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Seattle Sounders Academy players turning heads with Tacoma Defiance in preseason

Throughout the preseason, there’s been plenty of coverage around the hyper-talented Tacoma Defiance players training with and playing for the Seattle Sounders First Team. An important benchmark of the club’s professional pathway, virtually every USL Championship player who’s been integrated into the group came through the Sounders’ youth system.

As a result of this First Team integration, over a dozen Academy players have been consistently training with the Defiance as they prepare for their second season in Tacoma and first under their rebrand.

“The natural consequence of our players going with the First Team is it’s allowed us to bring the next batch of young academy players up,” said Defiance Head Coach and Academy Director of Coaching Chris Little. “We’re one club, so the game model with the First Team, and the clear principles and identity that [Sounders FC Head Coach] Brian Schmetzer is putting down, that’s the same with our group. So, whether they’re training with the First Team or us, the identity and game model are the same.”

The club’s pro pathway continues to become clearer and clearer. Players can join the youth system at the U-12 level, work their way through the Academy, break into the USL Championship side and, eventually, sign for the First Team. Along the way, they’re afforded unique opportunities to accelerate their development.

“[The pathway] is a good one in the sense that, when you are exposed to a higher level, your learning speeds up,” said Schmetzer. “Anytime you take a 14- or 15-year-old playing with some of the Defiance guys, or some of the Defiance guys playing with our senior guys, that’s where you really gain those little insights into how the game is played at a higher level.”

Many of the prospects under contract with the club’s USL Championship outfit played alongside the Academy players who have participated in preseason, which is symbolically significant, as it makes the youth players’ dreams of becoming a professional feel more tangible.

“It’s awesome because we grew up playing with each other in the Academy,” said U-19 center back Blake Malone. “Now that we’re in with the professional team, we know how everyone likes to play.”

Speed of play is biggest chasm between USSDA and professional soccer. Cognizant of this leap, the Academy systematically moves players up and down age groups. By the time they’re in the Defiance training environment, they’re already used to competing against bigger, faster, stronger players.

“Playing up with the Academy definitely helps,” said U-17 midfielder Sota Kitahara, a 2003 who’s been training with the Defiance. “When I was 13, I was playing with the U-15s and then the U-17s. That experience helps me right now because if you play against higher-level players, you have to be smarter and you can’t just play the same way as when you’re in your own age group.”

Malone (right) started five matches for the Defiance in 2018 and has continued to train with the team throughout preseason | Mike Fiechtner

A few weeks into preseason, several of the Academy prospects who’ve been training with the Defiance have capitalized on their chance to impress the coaching staff. In addition to the college-bound contingent, the likes of Kitahara (16), Ethan Dobbelaere (16), Austin Brummett (15), Chris Hegardt (16), Bryson Hankins (16), Alex Villanueva (16), Leo Burney (17) and Enrique Montana (17) have all turned plenty of heads throughout the USL Championship preseason.

If the youngsters continue to show well in training, they’ll parlay it into playing time once the season kicks off.

“That movement from the Academy to the USL [Championship] has been done so many times that it’s not a novelty anymore,” said Defiance Assistant Coach Wade Webber. “When you’re ready, you’re going to play with us. It might be two games or five games, but we’re going to test you and you better be ready because [Danny] Leyva, [Alec] Diaz and [Josh] Atencio all showed that they’re solid pros in limited minutes last year. Just because they’re young doesn’t mean they can’t succeed at the pro level.”