Evolving expectations as Tacoma Defiance prepares for 2021 home opener

5/9/2021 Defiance vs. LAG2

When Josh Atencio took the field for Sounders FC in the 2021 MLS home opener, it was the first time many fans of the Rave Green had ever seen him play.

Atencio, a 19-year-old Homegrown Player from Bellevue, immediately garnered national attention with his composed, intelligent play as he patrolled the midfield in the 4-0 win over Minnesota United and 1-1 draw at LAFC.

While Atencio was earning his first starts at the MLS level in those matches, his professional career actually began in 2018, when he made his debut for the Tacoma Defiance – then called S2 – in the USL Championship. Yes, he only had a handful of minutes at the MLS level entering the 2021 season, but he had already racked up over 25 appearances and 2,000+ minutes in a professional environment with the Defiance.

As Tacoma prepares for its 2021 USL Championship home opener against San Diego Loyal SC on Thursday (7:00 p.m. PT; ESPN+), fans will have the opportunity to get a sneak peak of the future of the Sounders FC First Team.

“We’re really excited about some of the youngest players, guys like Obed Vargas and Juan Alvarez, who got starts down in LA on Sunday,” said Tacoma Defiance Head Coach Wade Webber. “It’s exciting to see.”

Webber, who spent several seasons in the Sounders Academy and as an assistant coach in Tacoma, is quick to establish an important caveat: being a talented young player in the USL Championship isn’t enough. According to Webber, the role of him and his coaching staff – which includes assistant coaches Josh Ford and Michael Morris – is to develop that talent while establishing clear parameters for what it takes to have a successful career.

“The First Team don’t want kids,” he said. “They want pros. If a pro happens to be 17, that’s fine. But you become a pro when you behave like one, not when you sign a contract. We’re trying to condition the behaviors of professionalism.”

In a continuation of recent trends, the roster can be drawn into the three primary buckets: Sounders Academy alums, young professionals from outside the club, and established veterans. With 18 players signed to the Defiance, ranging in age from 15 – 32, there will be plenty of competition for minutes.

Perhaps what differentiates this roster from seasons past is the cohort of young Academy alums who can be considered veterans at the USL Championship level. Guys like Azriel Gonzalez, Alec Diaz and Ray Serrano are still teenagers, but they’ve amassed thousands of professional minutes at the USL level. Rounding out that group is a set of players in Sota Kitahara, Alvarez and Vargas who are still relatively young in professional experience as they seek to earn First Team contracts.

With ample experience throughout the roster, the expectations for the upcoming season have naturally shifted a bit.

“Our objective for the year is to do the things that the last three years have set us up to do,” said Webber. “We need to be competitive every game, and to go to places we’ve never won and get results.”

As the season progresses and the landscape surrounding the pandemic continues to evolve, Webber is hopeful that the club’s increased alignment across every level of the organization will pay serious dividends.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been better integrated vertically. When the restrictions ease, there will be fluid movement and players will get minutes in the places they need to get them. They’ll get to train the First Team environment and play games with us.”

Sounders FC fans are understandably excited about the young players breaking into the Sounders FC First Team. Those players got their first taste of professional soccer in the USL Championship with Tacoma. Don’t miss out on the next generation of Homegrown Players as the Defiance get ready for their first home match of the season on Thursday.