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Tacoma Defiance: 2021 season preview

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Will the Baymen rise up in Defiance of expectations in 2021?

Mount Rainier Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

On the rise above the near cliff, in the shadow of Tahoma, caressed by the winds of Commencement Bay sits Cheney Stadium. Among the tall trees, along the freeway, within the heart of Central Tacoma this final proving ground of the Seattle Sounders organization provides a home, and hopefully a fortress.

In the pandemic season of 2020, Tacoma Defiance finished 12th in the Western Conference of the USL Championship, but a distant 3rd in Group A. Now, a 253 aficionado takes over for a team that simultaneously got younger, and more experienced. Tacoma’s USL Championship team now averages just over 3 years of professional experience per player, and not just because of Taylor Mueller.

The Next Normal of 2021 promises some loan-downs of the stellar young talent that the Sounders have, and a final push towards MLS contracts by players who helped the Sounders Academy win that historic GA Cup in 2019.

Sunday night, Defiance open their season on the road to LA Galaxy II. On May 13, they begin the home calendar with a match against struggling San Diego Loyal. As happens every spring, there is hope.

Head Coach Wade Webber

Wade Webber, Tacoma Defiance head coach Charis Wilson courtesy of Seattle Sounders FC and Tacoma Defiance

South Sound born, raised, and dedicated, Wade Webber is the fourth-ever head coach of S2/Defiance. His path to take over the suited role on the sidelines includes winning trophies with the USL Sounders, playing for Dallas and Miami in MLS, coaching high school and the Academy, and three years as an assistant at Cheney Stadium — but that’s just the soccer side.

Webber holds a double masters and taught IB courses before rejoining soccer’s professional ranks. When Wade is passionate about a thing, he dives into it fully. You can see this in how he approaches his love of 1980s rock, Tolkien, D&D, the Sounders, and Tacoma.

His appreciation for hard work within a development framework may be best summed up in a master-and-apprentice relationship. Webber wants to build others into future masters, taking them through the grind and perseverance from apprentice, to journeyman, to craftsman, to master. Each of his charges will find their own place on that path based on their efforts and qualities.

Formation

While the Sounders play in a 3-4-1-2 as their base formation for 2021, their second team is going to play in a 4-2-1-3 most often. Some of this is due to the types of players on the squad and some of this is because Seattle’s shift is mostly due to the absence of Jordan Morris. When he returns the club is likely to need wingers again, and that’s where Defiance will come in — also it is unlikely that a Tacoma-developed player pops into a role with the First Team where Garth’s spent DP or TAM money. There’s more opportunity out wide than anywhere else.

But Webber’s side can and will vary from that baseline. Expect them to test things out and put players in different roles. Pay less attention to numerical short-hands and more attention to how the young talent is behaving on the pitch. You may even see three or more centerbacks on the pitch at once.

Expectations

Webber enjoys winning. He enjoys that chase, the demands of a season. He’s familiar with it going back to his own high school days, to his USL Sounders days, to his days coaching high school, to his days coaching the Sounders Academy, to his days as a broadcast analyst for Seattle. He’s seen a lot of winning.

Wade is also pragmatic. There is care and craft required to be a winner. The study and demands to perform beyond expectations are a grind. Development and winning don’t have to be separate channels. One should help the other, as the effort required to find victory builds bodies and minds more capable of winning at the next level.

Is this a playoff team? Only if the couple dozen players treat every single day as if they are a playoff team — every day, whether it’s an ‘off’ day, a practice day, or a match day.

Roster

Normally when we talk about Defiance players, the focus is on who can help the Sounders. But this is a Defiance preview, focusing on Tacoma and the Pacific Division of the USL Championship. If the Baymen are going to make a run at the playoffs, who helps them get there to the second season is vital. The 19 pro players are sorted with that in mind.

Playing style is an attempt to use a player familiar to Sounders fans to show the skill set of the Defiance talent. It is not an indication of their expected level of performance or quality.

Forwards/Wingers

Alec Diaz in Commencement Gray
Courtesy of Seattle Sounders FC and Tacoma Defiance

Alec Diaz — In 2020 there was no better teen attacking force in the league. Diaz turned into an expert poacher who needs few touches to change games. If he takes a second leap forward he could pop into USL Best XI lists. Playing style: Chris Wondolowski at forward

Samuel Adeniran — Adeniran joined Tacoma in this past offseason. He’s been passed around several Euro squads in Germany, Spain, and Portugal to this point. Samuel is potent, fast, persistent, and capable of playing as an inverted right wing or a center forward. Playing style: Mike Fucito

Ray Serrano — Another rapidly improving talent, Serrano went from rare play with Defiance, to a key cog in the attack. Ray can play on either wing as effective combo creator/scorer. If he turns into a 6 and 6-man Tacoma’s attack will have strength. Playing style: Victor Rodriguez

Azriel Gonzalez — It’s easy to forget that winger/forward Gonzalez is only 19. He’s been a pro since 2017. Now with earning a USSF C-license and in his fifth season, it is time for Azzy to combine the brilliance of late 2019 with veteran leadership. Gonzalez is best with the ball at his feet running at defenders from space. Playing style: Lamar Neagle

Marlon Vargas — Consistently in the conversation for playing time, Vargas is a winger who helps control possession and can pick out a final pass. Marlon can also slot in as a center forward or even a No. 10 at times, but similar to Gonzalez, is best in space running at a line. His tactical value may be most obvious in that in both ‘19 and ‘20 he was in the top 10 appearances on the team. Playing style: Fredy Montero, the withdrawn forward

Juan Alvarez — An attacking talent who can play wide or in the middle, up top or back a line, in the Academy Alvarez joined Defiance after training with the First Team in 2021. Juan is a technical player who will need to earn time over the older, more experienced teens in front of him. Playing style: TBD

Midfielders

Danny Robles — A No. 10 who is capable of defending from the front, Robles is at his best in crowds finding narrow alleys for short passes. When the action is rapid, Danny’s instincts take over and amazing things happen. Uniquely suited to hold-up play, his upper body strength rivals most centerbacks — he’s about 5-foot-5 Playing style:

Carlos Anguiano — As T2 went on hiatus, or whatever, most of their players were forced to hunt for new jobs. Unquestionably the second best player on the 2020 T2 roster, Anguiano now joins Tacoma. Carlos is a creative 8, capable of fitting in as a 6 or 10 as well (something common in the Sounders org). Entering his fifth pro season at 21 he can also offer the youth some leadership. Playing style: João Paulo

Sota Kitahara — There’s no longer a question about Kitahara’s best position. He’s a central mid happy to knock players on their butts. Unlike most young players, Sota is not afraid to assert his presence on the pitch. A strong short passer he can find the necessary outlets to begin the transition into attack. Playing style: Cristian Roldan, non-attacking versions

Reed Baker-Whiting — With one of the highest ceilings of the midfield group, RBW needs a couple years of refinement to meet that target. Baker-Whiting spent nearly the entire preseason as an understudy with Schmetzer’s side. If he combines his significant growth spurt and that MLS quality coaching he could have a stellar 2021. Playing style: Brad Evans, the CM

Obed Vargas — The proverbial gym rat translates his work onto the field. Following in the long line of “what type of mid is he” Vargas works hard no matter his role. At just 15, Obed is currently the youngest professional in the Sounders organization, and has a full future in front of him. Playing style: TBD

Centerbacks

Abdoulaye Cissoko in Commencement Gray
Courtesy of Seattle Sounders FC and Tacoma Defiance

Abdoulaye Cissoko — Who doesn’t love a CB who is also the No. 1 option as a penalty taker? AB’s big glowing smile hide an assertiveness that he learned in soccer hotbed Les Ulis. Cissoko is highly mobile, looks to insert himself in attacks, and is willing to enter tackles. He may just earn himself another advancement on the development ladder. Playing style: Román Torres

Taylor Mueller — A giant in the USL Championship, Mueller is a Washington-born defender who knows how to win. A consummate professional Taylor owns space. His shoulders and hips are mobile walls that slam into the opposition. He’s a commander, a leader. Playing style: Jeff Parke

Eric Kinzner — The first Tacoma resident signed to a pro deal by Defiance, Kinzner is a hulking left footer. Eric’s willing to get dirty. Grit and grind aren’t just part of his soul they’re his game. Look for him to get more time this season, his second as a pro, especially as the team throws three backs out there once in a while. Playing style: TBD

Tom Brewitt — Brewitt is still waiting through visa clearances, but could join the club at any moment. Previously splitting time between d-mid and centerback, Brewitt’s going to help the backline with Defiance. Once a prospect with Liverpool, Tom has the opportunity to reboot his career in Tacoma. Playing style: TBD

Wingbacks/Fullbacks

Issa Rayyan — The former Bethlehem Steel winger is going to be an outside back within the Seattle org. He’s a capable creator who can score a goal or two as well. With Steel/Union II going on hiatus, Defiance were able to pick up the former USYNT prospect and continue his conversion to acre-covering right back. Playing style: Brad Smith, the left back version, but on the right

Alex Villanueva — A left-footed flair player who is capable of playing on either wing, Villanueva can be a difference maker as a left back. Like most conversions from attacker to backline his positional awareness needs refining. Excellent when carrying ball past two lines of traffic. Should dribble into effective spaces rather than cross. Playing style: Joevin Jones, the left back

Randy Mendoza — Another left-footed player, Mendoza plays both sides of the backline. Randy’s previous pro experience is with Orlando City B and Stumptown AC (which isn’t in Portland and I’ll never figure that out) of NISA. His primary role on the squad will be to add some sturdy defense and experience to a team that can be too young at times. Playing style: Zach Scott, the fullback

Goalkeeper

Christian Herrera — Last year Herrera split time between Defiance and Oakland Roots. With Oakland in the NISA, he helped them to the finals, only to lose to Detroit. Christian is from the “oh my lord, he’s a giant” side of goal keeping. At his best he’s a capable USL keeper who can control opposing sides. After drifting around the second division in both the US and Mexico, 2021 is the time for the 24 to show what he’s learned. Playing style: I don’t know, keepers are weird.

What’s up with loan downs?

On Sounders Weekly President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey mentioned that loan downs will be a thing again. While they are more widely available in 2021 than 2020 (when they had to be for full season) those loan downs will likely be a for a period of several matches rather than one-off loans.

Who’s got next?

Next to Tacoma from Academy

Academy candidates include Cody Baker, Krubelle Tesfaye, Josh Hardin, and Oscar Rincon. All have trained with Defiance. Baker even got a long look from the First Team. Cody is a centerback. Krubelle is a cb who used to play forward. Hardin got spot minutes last year in a utility role. Oscar is an attacking talent.

Unsigned draftees are Joe Hafferty and TJ Bush, who both would almost certainly join the org as Defiance players if they sign. Hafferty is a left-footed LCB/LB who might switch to right wingback as a pro. Bush would be the sixth goalkeeper under Sounders control.

Next to Sounders

The hottest prospects are Cissoko, Baker-Whiting, Kitahara, and Diaz, in that order. Diaz may fill the biggest need as Schmetzer needs a fourth forward, but he could use a bit more polish. Cissoko is the one who could be inserted into a matchday 20 right now and fill a role with spot minutes as CB, RCB, or RB. Baker-Whiting and Kitahara would be a continuation of the youth movement in the deepest group on the First Team — center mid.

Rest of the Pacific Division of the USL Championship Western Conference

Yeah, the USL Championship is in division play this year. The Pacific is the most top-heavy of the groups, and the four out-of-division games will go a long way to determine which four clubs make the playoffs as the top squads beat on each other every week.

Likely Champions

Phoenix Rising — The Kings of the West, Rising are all heat and attacking firepower. Now on their fourth, fifth, sixth (?) home in the Valley of the Sun the new Wild Horse Pass stadium is settled in the SE corner of the market. That’s the only place Phoenix settles. The squad is built to win now, win forever. The current players and staff aren’t distracted by MLS expansion rumors. Their only goal is a trophy.

Sounders connections: Seyi Adekoya, Zac Lubin

Orange County — Connected to Glasgow Rangers and willing to park young domestic talent before they sell them off, you’d think this side is all about development. You’d be wrong. They make money on sales, while winning. OCSC’s last losing season was in 2016. Their roster is stocked full of fringe MLS talents that you will recognize.

Sounders connections: Darwin Jones

Likely Playoffs

Sacramento Republic — Defiance fans are going to be familiar with this side because they’re stuck in the same limited region for the second year. Republic is always steady, but haven’t been championship contenders for a few years. They are switching, mostly, to a 3-5-2, and will depend on signing Fatai Alashe, formerly hyped by Play Your Kids hypers, to protect the backline. One thing you can always count on with the Quails is that they show up for games.

Sounders connections: Tucker Bone, Jordan McCrary

San Diego Loyal — Preseason every USL pundit expected Loyal to charge forth and be great. Their first match was a tough roadie against Phoenix, and no part of the San Diego defense looked good. Donovan put together a collection of players who should be great in the league. Maybe they’ll play like it. When they do they can compete for a Western Conference crown. When they don’t they look old, tired.

Sounders connections: Trey Muse on loan from Seattle, The Day Sports Stopped

LA Galaxy II — One of the best deuces when people consider winning, Los Dos is still searching for a way to contribute regularly to Big Galaxy. Galaxy II made a run in 2020, but two of their top scorers are gone. They also had a bizarre negative goal differential with a strong winning record. The defense? Frankly it’s a copy of their First Team.

Sounders connections: Head Coach Junior Gonzalez was S2 assistant in 2016

Might Sneak In

Oakland Roots there’s no better culture-meets-club in American soccer right now. But the NISA 2020 finalists are moving up a tier of competition, lost their starting keeper to Defiance, and parted ways with their coach less than two weeks before their first match. The early season is going to be rough in Oakland, no matter how much Beast Mode they bring.

Sounders connections: None

Las Vegas Lights — No longer an indie side, Lights are now part of the LAFC organization. This is all the more reason to for the burgeoning Tacoma v. Vegas rivalry to continue to grow, maybe without more red cards. LAFC didn’t deign to sign anyone to the roster until like two weeks ago, plus every game is a road trip — Vegas players will live and train in LA. Steve Cherundolo may have made a mistake in wanting to coach here.

Sounders connections: None

Tacoma is also in this group. Things will have to break right for a playoff run to happen. Thanks to T2 being gone, there are no easy victories.

Outside of the Pacific Tacoma play on the road at Austin Bold and Colorado Springs Switchbacks. Defiance host Real Monarchs and New Mexico United.

What’s in store for #TheFuture?

Only the players will be able to answer that — with their feet, their heads, and their hearts.