Tacoma Defiance are underway in their inaugural season as part of the newly established MLS NEXT Pro league, giving fans a first glimpse at some of the young talent coming up through Seattle Sounders FC’s youth development system.
It’s still very early, but with five games played, there are still a few things to be gleaned from the club’s initial foray into the new league. Here are five takeaways from Tacoma’s first five games.
When it comes to evaluating young talent, recognition from the outside isn’t everything, but it can serve to reinforce that players in an organization are on a positive developmental path. With that in mind, it’s notable that seven players on the Defiance roster have been called into camps on the US youth national team circuit at various levels.
That list includes Obed Vargas, Reed Baker-Whiting, Danny Leyva, Stuart Hawkins, Jayson Castillo, Etienne Veillard and Michael Luande. Of those names, Leyva and Vargas have already broken through at the First Team level, while the others are names to keep an eye on as they look to continue rising through the ranks. Continuing to get called into US camps can only help their progression as they get a chance to play with some of the other top youth players from around the country.
“I think it’s a testament to the coaches with the Academy on the development side that obviously players are getting recognized within their internal environment, but it’s always nice to see when the players are being noticed externally by national teams, GA Cup Best XIs and getting accolades outside of us,” said Sounders Vice President of Player Development Henry Braune.
“I’m glad we can contribute to the US National Team, regardless of what level, what age, it shows that, again, external recognition is confirmation that we are happy to get it.”
First Teamers getting reps
While the development of young players just coming out of the club’s Academy is paramount with Defiance, MLS NEXT also provides a platform for players already signed with the First Team to get regular minutes, accumulate more experience and stay in rhythm. That’s already been seen to great effect early this season, as players on First Team contracts such as Sam Adeniran, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez (more on him below) and Reed Baker-Whiting have regularly featured for Tacoma in the early going.
Should they get called into First Team duty, their work with Defiance should leave them much better prepared for MLS action than they would have gotten in reserve duty with the Sounders.
“I think first and foremost [it’s] getting these young developing First Team-signed players the opportunity to play consistent minutes, when they are called up on for the First Team, they’re in a good rhythm and able to contribute and are the best version of themselves going into that game,” said Brauner.
AOC heating up
Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez first made his name on the national stage as the leading goal-scorer (six in five matches) for Seattle’s U-17 side that won the Generation adidas Cup title in 2019. Now 20 years old and back with Tacoma after a stint on loan in Austria, AOC looks very much back to that form, with five goals in five games to leave him tied for the league lead.
He’s always been capable of putting up those types of gaudy numbers, and he should have ample opportunity to add to that tally helping the lead the line for Defiance throughout the season.
“I think we’ve always known he’s a goal-scorer. Like any good goal-scorer, he’s scoring goals,”said Brauner. “We’re happy to see him smile again and we’re happy to keep getting him back to the best version of himself.”
While players like Ocampo-Chavez fill up the stat sheet, equally important roles have been taken on by more veteran players such as Marlon Vargas and Randy Mendoza, who Brauner credits with instilling professionalism within a young group.
Vargas has been with the organization for six years now dating back to his 2016 arrival to the Seattle Academy and has been a regular for Defiance since 2018. Mendoza, meanwhile, is one of the most senior players on the team at 26 years old. The importance of having players like that to steady the ship and provide a mentoring presence on a roster filled with teenagers can’t be overstated.
“With Marlon and Randy and these guys, their role in the veteran leadership, what they add to that environment is the reason that environment is the way it is,” Brauner said. “It doesn’t show up on a stat sheet, but everybody within the club knows why it’s critical for Randy to be there, why Marlon provides leadership, these guys, the reason other guys are able to show up on a stat sheet is because of their commitment and desire and the intensity they bring to the field in training every day.”
One to watch
Sixteen-year-old goalkeeper Wyatt Nelson is just getting started, but he’s already making his name as one of the biggest prospects to watch in the whole organization.
Nelson was lights-out for Seattle’s U-17 side in its championship run in this year’s GA Cup, getting named Best Goalkeeper for his dominant showing between the posts. That followed his professional debut, which he made in Tacoma’s match against North Texas SC on April 2, helping his team to a 1-1 result.
Nelson is already 6-foot-2 and possesses tons of natural gifts that should continue to raise his stock as he continues to develop.