By virtue of last Sunday's epic comeback penalty-kick victory over Houston Dynamo 2 at Starfire Sports Complex, Tacoma are now in the Western Conference Final, which will pit them against a worthy adversary: St. Louis CITY2, which finished even on points with Tacoma atop the West during the regular season with 49 points from 24 matches.
St. Louis CITY2 garnered the top seed by virtue of the total wins tiebreaker, meaning that Defiance will be headed to Ralph Korte Stadium in the hopes of clinching a spot in the inaugural MLS NEXT Pro Cup.
Coming off the emotional victory over Houston, which saw Defiance erase a 2-0 deficit after the 84th minute, Tacoma midfielder Fito Ovalle said there's a sense of belief within the group that they have what it takes to procure the road result.
"We were talking about this with a couple of the guys: We've won a lot, we've lost, but we haven't really tied a lot," said Ovalle. "To come back from losing to tie and then go back to win, I think just shows resilience and the hunger that we really do want to make history here.
"We want to continue to make history, we work very hard and are very clear with what our goals are. It's just another opportunity to show that. Luckily we're still here and more motivated than ever."
It doesn't figure to be an easy match against a St. Louis CITY2 side that is stacked with high-level talent. With St. Louis CITY's first team set to begin MLS play as an expansion club in 2023, there are several faces on the affiliate side's roster that are more senior than your average MLS NEXT Pro team, some of whom will be playing roles for the first team come next season.
The sides faced off twice during the regular season, with St. Louis CITY2 taking a 4-3 victory in St. Louis on April 20 before Defiance took the follow-up match with an emphatic 5-1 result on July 30.
"I'm sure they've got a lot stronger from last time we played them," said Tacoma defender Achille Robin. "I mean, that's a good team. They're going to play in MLS next year, so obviously they have a lot of talent, older guys. But we're ready to face them and get the dub to go in the Final."
In a high-intensity match such as this, Ovalle said the team can draw on the moxie they displayed to come back against Houston to push them forward against St. Louis CITY2. Come playoff time, games are often decided on the margins, with Sunday's victory instilling confidence that the team can come through in those critical moments.
"The first minute of the game you could tell it was a playoff game," said Ovalle.
"Some tactics, sharpness on the ball kind of went out the window and it was one team was able to execute on the other team's mistake. It was a physical, hard game, but I think afterwards we felt so relieved and so empowered with the result that it's just helping us build confidence through this week for a good game in St. Louis.
"I think we're taking this as a completely new game," he added. "Playoffs is a completely different monster and it really is on who's better that night, who's a little sharper, a little more connected and who's able to execute. So, we definitely know a little bit of their style and their play, but we're taking this on as a new game. We don't care if we beat them or if they beat us [during the regular season]. It's a clean slate."
As for the mentality that will be required? Ovalle said it's simple.
"Straight dogs," he said. "We've got to be dogs, that's the only way we're going to get the results we've been getting all season. So it's really having that dog mentality."