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Defiance vs. Loyal, recap: a happy homecoming

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Tacoma welcomed San Diego to help open Cheney Stadium with a 3-1 win.

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Sounders FC Digital / Tacoma Defiance

Wade Webber and his Tacoma Defiance played with fans in the seats at Cheney Stadium for the first time in over a year when San Diego Loyal came to town Thursday evening. A 3-1 win for the Baymen was a great result and a welcome treat for the 1,222 in attendance, as well as those who tuned in on ESPN+, and could prove to be an early indication of the changes happening in Tacoma under the guidance of the man whose players call “Profe.”

It wasn’t exactly Joga Bonito on display, but one of the lessons that Webber is trying to teach his side is that there’s a certain kind of beauty in three points won through commitment and resiliency. Tacoma were solidly out-possessed as San Diego finished the game with 58.7% of possession according to USL, completed just under 67% of their passes, and only won about 46% of their duels. They had the best of the only stat that really matters, winning 3-1, but that wasn’t their only success. For all of the possession San Diego managed, Tacoma forced them into pumping crosses in throughout the game to the tune of 35 total crosses, and also for the most part dealt well with the pressure as they had 23 clearances and 75* recoveries (*I had to hand count, so could be wrong).

This year’s Tacoma Defiance team, for all of the youth on display — six teenagers started, four more subbed on — is more experienced than previous iterations and is playing a little more pragmatically under Webber as they look to couple the player development aspects of the club with more success on the field and in the standings.

San Diego clearly had the better chances throughout a pretty dull first half, only being denied a lead by the crossbar and a solid diving stop by Defiance goalkeeper Christian Herrera. Their unlucky finishing was punished just before halftime when Tacoma ventured into their attacking third as Azriel Gonzalez and Issa Rayyan played a beautiful passing sequence into the penalty area before Rayyan found Carlos Anguiano at the top of the box. The former Timbers Academy and T2 player let loose a left-footed shot that beat Trey Muse courtesy of a deflection, and Tacoma were out in front with a 1-0 lead. Loyal evened the score early in the second half when Herrera did well to go full stretch to deny a good shot from distance, but his parry fell to an unmarked San Diego attacker who finished confidently as Alex Villanueva and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez scrambled to intervene.

Tacoma’s subs ultimately changed the game. Alec Diaz, who came on for Azriel Gonzalez just after San Diego’s goal, got the winning goal in the 73rd minute. Randy Mendoza, another sub, played a ball to the feet of Obed Vargas who received the ball with his back to goal before turning and sidestepping an onrushing defender to give himself space to find a pass that would play Alex Villanueva into space down the left wing. Villanueva hit a first-time cross that was perfectly placed to avoid two defenders while not giving Muse a chance to come out and collect it, and Diaz did the rest of the work to finish at the back post. Ray Serrano and Danny Robles put the game to bed in the third minute of stoppage time. Serrano got onto the ball around the midfield stripe and carried it into the penalty area, outrunning the entire San Diego defense. Robles made a perfect parallel run, expertly timing his burst of speed to get on the end of Serrano’s square ball from the right side of the box and tapping it home beyond Muse to make it 3-1.

There were things to nitpick about the performance in this one, as the passing clearly wasn’t great and team captain Azriel Gonzalez struggled to get involved with only five completed passes on 12 attempts. The whole of this performance was encouraging, though. The recently signed Obed Vargas looked like an experienced pro playing as the 10 just underneath Marlon Vargas. The center back pair of Tom Brewitt and Eric Kinzner was solid, coupling decent passing with good positioning and impressive reading of the game as they racked up recoveries in their half of the field. The fullbacks were impressive, each getting assists as their differing styles worked well on opposite sides of the field, and Christian Herrera seemed significantly improved from his time with the team in 2020 when he struggled to make effective use of his 6’6” frame.

Ultimately, a win is a win. Tacoma has 4 points from two games, and while the goalscoring is exciting the most impressive thing has been their ability to battle back to earn both results.

Defiance are back in action on Sunday when they host Orange County SC at noon. Orange County have yet to play a game this season and will be looking to start strong while Tacoma aim to continue their climb up the Pacific Division standings. That game can be streamed on ESPN+, and tickets are still available.