The Tacoma Defiance finished their most successful season since their inaugural one in 2015, narrowly missing out on the USL Championship playoffs on the last day of the regular season.
That appears to be the swan song for this current iteration of the team, however.
Although no official announcement has been made, team officials confirmed at the Annual Business Meeting that the Defiance will be exiting the USL Championship for the new MLS Division 3 league, set to launch in 2022. An announcement is expected next week, coinciding with the Commissioner’s State of the League Address, according to a source with knowledge of the announcement.
The new league was previously announced by MLS back in June, but details have been hard to come by since. Approximately 20 teams have committed to the new league, which has a working name of Lower Division League or “LDL” for short. A different name is expected to be revealed next week, when MLS announces more information about the venture.
The Sounders have previously given strong indications they were planning to be among the teams moving to the LDL for its inaugural campaign, but the comments at the Annual Business Meeting went further about the team’s plans.
“We have a lower division league that’s been announced by Major League Soccer,” Hanauer said. “That is a compelling league that we are going to work hard to make sure is very successful and continues the evolution of our player pipeline ultimately leading to, hopefully, stars that make it to the first team. Some of our young players are beginning to really pop.”
After a promising start to their existence in 2015 with a team comprised mostly of marginal MLS talent, the then-named S2 quickly found it tougher to compete as the focus of the squad shifted to developing younger players both from the academy and abroad. While the on-field results have not always been great, the decision has allowed several first-team talents to develop. Among the notable success stories are Nouhou, Jordy Delem, Josh Atencio and Danny Leyva.
“That’s a pillar of who we are and how we’ve developed if you look at the players that currently on the first team that came through Defiance,” Sounders GM and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey said.
However, those on-field results have created some challenges, especially for their business partners, the Tacoma Rainiers. The Defiance spent most of the last five years mired at the bottom of the USL table while fielding rosters primarily made up of academy players and Sounders homegrown players. Attendance at Starfire and Cheney Stadium started off reasonably well, but tailed off.
Still, the last two seasons saw a more competitive Defiance as the talent began to mature, and this season’s near-playoff miss could have given the Sounders confidence the team could compete at the USL level going forward.
“We had one of our best Defiance seasons in recent memory,” Lagerwey said. “We were in the playoff hunt until literally the last 30 minutes of the season. A number of young players really stepped forward on that platform and did a great job and we continue to see talent pushing through.”
Some of the things that apparently led to the Sounders rethinking their USL involvement is the added flexibility of sending teams to showcase tournaments. Additionally, while there was a significant benefit to having high-level prospects go up against players who are physically mature and have years of experience, there is some thinking that the USL level has limits in developing the technical aspects of academy and homegrown players.
Most of the players on independent USL sides could be considered “AAAA” talent, a baseball reference describing players who are arguably too good for the AAA level, but not quite talented enough to contribute in Major League Baseball. Given that calculus, MLS may have decided that the ability to more fully control the development of its players inside its own ecosystem is preferable to leaving teams and players scattered across the USL landscape with no overarching plan in place.
There’s also the increasing challenges of getting a soccer-specific stadium built in Tacoma. Hanauer said that the Sounders will continue to work on the Tacoma project, but conceded that the current economic realities have dealt the project a serious blow.
“That is a dynamic situation right now,” Hanauer said about the stadium. “Pre-Covid, we felt we had a pretty clear pathway. Post-Covid, priorities have shifted [and] the world has changed a little bit. We now have this LDL league coming into existence. We absolutely, collaboratively with then Reign, would love to see more stadium options in our region.”
Even with no immediate prospects of an anchor stadium, the Defiance move to the new Division 3 league doesn’t seem to be motivated directly by money. Few expenses — if any — will go down and there are going to be considerable startup costs for both the Sounders and MLS in launching this new venture, including salaries, infrastructure, travel and showcase events, which will likely include bringing in teams from around the world to compete against MLS talent.
“[Building a stadium] is absolutely a continued collective objective, [but] being totally frank, the dynamic has changed,” Hanauer said. “We’re going to continue work on it, we will continue speaking with people in Tacoma. There’s noise of a stadium being built in Spokane, there is Memorial Stadium which will probably get funded [through a Seattle schools levy] and get rebuilt in some way.”
Leaving USL for its own league will inevitably invite comparisons to the old MLS “Reserve League,” a venture which launched in several iterations between 2005 and 2013, but collapsed due to limited interest from seemingly all parties — teams, players and fans. While it was designed to get players competitive minutes, most games ended up being played on training fields by players who didn’t see time in MLS matches the day before.
A fully established third-division league which requires compliance with Professional League Standards set by US Soccer should ensure a basic level of professionalism. It’s an open question as to whether teams can generate significant local interest, particularly in markets which will share both MLS and “LDL” sides. Additionally, there was a benefit to Defiance players being tested on the road against teams like New Mexico United, who draw upwards of 8,000 fans per game, so how will operating at a lower level in front of limited crowds with uncertain stakes impact the development of the Sounders’ prospects?
“There’s a bunch of stuff in the pipeline that will come out after the season. It’s not going to be that different,” Lagerwey said. “We anticipate that we’re going to play as the Tacoma Defiance. We hope to have games at Cheney Stadium. It could be we are in other venues in addition to that.”
A quasi-nomadic existence wouldn’t appear on its face to be an appealing one either for Defiance players or fans hoping to watch the young players develop, though the Sounders at this point are satisfied that the stadium situation will sort itself out, even if there is some short term uncertainty. The Sounders are taking a more holistic view, particularly as they hope finalize a new training ground and other improvements, with an eye towards Seattle hosting 2026 World Cup matches.
And Lagerwey insists that the Sounders will continue put their weight behind the team as they embark on what is likely to be an uncertain future in a new league.
“We’re going to continue emphasizing that team even though they’re playing in a league couple of different letters on the front,” Lagerwey said. “It’s going to be mostly similar.”