Tacoma Defiance are off to the team’s best start since 2015, going 2-0-1 after starting the season with a draw on the road against LA Galaxy II and following that up with two home wins against San Diego Loyal SC and Orange County SC. The team has undergone a number of changes since the end of the 2020 season, saying goodbye to head coach Chris Little as well as a number of players who had been mainstays like Sam Rogers, Nick Hinds and Antonee Burke.
Wade Webber has stepped up from his assistant coach role to take control, and the team has added a mix of Sounders Academy signings and players with experience from USL and abroad. Three weeks in, and with two weeks until Tacoma next take the field, let’s look at what’s driving these performances.
Wade “El Profe” Webber
We’ve spent a little bit of time on this website discussing Webber’s background as an educator, both as a coach and a high school history teacher. He’s spoken about his love of teaching, of helping to shape young people and players, to guide them on their soccer journey. There’s good reason that his Tacoma Defiance players affectionately call him “Profe.” He’s their teacher, and through three games they’re learning their lessons well.
In the past, Tacoma’s young teams have had a naivety that has hurt them when games got tough, when the season stretched on and things didn’t go their way. Whether it was an issue with what they were being coached to do or a struggle to implement a game plan on the field, Defiance seemed to lack the awareness of when to lock things down and grind out a game. Sure, they earned some difficult results overcoming significant deficits or weathering a storm to hold onto a win, but those outcomes seemed more like outliers than the norm.
Early as it is, Webber’s side has shown a pragmatism that previous iterations have lacked. Part of that is surely the coach’s doing, but he’s also working with a group of players who are simply more experienced. Still, while the players have to pass the tests, Webber is responsible for making sure that his curriculum puts them in the best position to succeed. So far he’s done a great job, and we should all be excited for what he and his squad have in store.
Nine players who had never played a USL game for Defiance have already made appearances so far in 2021. Eight of those players are signed directly to Tacoma, with Stefan Cleveland being the ninth. The new signings have played a big part of the team’s success so far. Issa Rayyan, who joined from Philadelphia Union II, has been super impressive on the right side of the back line and has already notched an assist through slick passing with Azriel Gonzalez and Carlos Anguiano. Tom Brewitt joined the team after some delays in acquiring his visa, and has since made his case for consideration as a first-choice CB with Taylor Mueller unavailable. Academy signings Juan Alvarez and Obed Vargas have both had solid showings in the attack, while Cody Baker made his first professional start as the right-sided CB in a three-back formation (3-4-3) in the win over OCSC and looked more than capable as he and his teammates worked to contain an experienced attack.
During the two wins, the goalkeeper hasn’t been a new face, since Christian Herrera joined Tacoma on loan for a large chunk of the 2020 season. During his time in Tacoma last year the 6’6” ‘keeper struggled, seemingly lacking the confidence to control his area on crosses and playing much smaller than his sizable frame. In 2021, he may as well be a completely new player. He’s leaping over defenders and teammates alike to claim crosses, getting big to block shots, and showing impressive reflexes to get low to keep the opponent out of the goal. Tacoma has struggled without consistent, quality goalkeeping. If Herrera can maintain his current level of performance, it should go a long way to helping Defiance make a push for the playoffs.
Everybody’s in on the fun
Through three games, Tacoma has scored five goals. Those goals have come from five different goal-scorers, and three different players have gotten an assist. Tacoma’s season started with three games in quick succession, so Webber has implemented significant rotation to keep everyone fresh, but there’s more to the distribution of attacking output than that. Spreading the responsibility for setting up and scoring goals is a part of the plan. Tacoma’s been utilizing a three-forward look — whether that involves a false 9 or a more traditional striker in the center has been depended on who’s on the field — which involves plenty of interchange with both the attacking midfielders and the fullbacks who both get forward in the attack. Add in late runs from Carlos Anguiano and there’s plenty of people willing and able to pick out a pass or shot at any moment.
The production has come from everyone that you’d hope to see on the score sheet so far. Alec Diaz and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, who have both had impressive seasons in front of goal in the past, have both already opened their accounts, and look more than capable of adding to their tallies as the season progresses. Ray Serrano and Danny Robles combined on a goal that showed a level of athleticism from Serrano that was missing earlier in his career as he outran the entire San Diego defense. The fullbacks Rayyan and Alex Villanueva both have assists to their names, earning them in distinctly different ways that showcase the two players’ individual qualities. That’s all to say that this team is getting goals from a bunch of players in a bunch of ways, and none of it seems like a fluke. With the defense showing signs of solidity through three games, the attack looks to have the kind of quality to carry the team to previously unknown heights.
What have you thought of Tacoma’s young season so far? Who’s stood out to you?