TUKWILA, Wash. — Tacoma Defiance stormed back to erase a 2-0 deficit, then topped Houston Dynamo 2 5-4 in a penalty-kick shootout to emerge victorious in the club’s first-ever MLS NEXT Pro Playoff match at Starfire Sport Complex on Sunday.
Marlon Vargas scored the first of Tacoma’s two goals in a wild sequence to end regulation, which also saw the home side force a late Dynamo 2 own goal to improbably equalize the contest after falling behind 2-0 in the first half.
Near the tail end of an end-to-end first half, Dynamo 2 struck first on 40 minutes through Beto Avila. Houston midfielder Jacob Evans had the initial shot on the sequence, hitting a stinging shot from distance that forced Tacoma goalkeeper Wallis Lapsley into a reaction save, allowing Avila to crash onto the rebound and convert the opener.
The visitors then doubled the advantage shortly after second-half kickoff, with Evans finding Houston’s second goal in the 50th minute. Teammate Mujeeb Murana provided the assist with a cross from the right side, which Evans managed to flick home a near-post header.
It would stay 2-0 until the 84th minute, when Tacoma’s Travian Sousa was brought down in his own area, drawing a penalty kick whistle from referee Thomas Snyder. That allowed Vargas to stride the spot, where the 21-year-old Sounders Academy product drilled his attempt to halve the deficit.
It set up a theatrical finish to regulation, as Tacoma frantically pushed for an equalizer, and nearly found one when they were awarded another penalty kick at the start of second-half stoppage time. This time, Vargas saw his chipped attempt glance off the top of the crossbar, putting Houston just seconds away from securing the 2-1 result.
That wouldn’t be the case, however, as Defiance would find their equalizer after all, shortly after Vargas’ miss. It was an own goal that leveled it, as a cross in the direction of Sota Kitahara deflected off Dynamo 2’s Paulo Lima and settled into the net, sending the crowd at Starfire into bedlam.
After neither side managed to strike for a winner in two 15-minute periods of extra time, the match was decided by a penalty-kick shootout, which Defiance won 5-4. All five Tacoma players converted their attempts, with former University of Washington standout Achille Robin converting the winning kick.
Resilience has long been a quality associated with the Seattle Sounders First Team, and Sunday’s late comeback in Tukwila is evidence that the never-say-die mentality has permeated the organization’s development system as well. This game looked done and dusted after Vargas missed the potentially leveling penalty in second-half stoppage time, but Tacoma displayed plenty of moxie in not getting discouraged and finding the crucial equalizer just moments later. That’s a quality that will serve a young team well as the players progress in their professional careers.
Playoffs always bring a new level of intensity and Sunday’s match was no exception. The partisan crowd at Starfire was a raucous one from the get-go, providing energy in droves throughout the contest. Those in attendance got to witness history, as Tacoma now have their fist-ever postseason victory as a member of MLS NEXT Pro in the league’s inaugural season.
Job’s not finished
After topping a quality Dynamo 2 side, Tacoma has now advanced to the Western Conference Finals, where they’ll face off against St. Louis CITY2. It’s an opponent that battled with Tacoma near the top of the West table for much of the season, as the sides finished even on points with 49, and St. Louis CITY taking the West’s No. 1 seed on the total wins tiebreaker. It should make for another hard-fought match-up as the sides square off for a right to play in the first-ever MLS NEXT Pro Cup.