract, and he’ll be expected to provide stability at centerback while also providing leadership and experience to the young players around him. Guys like goalkeeper Trey Muse and Mueller’s centerback partner Sam Rogers are likely to benefit the most from the veteran’s addition. Mueller is certainly the biggest change, but he’s only part of a transition toward building the team with more experience through the spine to better support the young players on the field.
What’s the one storyline you’ll be following?
Who’s going to make the jump in 2020? Not necessarily from Defiance to the Sounders first team, but in terms of consistent, elite USL performances. Shandon Hopeau was the most consistent offensive contributor for Tacoma in 2019, but it didn’t always result in goals until the second half of the season when he put up 4 goals and 2 assists. Can he produce all season like he did in the second half? Can Ocampo-Chavez do the same? Is this the year Azriel Gonzalez stays healthy and shows that he can regularly take over a game? Maybe it won’t be an attacker that makes the jump, and Josh Atencio will be a dominant force in the defensive half of the field. Someone’s almost certain to make that jump, but who it will be is likely to be a surprise.
This off-season saw Tacoma part ways with seven players. Former Sounders draft pick Aleks Berkolds will be back for opening night with Reno 1868 FC, while fellow draft pick Matt Nance has opted to retire from professional soccer. Ever Rubio has also stayed in the USL Championship, having joined Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. Denso Ulysse has moved up to MLS, joining Inter Miami CF, while Modou Ndow and Ben Numbi have both returned to MFK Vyskov, and Herbert Robinson Garcia is currently without a club.
Mueller joined the team from the Charleston Battery, and Collin Fernandez, a Chicago Fire HGP, joined from Saint Louis FC at the start of preseason. Sounders draft pick Danny Reynolds signed on with Tacoma, as did Jesus “Chino” Perez, a New York City FC draft pick who started the Defiance preseason on trial after leaving NYCFC’s preseason camp.
Who’s the coach?
Chris Little continues to lead his Defiant band, serving as both coach and mentor. Little will continue the job he started in 2019 after spending two years coaching with the Sounders Academy, where he’ll try to balance player development with getting results on the field.
Projected Ideal XI?
What’s the biggest concern for this season?
As ever, how much rotation will there be? Can Tacoma have a set or consistent starting XI and 18? Will players moving between Tacoma and the first team, or Tacoma and the academy prevent the team from gelling? Fortunately there’s not likely to be as much disruption to the core due to a youth World Cup in 2020.
Who’s the player fans will learn to love?
Rogers has been around for a while, so it’s easy for fans to overlook him. The people who have been long-time Rogers supporters seem likely to be vindicated as the Seattle native enters the season healthy and ready to compete. While the #XaviHive enjoys Xavier Arreaga with the Sounders first team, the fanbase at large seems primed to appreciate Rogers, whose game is remarkable in its similarity to Arreaga’s. Similarly capable with the ball at his feet, when Rogers is feeling himself he has a penchant for jumping passing routes like an American football cornerback, and is more than willing and able to unlock a defense and start an attack both on the dribble or with a precision throughball.