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Defiance will be crucial proving ground

Sounders continue to have high hopes for their USL team.

Tacoma Defiance, Reed Baker-Whiting Charis Wilson / Tacoma Defiance

This is set up to be a pivotal year in the Seattle Sounders’ youth movement. Josh Atencio has had a star turn to start the Sounders season — although a muscle injury has put a temporary pause on his break-out — and Ethan Dobbelaere already has more appearances than he did in 2020 while Danny Leyva showed well in his 11-minute cameo against the LA Galaxy.

The Sounders’ youth movement is much more than a handful of players in the First Team, though. The development pipeline runs through Tacoma Defiance, where new head coach Wade Webber is uniquely suited to the task of helping prepare young players for the next steps in their careers.

“I think he’s had about as good a learning development path with every skill set imaginable to prepare himself for that role, and I’m really excited about his leadership in that position,” explained Garth Lagerwey in his most recent appearance on KJR’s Sounders Weekly show. Webber’s background includes playing in MLS, working as an high school teacher, as well as spending significant time as a youth coach. “I think he knows what it takes to be a pro, having played in the pros. I think he understands what it takes to defend at the top level — Wade himself was a centerback. I think he’s going to be perfect to prepare those kids for what comes next, and to get them to bridge this gap between development and First Team, and to continue to push prospects up that can hopefully prosper with the First Team, and in the First Team environment.”

The Defiance season starts on Sunday when the team heads down to face LA Galaxy II. Although the team has struggled to make its way out of the USL Championship basement in recent years, Lagerwey thinks that the team is better positioned to succeed in 2021.

“I think it’s a really solid Defiance group. I think it’s a group that can hopefully get to the point where they can compete for the playoffs. Hopefully covid will allow for that, to play a more normal season than last year.”

In 2020 the covid pandemic caused all kinds of upheaval, even once the season resumed. Covid protocols prevented player movement between the First Team and Defiance — one of the major selling points for the USL affiliate structure — with only Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez and Ethan Dobbelaere joining Tacoma on season-long loans from the Sounders. It’s not entirely clear what those protocols will look like this season, but as full vaccination becomes more common there should be more flexibility and transactions around the league suggest that may have already happened.

Ultimately, the charter for Defiance is to develop players for the First Team. There have been several who have made the journey before, to varying degrees of success, and there are more on the way.

“The good news is there are at least half-a-dozen guys that are gonna compete for spots, and compete to put their best foot forward, and to potentially earn first-team contracts at some point,” explained Lagerwey.

There’s no shortage of players looking to make the jump, whether that’s Ray Serrano who had something of a breakout season in 2020 after taking some time to claim his spot with Defiance, or a youngster like Reed Baker-Whiting who’s had Brian Schmetzer sing his praises throughout the First Team’s preseason. They’ll get to make their case with Tacoma.

As some players earn their way into the First Team, other players will have to fill in behind them. As the Sounders General Manager described, “we’re not done signing players with Tacoma yet, so we may still have some additions from the Academy before the season.” Sounders Academy player Cody Baker was in the locker room for the coach’s talk following the Sounders’ win over LA Galaxy on Sunday, on top of spending significant time in preseason with the team along with Juan Alvarez and others. One of the more prominent names of late, though, is ‘05 midfielder Obed Vargas.

“I think he’s a really promising young player. He’s a kid who could earn a Defiance contract this year, but regardless is one of the better prospects coming through from the Academy.”

Vargas is from Anchorage, Alaska, and is able to play with the Academy through the organization’s homestay program. “He’s definitely a young kid, definitely at the start of his career, but he’s got a lot of attacking capabilities in particular. The ability to see a pass, technical ability that maybe sets him apart, that shows that he’s really got some ability.”

Lagerwey cautioned that that doesn’t necessarily mean Vargas is going to be the next Nico Lodeiro, but he’s capable of playing in central midfield and is certainly a player to keep an eye on. If or when he makes the jump to Tacoma, he’ll be in good hands as Webber helps to shape #TheFuture.

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