Robles and Ruidiaz
Jonathan Griffith

Tacoma Defiance players benefitting from exposure to the First Team

Sounders Academy and the Tacoma Defiance have entered a new era.

In previous years, a couple of the top prospects – Sounders FC goalkeeper Trey Muse and Defiance defender Sam Rogers, to name a few – were invited to participate in preseason with the First Team. But when the Sounders ventured to Orange County, Calif., for the first phase of preseason, they brought along 13 players from the development arm of the club.

“For the players, it was really, really good,” said Tacoma Defiance Head Coach and Academy Director of Coaching Chris Little. “There’s the on-the-field part that’s really good for their development. And then there’s the off the field part, where you’ve got guys rooming with [Nicolás] Lodeiro, [Raúl] Ruidíaz, and other wonderful players that they learn from.”

On the field, the young Sounders performed admirably as they went toe-to-toe with star players they grew up watching on TV.

“The reports were largely positive,” added Sounders FC Director of Player Development and Academy Director Marc Nicholls. “It can be quite difficult for the young guys to be consistent every day at that level, so it’s natural to expect ups and downs.

“For the most part, I think people were impressed with their level of professionalism, the way they integrated into the group, and their performance levels in the matches – both the internal scrimmages and the Atlanta United game. Hopefully in Tucson, with the three friendlies, the staff will get to see them in that environment.”

Throughout the past two years, Little and Nicholls have implemented a unified game model, with clear-cut principles of play and positional profiles, across every age group in the Academy. With Little at the helm of the Tacoma Defiance, that brand of soccer, which is modeled after the First Team’s tactical approach, will be fast-tracked into USL.

According to the young Sounders who made the trip, their familiarity with the system helped ease the transition into competing at the First Team level.

“Tactically, the whole club has the same identity,” said Defiance midfielder Danny Robles. “So, pressing is one of the main things that the whole club expects from us. That’s one thing that definitely shows on the field.”

The Sounders Academy coaches often preach that the optimal way to accelerate development for elite prospects is to take them out of their comfort zone. There is perhaps no better example of this principle than when 15-year-old midfielder Danny Leyva started against Atlanta United, squaring off with the 2018 South American Footballer of the Year, Pity Martinez.

“It was a unique experience,” said Leyva. “There’s no better way [to develop] than putting us against the top players. It was good to be out there playing against them and I learned a lot from it.”

Tacoma Defiance forward Alec Diaz takes on Roman Torres during a scrimmage in California | Jonathan Griffith

As the 7-1 scoreline against Atlanta United indicates, it wasn’t all smooth sailing, though 16-year-old Defiance winger Ray Serrano managed to score his first goal. But, ultimately, the decision to expose the top talents in the pipeline to the highest levels of competition at such a young age will only benefit the players.

With the likes of Preki, Djimi Traore and Gonzalo Pineda on the coaching staff, breaking down film and providing insights to the young players, the first phase of preseason will serve as an excellent learning opportunity for the Defiance and Academy players.

Added Little: “We’re a club. That’s the wonderful part of having the academy, reserve team and First Team. You have guidance, support from different people with wonderful experiences and qualifications. The best part for us is the First Team staff has a good knowledge and understanding of all the players coming through. They’ve seen them play and they’ve worked with them.”

Now that the Sounders are off to Tucson, Ariz., the First Team staff can collect an even larger sample size of data on the top players who hope to pull on the Rave Green jersey and play at CenturyLink Field one day.