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2023 Defiance season preview: Here’s what to expect in Year 2

Wade Webber’s team won the Pacific last year, what is in store for the Sounders second team in their second MLS Next Pro season.

Tacoma Defiance

Without a doubt, Tacoma Defiance had their best on-pitch results ever in 2022. They won the division, won a playoff game, and had a player in the MVP conversation. From their start as Sounders 2 to their time at Cheney as Tacoma Defiance, they’d never been as good against their competition.

Jackson Ragen and Sota Kitahara climbed up the professional ladder to earn MLS deals. Former S2 keeper Jacob Castro earned an HGP deal. Wallis Lapsley even had a short-term contract earned. It’s become typical for 2-3 players to make the step up from Defiance to Sounders in a given year.

Defiance open their 2023 season on the road, at St Louis City 2 on Sunday (3 pm PT, MLS Season Pass). Wade Webber’s team is on a quest for the second team’s first trophy, to produce a few more Seattle Sounders, to help twice that advance their professional careers and to help these young men continue to grow.

Last year they made the playoffs. How much turnover was there?

A lot. More than typical. Ten are returning, but that counts on-loan Juan Alvarez. Few of the returnees were regular starters. Winger Georgi Minoungou, centerback Hal Uderitz, left back/winger Travion Sousa, midfielder Fito Ovalle, right/left back Cody Baker and Lapsley are the only core players that returned.

They lost their top two scorers (Marlon Vargas is at Rapids 2 while Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez is with Austin FC). Additionally, captain and defensive stalwart Randy Mendoza is gone.

There’s a lot of new bodies. Let’s break the roster down from front to back.

  • Forward: Eythor Bjørgolfsson was a Sounders draft pick. He was a prolific scorer in college, but his role with Defiance will also include using his massive frame to clear acreage in front of goal.
  • Withdrawn forward: Chris Aquino signed from the Academy where he was a dominant goalscorer. In his first pro season, he’ll have to learn how to capture space well.
  • Winger/Forward: Paul Rothrock is a former Academy player who spent last year with TFCII. Rothrock is an intelligent player who likes to control the ball like a lower-level version of Lodeiro.
  • Winger: Braudilio Rodrigues comes from Franklin Pierce University where he scored 31 goals with 25 assists in just 45 matches. NYCFC drafted him, didn’t sign him so he joined Defiance.
  • Winger/CAM: Antonio Herrera is new to Defiance from the Academy. He’s a ball-controlling player who is hungry to challenge defenders, no matter their size or experience.
  • Winger/fullback: Blake Bowen was the other draftee. He’s one of three San Diego State players in the organization (Katssaros and Castro). Bowen will be able to play in any wide position.
  • Center mid: Frank Daroma joined from the Las Vegas Lights. He’s a metronome in attack with a multi-angled passing tree that excels in short- to mid-ranges. Defensively he will look to take up passing lanes and use his slight size to jump passes.
  • Centerback: Gio Miglietti comes by way of the University of Washington and the Sounders Academy. Last time he played with S2 (pre-Defiance) he was an 8/10 forced to be a 6. Now he’s a solid ball-control centerback who should help in possession quite a bit.
  • Defender: Elias Katsaros is another former Academy player who went to college. Katsaros is the type of flex defender who can help where needed.

There’s also a lot of first-team talent that will dip down — nine Sounders appeared during the preseason, including No. 3 scorer in ‘22 AB Cissoko. You should expect to see more rotation through the back end of the Sounders in 2023.

Does this mean they won’t repeat their playoff run of 2022?

Not necessarily. MLS Next Pro expanded, which will make the playoffs a bit harder to make, but with USYNT talents dropping in regularly to support Defiance, plus their own YNTers a couple of savvy veterans (Daroma is a joy to watch) and the drive of the young players to make an MLS contract there’s a chance.

The club spent big money, for an American second team, to bring Georgi back. Former S2 players that left for college are back (Miglietti, Rothrock). They even signed a former Benfica prospect.

On a talent v. talent basis this is probably as strong a team as the one in 2019, but with more experience in pro play than the team that sent three players to the U-17 World Cup.

How quickly can they gel? That’s hard to say. In the preseason they finished winless 0-2-1, -2. But that included two goals scored against a team with nameless trialists.

What formation is Wade Webber running this year?

He’s calling it in a 4-3-2-1, with that two usually playing wide. There’s not really a CAM. Creative play will come from one of the two wingers. In the match I was able to see that meant Antonio Herrera. Draftee Eythor Bjørgolfsson is the center forward, always. The club doesn’t really have any other traditional forwards younger than 30. Chris Aquino will play the role, and probably Rodrigues or Minoungou at times. They’ll all be withdrawn or playmaking types there. The wing will see Herrera, Rodriguez, Minoungou, Rothrock and Blake Bowen unless Teves is down.

The band of three is interesting. Similar to past seasons this will be a buzzsaw. At least one and as many as three Sounders will drop into these roles. Getting minutes for Josh Atencio, Danny Leyva, Sota Kitahara and Obed Vargas in these offense destroying roles will be fun to watch. All but Kitahara have significant MLS experience. Supplementing them will be Fito Ovalle and Frank Daroma. Fito is the destroyer and sometime captain from 2022.

The Uderitz-Cissoko centerback pairing is strong. It worked last year. It should work this year. When AB is needed with the Sounders, prime prospect Stu Hawkins and Gio Miglietti will compete for time. Fullback play will be split between Sounders Ethan Dobbelaere and Reed Baker-Whiting and Defiance signees Cody Baker, Elias Kastaros and Sousa.

Keeper is more than set. There are three capable of winning games for Defiance — Andrew Thomas, Jacob Castro and Lapsley.

Who will we see with Sounders soon?

Learning a long time ago not to bet on youth prospects, I would suggest you keep track of Antonio Herrera. He’s a flashy, creative winger who will put up assist numbers through a mix of cutback passes and driving in toward goal. He’s also part of Mexico’s youth national team setup.

Both Minoungou and Rodrigues are on-ball joys. They dribble at an MLS level already, using their footwork to create space. Georgi is also an athletic specimen — faster, bigger and stronger than any winger in the organization not named Jordan Morris (maybe stronger than him). Braudilio loves to shade in towards goal. He doesn’t have the pace that many expect from a modern wing. Instead he’s greedy for goal.

Which Academy players will take the step up?

That’s hard to say. Last year only Etienne Veillard and Synder Brunell earned minutes but neither have yet signed pro contracts. Seven of the players from Sounders and Defiance are teenagers themselves. There’s plenty of opportunity for those youngsters to become men in front of us, and to follow the path of Jordan, Josh, Obed, Nouhou and others.

Ask me this question at the end of April and maybe more names come forward.

How can I watch the games?

Most games will be on MLS Season Pass (good news if you have it) with others streaming for free on Decision Day, the playoffs and the cup final will also be on MLS Season Pass. There’s no word how many cameras will be used, but we know they’ll have actual human operators and I doubt Apple TV will want the single-camera system from 2022.

All home games are at Starfire Stadium, with entry costing $18. All proceeds go to the RAVE Foundation. You’ll probably need to pay for parking as well. There’s a season pass for $200, which makes sense if you are going to go to 11 or more games of the 14-match home schedule.

Sounder at Heart will keep you informed how to watch each week.

Why are they still called Tacoma Defiance?

This remains a popular question. That Tacoma is still part of their name even though there will be zero matches in Tacoma could mean a couple of things:

  • There’s a small chance they go back to Tacoma
  • More likely, they’re just waiting to be part of the 50th anniversary rebrand

But the truth isn’t known.

What’s up with the stadium plan?

The Heidelberg Project is still alive, but the soccer stadium part of it has “dissolved.” It’s theoretically possible it could be revived, but all parties seem to have moved on.

MLS Next Pro has weird rules. Are there new ones?

  1. There are no draws. Both teams will get a point and then there will be kicks from the spot to determine which team gets an additional point.
  2. Red card suspensions are served when that player next faces that opponent, or the next match if they never play that team again.
  3. Time-wasting on a sub is a new one and will force your own team to play down a man for at least 60 seconds.
  4. An injured player who is down for 15 seconds or more must be seen by medical staff and then has to leave the pitch for at least three minutes.

There’s also new teams bringing the league to 27

Galaxy II and LAFC 2 in the Pacific Division with Austin FC II joining the Western Conference in the Frontier Division. The winner of each division will make the playoffs as well as the next best five teams in each conference.

The top team in the conference will have a bye in the first round, then team two will get to pick its opponent. The best remaining team will pick its opponent and the two unpicked teams will play their match at the top record between them.

In round two the #1 team gets to pick their opponent. The best remaining team will then pick who plays at their site.

The conference finals will be hosted by the team with the best record that remains alive. The cup final will be hosted by the conference winner with the best record.

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