It’s almost showtime for Tacoma Defiance, as the club kicks off its inaugural season as part of the newly established MLS NEXT Pro league on Sunday against Real Monarchs at Starfire Sports Complex.
The match will mark the start of a new beginning for the club, which has previously competed as part of the second division USL Championship. With the advent of MLS NEXT Pro, Tacoma will now be facing off against affiliates of other MLS clubs that all have the shared goal of using the new platform to develop players into First Team contributors.
It creates an exciting opportunity for the players, who know that excelling at the MLS NEXT level can quite realistically present them with an opportunity to break into the Seattle Sounders’ First Team.
“MLS NEXT Pro is just a new league that’s going to bring a different look,” defender Joe Hafferty said this week. “Different teams, more competition and we’re hoping if we get more experience against those types of players it just pushes us to be better and we get to continue to work and progress to where we want to be, which is the next level. So, MLS NEXT Pro is exciting.”
Seattle’s emphasis on youth development over general manager Garth Lagerwey’s tenure has been well-documented, with the first crop of young players from the club’s Academy breaking through at the First Team level over the past couple of years.
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Rookie center back Jackson Ragen is among them. A Sounders Academy standout and University of Michigan star, Ragen has been a reliable contributor during the early part of Seattle’s 2022 campaign in both MLS and Concacaf Champions League play after spending last season with the Tacoma Defiance.
Ragen’s story, along with the likes of Danny Leyva, Josh Atencio, Reed Baker-Whiting and Obed Vargas -- of whom came through the Defiance -- provides even more motivation for players currently plying their trade with Tacoma, Hafferty said.
“That’s always the goal to continue to work towards the first team and seeing the success of recent players making their way to the first team like Jackson for instance, now he’s getting minutes and playing his role with the first team,” Hafferty said. “It’s motivation. It shows that it can be done and it continues to keep us moving.”
It all starts on Sunday against Real Monarchs, which pits Tacoma against an opposition that has also become known for developing homegrown players at a high level.
The hope for the season, head coach Wade Webber said, is to combine the progression of the young roster with positive results on the field and make it into the MLS NEXT Pro playoffs. Tacoma were much-improved on the field in 2021, but narrowly missed out on a USL playoff spot on the season’s final day.
“We also want to win,” Webber said. “I look at last season’s Defiance team, going into our final game of the season we knew that if a result went one way in one city and our result went our way, we were in the playoffs. Which was a long shot at the beginning of the year, so to come that close and miss, that still hurts and our team is not happy about that.
“We wish we had sealed the deal, qualified for the playoffs, had that experience for the guys. It would have been great. So, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re an at organization that values winning.”
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