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A sum greater than their parts: Defiance advance to West final

Without their captain or first team loanees Wade Webber’s society executed as a team to mount a comeback and advance over Houston Dynamo 2.

Fito Ovalle, Valentin Savella, Randy Mendoza and Travian Sousa celebrate their victory on Sunday night.
Courtesy of Mike Fiechtner via Seattle Sounders FC and Tacoma Defiance

The first goal Houston Dynamo 2 scored could be called a fluke or an error. Wallis Lapsley decided to two-hand parry a ball rather than catch it. That ball fell right to Dynamo 2’s Beto Avila, who scored easily. The second goal could have broken Tacoma Defiance. Just after halftime, Jacob Evans put HD2 up 2-0.

Defiance had been strong, but not great. With only Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez loaned down from the first team and Randy Mendoza suspended, there were several infrequent starters playing for their futures on Sunday.

Until those two goals, Marlon Vargas looked like vintage Nico Lodeiro. Marlon was a free-10, often pressing higher than AOC, often dropping deeper than the night’s captain Fito Ovalle. He’d threaded several passes to Travian Sousa and Georgi Minoungou, neither could break through. ‘Fonz was stellar, but the final product wasn’t there.

Around the 50th minute, old suspicions built on the years of S2/Defiance struggles rose up. The team was going to fold. They’d give up. There’s a history of crooked numbers going up against the squad over the years.

But they didn’t give up.

The spirit of Defiance is stronger than even their dedicated group of fans. They fiercely, viciously believed in themselves. And they would do whatever it took to advance — these men were chasing a trophy not a playoff appearance.

Valentin Sabella came on for Minoungou. That helped the direct-to-goal energy. It was Sousa that drew the penalty to ignite hope. Like he’d done so frequently Vargas slammed the ball home. No keeper could stop it.

But that was the 84th minute. There was not a lot of time left. And no matter the energy, goals are hard.

Defiance drew another penalty. Vargas went to the line again. He attempted a panenka. It hit off the crossbar.

“I’m the type of player that does things that other players can’t do,” Vargas said. “I thought ‘I’m chipping it.’ At the end of the day it was a decision I made and I gotta live with it.”

Marlon was devastated. Head in his hands with his shirt over his face, he was tempted to give up.

“I want to thank my team for having my back,” Vargas said. “The Houston players came at me, because obviously, I was disrespectful to their ‘keeper. But my teammates were there for me. They had my back.”

His teammates picked him up and together they surged forth. Like the waves along the shore of Titlow Beach they kept coming, relentlessly.

Cody Baker slung a cross low and hard. Sota Kitahara was there to attempt a redirect. Paolo Lima beat him to the ball, and scored an own goal.

Defiance rose.

This was their field. Their house. Their goal for the season.

A buoyed spirit aided them in extra time. No captain? Little help from above? A missed penalty? None of that mattered because this was a team with ambition, with a mission.

One of the signs of the comradery this squad has is that Vargas attempted to turn down the armband when Ovalle came off in overtime. According to Vargas, he’d felt like he’d failed.

Fito insisted. According to Marlon the other midfielder told him ‘it’s your team’ and handed him the captain’s band.

Defiance played beautiful, imperfect soccer on the night. But it was soccer good enough to earn a draw. In the shootout, Marlon went first, his third kick from the spot of the night. He was back in perfect form, roofing his attempt.

All of Defiance were. Two centerbacks were part of that march of five. Both Hal Uderitz and Achille Robin nailed their kicks. When head coach Wade Webber was asked about selecting two CBs to be in his five he laughed “If there’s a problem to be solved you pick a centerback.”

Webber was a centerback in MLS and with the USL Sounders.

Tacoma advanced 2-2 (5-4).

There’s no “want-a-meter” as Webber calls it. He refused to credit the desire of his team. Instead, he praised them for their execution. “This wasn’t easy. But it’s the playoffs, it’s not supposed to be easy.”

After the winning penalty kick by Robin, a few people swarmed the field — Randy Mendoza with a hand-drawn shirt about being the best in the West and AB Cissoko with the team that helped him earn his MLS contract (he also played 1,088 minutes for Defiance this year). There were a handful of other first-team coaches, scouts and players that stayed in the far stands.

The joy spilled right against the fence as a Sounders Academy team rushed their former, and sometime current, teammates to celebrate their success. Fans were intermingled in the joyous crush.

There are a few truisms from the Schmetzer era;

  • Sounders don’t quit.
  • The club is the relationship between the players and the fans.

That first was on display Sunday when Defiance won.

The second was on display vibrantly as the players reveled with the small cadre of fans that have followed them from Starfire to Cheney to Starfire again. The relationship was also on display as Marlon walked the line celebrating with a dozen family members who had driven more than 16 hours from Bakersfield to Tukwila in what may be his last home game with this organization.

More so the relationship between players and fans was on display when Minoungou wore a shirt in the celebration that honored late photographer Bob Bunn. Webber ended his press conference wishing that Bunn was there to see the team he’d supported and photographed win such a meaningful match. Bunn passed away just a week earlier, supporting the clubs he loved.

Tacoma Defiance may not be destined, but they’re determined. They play at St. Louis City 2 on Sunday night and not a damn one of them is going to quit until those three sharp whistles blow.

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