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Tacoma Defiance June notebook: Welcome to the Marlon Vargas show

Defiance go 3-1-0, +7 in June. Here’s what’s going on with the team.

Marlon Vargas dribbles against Rapids2
Charis Wilson courtesy of Seattle Sounders and Tacoma Defiance

Bad camera angles, empty stadiums, opponents that didn’t exist until they were forced to — MLS Next Pro has issues. Tacoma Defiance is not one of those issues. The team is good, possibly great at the level. Wade Webber’s side is top of their division and third in the West with a 6-1-1 home record and a 7-4-3(+3), +19 goal differential (tops in the league) on the year. Earning two points a game, only Crew2, North Texas from the much ballyhooed Dallas system, and St Louis’ pre-MLS side are better at the halfway point.

Who has been fueling Defiance’s charge to dominance? In short, their success is in large part thanks to Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez on loan down from Seattle Sounders and direct-to-Defiance signing Marlon Vargas. Marlon, the lesser known but elder Vargas in the org, tore opponents apart in June with 4 goals and 3 assists in 322 minutes.

He’s no longer a young kid just happy to be on the pitch trying to stunt. He’s consistently goal dangerous whether he plays as a 6, an 8, a 10, or on the wing.

Webber’s seen some growth to Marlon’s game. “He is positionally flexible and when he has the ball he is capable of doing the unexpected,” Wade told Sounder at Heart. The unexpected has meant that Marlon has nearly doubled his pro goal total prior to this, his fifth, pro year. He has 7 goals overall. He had 4 going into the year.

“Marlon understands how we want to play and makes those around him better. He isn’t a robot, though...just doing what he has been programmed to do. He tries to move into appropriate space, not always the expected space.”

What he does when deep is slick. He slides and dips, weaves around. There’s a subtleness when he’s a 6/8. Marlon still looks at space like an attacker, something to be captured, controlled. Then he leaps forward, charging into the attack. Reckless? Maybe. Pointed with a purpose? Absolutely.

Vargas is also now a leader. Ask him about his age and he beams. He’s a veteran now, while still young. He’s seen stuff — blowouts, comebacks, home stands gone right, road trips gone wrong. Wearing the armband he’s a young avenger. The old captains are gone. Now, it’s Mendoza and Vargas, two much younger than the past. They’re the Defiant now.

Every skill Vargas has shown this year translates to a long-term career. That may not be with Seattle long-term, but it is Seattle where he started. He’ll carry the green and the black with him forever. In 2023 a weary and young Marlon Vargas will have stories of Wild Horse Pass, of Cheney, of Starfire, of Hillsboro — and he’ll have a long future, because May and June of 2022 showed that all that sorrow and struggle shapes a man and creates a captain.

News and Notes

Brief subjects related to Defiance and the other Sounders prospects.

George Minoungou

Webber started building up Georgi Minoungou before the month started, but it was in June when Minoungou’s ball work started to appear in games. Georgi has a delicate touch with strong dribbling skills and good vision. He searches for decisive passes that break lines and uses his large frame and space to create mismatches. An impressive talent in his first fully pro year, Minoungou had three assists in June.

Best of the rest of the new direct signings

Both centerbacks signed from the MLS draft look solid and stable. While neither are at the level of Cissoko or Ragen (yet), they are above the Next Pro level defensively. To my eye the better of the two is Achille Robin, the former Husky and Bowling Green Falcon. Robin is a capable dribbler and has a Ragen-esque skillset (yes, Ragen’s good enough to be comp now). Hal Uderitz is a solid defender with a decent long ball.

Prospects on loan

Alex Villanueva

The good news is that Villanueva, who got looks from two MLS teams in the offseason, is a frequent starter (17 starts, 1 sub) with Orange County SC. The bad news is that the defending champs are now bad.

Alex only has a single assist this year, probably a sign of the OCSC’s struggles more than any of his own. He’s still a capable wingback who is playing in a fullback system. Orange County has had enough injuries that he’s played some DM and even CB — not great for the 19-year-old in his fifth pro season. Seattle holds his MLS rights and he’s out of contract at the end of the year.

Ray Serrano

Serrano may be stalling out. The move to Louisville City FC was supposed to get him in an environment that trusts teenagers and successfully sells them. But, Lou City is stacked at right back, where Ray was exceptional last season, so in ‘22 he’s mostly been a bench forward. Serrano has 5 starts and 6 sub appearances for 2 goals and no assists this year in USL-C play and is big part of City making that run to the Round of 16 in the Open Cup. Seattle holds his MLS rights, but he’s out of contract at the end of the season, his 5th at just 20 years old.

Sam Adeniran

Adeniran integrated into the league-leading San Antonio FC squad rapidly, usually playing underneath or wide of former Sounder Justin Dhillon. Slammin’ Sam already has 5 appearances (all starts), with 2 goals in 381 minutes, and he also forced an own goal. That’s better than his 2 goals and assist in 593 minutes with Defiance. Even if his peak is as a quad-A (that’s baseball talk for a player who hovers between the majors and minors) he’s very good and can help both the USL-C side and MLS sides he’s with. If he takes to the coaching in San Antonio and can make similar steps as he did in 2021, he’ll be a 3rd forward/4th winger in MLS in ‘23.

Stadium news

People keep asking, but there’s really no news. The crowds are smaller at Starfire Stadium than they were at Cheney Stadium during the pandemic restrictions. Part of that may be the move down a level, part of that may be the lack of marketing — whatever the reason, Defiance were always more popular in Tacoma than Defiance or S2 are/were in Tukwila, beyond that debut year. Whatever the future holds for a D3 pro team that is clearly in a reserve league, the fans will need something beyond the soccer to convince them to attend regularly.

Next Man Up

  1. Marlon Vargas — Of the direct signings to Defiance, there’s no one having a better year. Heck, he’s probably a top 15 player in the league right now. If Seattle loses two more 8s and/or wingers may they sign the 21-year-old.
  2. Achille Robin — He’s the more MLS ready of the CBs, but that doesn’t mean he’s close. Schmetzer has enough options at CB that even with both Yeimar and Arreaga out, Robin didn’t get a short-term call even though there was a short bench.
  3. Joe Hafferty — It’s hard to figure out who the top fullback is right now. Baker, Mendoza and Hafferty all could make a claim, but my gut says that Hafferty would get the emergency nod, which he did for the CCL early in 2022.
  4. Randy Mendoza — Mendoza is the most-frequent captain and a defensive stalwart that may be the Nouhou of the lower divisions, but he’s too old for a short-term call. For Seattle to sign him they’d have to have a major injury crisis or see more from the Artiste in the attack.

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