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Tacoma Defiance have first trophy in sights as they enter playoffs

Sunday at 7:30 PM PT Defiance play their first-ever home playoff match, against Houston Dynamo 2.

Marlon Vargas and Randy Mendoza are the team leaders in 2022.

Over the past few years, the Seattle Sounders organization has taken trophies at nearly every level of play. The first team won the Concacaf Champions League and two MLS Cups. The Academy took two GA Cups and several other smaller trophies. Notably absent were trophies at the second-team level. Tacoma Defiance’s primary role is to develop talent. At that, they’ve been extraordinary. But there’s a gap in the trophy case.

Just three games away from their first trophy, Defiance’s leaders are ready to take on this next challenge. Making the playoffs was a huge motivation for frequent captain Randy Mendoza.

“I worked hard to get back. I had great family support back home that helped me a lot. And I was blessed. Thank God, I came back and I worked hard and I hurried up the process,” Mendoza told Sounder at Heart after Friday’s practice. Late in 2021, Randy’s jaw was broken during a tackle. The team missed the playoffs by two points.

“I was in pain, but I knew I had a couple of weeks to come back and get ready for 2022. My jaw was just bouncing. I just said ‘you know it’s now or never’ and I came back — put up with the pandemic, no face, they cleared me.”

Mendoza will have to watch this one from the stands, unfortuantely. He was sent off in the loss to T2 in the final regular season match. The frequent captain will have to trust the team to earn the win over Houston Dynamo.

Much of Randy’s leadership will rest on Marlon Vargas, now a five-year pro in his final contract year. Vargas’s 2022 saw him win a call to the full El Salvador national team and earn Best XI honors earlier this week. He’s a sometime captain and the engine behind the best Defiance or S2 team in their short history.

“We’re really excited about it. Since last year, I think my motivation and I’d say, Randy Mendoza’s, Sota Kitahara’s, all the players were here last year, was a motivation for all of us,” Marlon spoke after Friday’s practice. “We barely missed the playoffs [in 2021]. This year, we’re in the playoffs and we get to host the playoff game. It’s very big deal and we’re excited.”

After exploding out of the gate, Defiance slowed down late in the year. Wade Webber’s men went 2-3-0, -1 in their final five matches. Two of those losses were on the road. Vargas knows the power of home fans and hopes to see them at Starfire on Sunday (7:30 PM PT, tickets are $15 dollars with all funds going to the RAVE Foundation)

“We have to remain positive just because you know, results haven’t been going our way recently, but we know that we get to play in front of our home fans again. Hopefully, we get the result and we get to give them something to be proud of and hopefully continue to make it to the next round.”

There’s a high-powered attack for Defiance. Vargas had 12 goals, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez scored 9 times. Abdoulaye Cissoko scored six with the goals coming from the spot, on corners and during the run-of-play.

They play a high-pressure defense that expects everyone to defend. The mix of centerbacks is strong, with Mendoza and Academy alum Cody Baker most frequently at fullback. Baker may be the best crosser on the team and was one of MLS NEXT Pro’s best defenders.

With Mendoza suspended Webber has a selection opportunity. Joe Hafferty, another Academy alum and Oregon State graduate has the appearances there when Mendoza hasn’t played.

Last year Defiance mostly played in a 3-4-3. This season the most frequent shape has been a 4-2-3-1, but the central midfield trio can all play as 6s/8s/10s. When that buzzsaw is running, the middle is impossible for opponents. Sunday’s match could see Sota Kitahara, Fito Ovalle and Marlon in those roles. That’s the strongest midfield defense possible.

A few first-teamers will be loaned down, but not many. The Sounders also have a must-win game coming up and many of those that have starred with Defiance will be required to go 90 on Tuesday against FC Cincinnati.

Sunday night will be about Defiance players who have come up through the Academy, who signed with Tacoma to reboot their career — to come to the most successful organization in U.S. men’s soccer and follow in the footsteps of Justin Dhillon, Jesse Daley, Obed Vargas, Jackson Ragen. Often their goals are personal.

In 2022 they gelled those personal goals together to be greater than they are on their own.

“There’s that saying that it’s a winning mentality from the first team, second team, to the Academy. You know, ever since I was in the Academy, we always thought about winning,” Marlon Vargas is focused. He’s just old enough he missed the first GA Cup trophy. “Obviously that comes from the first team. We’re just trying to do the same thing that the first team does — that’s a winning mentality.

“Whether it’s August, the first team or second team or even the academy, you know, I think the identity of the club has been there for a very long time. We’re just trying to set a good example, and hopefully, this thing goes our way.”

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