The 2022 season is fast approaching for Tacoma Defiance, which is embarking on its debut campaign in Major League Soccer’s new MLS NEXT Pro league devoted to player development.

You never know who the next First-Team signee might be, with multiple young faces that started their professional careers with Tacoma now breaking through and getting playing time in MLS action. Along with those young faces, the club will also feature some more established players to provide leadership and experience as part of an overall youthful group.

Here are five players to watch from both ranges of that spectrum as a new era of Defiance soccer gets underway.

Cody Baker

Defiance to watch Baker

A talented fullback, the 18-year-old Baker has been with the Sounders organization since joining Sounders Academy in 2018. He’s worked his way up ever since, earning trips the past two seasons to train with the first team during preseason and making a positive impression on head coach Brian Schmetzer. Baker made 18 appearances for Defiance in 2021, showing flashes of his lofty potential. His development has impressed Tacoma head coach Wade Webber and Vice President of Player Development Henry Brauner, with Baker projecting to be a regular fixture in the Tacoma back line when MLS NEXT Pro play gets underway. 

Said Webber: “[Baker] keeps showing potential, every year he keeps showing he has a little bit more to his game. You see a different type of mentality, he’s a little bit more focused, he’s a little bit better there, he’s a little bit cleaner there. He’s just slowly, slowly getting better and becoming a better pro every day.”

Juan Alvarez

Defiance to watch Alvarez

Developing MLS-level attackers is one of the most challenging tasks for any youth program, but the 17-year-old Alvarez has shown glimpses of that potential during his brief professional career.

A Walla Walla, Washington-native, Alvarez joined Seattle’s academy in 2016 and quickly turned heads with his dynamic traits on the ball, ability to set up teammates and ability to be goal-dangerous. He’s trained with the First Team extensively, and was even called up to the Sounders on an Extreme Hardship waiver for one match last year, making the bench for Seattle’s home match against Houston Dynamo FC on July 8, 2021. 

Alvarez featured in 21 games for Tacoma last season, scoring his first professional goal, and will certainly be a name to watch as a focal point of the Defiance attack.

“We’re excited for [Alvarez] to keep developing as that attacking player that the club is looking to maybe go to the outside for,” said Brauner. “But maybe if we can produce it internally, we can show the value as well on Defiance.”

Sota Kitahara

Defiance to wach Kitahara

Seattle have become renowned for their development of technically gifted, well-rounded midfielders, with Danny Leyva, Josh Atencio, Reed Baker-Whiting and Obed Vargas all players in that mold who have made it to the First Team. With a strong showing in MLS NEXT Pro this year, Kitahara could be the next in line.

The 19-year-old Edmonds, Washington-native has long been thought of as one of the club’s most talented prospects, and he gained valuable experience on an overseas loan with Austrian side FC Pinzgau Saalfelden last year, where he made 17 appearances. Kitahara also boasts impressive versatility valued by MLS coaches, with the ability to play both right and left back in addition to his usual role in midfield.

“Sota’s another player in that ever-lasting line of creating top high-potential type midfielders, he’s another one that we’re excited to see come through,” Webber said. “He’s got a little bit more versatility, too, he’s played as a right back, he’s played as a left back with the youth national team, so he’s somebody that I think, this could be a really big year for him.”

Travian Sousa

Sousa is a 20-year-old left back who is one of the most intriguing new additions arriving to Tacoma this offseason. 

The Lathrop, California native was a standout in the US Soccer Development Academy for USL Championship side Sacramento Republic, making 82 appearances while scoring 24 goals. He’s had a winding path since then, making stops in Germany with the Hamburger SV system, before moving stateside for stints with Sporting Kansas City II and the Oakland Roots. He's also made appearances on the US youth international circuit for the U-14, U-19 and U-20 sides. 

The raw talent and upside here is high, making him a name to watch as he looks to make his mark in his first season with Tacoma.

Joe Hafferty

Defiance Season Preview Cover Joe Hafferty

At 23 years old, Hafferty is one of the elder statesmen on this roster. The former Oregon State standout will also be looking to make his mark in his first full season with Tacoma after making nine appearances in 2021.

The defender had a decorated college career at Oregon State, earning three All-Pac-12 selections for the Beavers, making the conference first-team in his junior and senior seasons. That pedigree led to his selection by Inter Miami CF in the second round of the 2021 MLS SuperDraft before the Sounders acquired his rights via a draft-day trade.

The move reunited Hafferty with the club where he played in the Academy from 2013-2017. On a roster like this with so many players in their teens, players like Hafferty are invaluable in terms of providing a steadying presence and leadership to a youthful group. Expect Webber to lean on Hafferty to provide exactly those attributes once the season starts.