As the newly dubbed Tacoma Defiance prepares for its second season in the City of Destiny, the USL Championship outfit is on the precipice of a new era. Last season, the club fully adopted a youth movement, integrating the top prospects from the Academy into its professional setup.
The Defiance have 16 players under contract – 11 of whom came through the Sounders Academy – with an average age of 18.2-years-old, making them one of the most exciting player development projects in the country. With more players settled on the roster, the team will finally be able to create a stable training environment. This comes under the tutelage of Head Coach Chris Little, the Academy Director of Coaching and reigning USSDA Western Conference Coach of the Year.
Now that the team can enjoy a bit more consistency, they hope to replicate the success the players enjoyed at the youth level in the professional ranks.
Here are some of the top storylines to watch as the young Sounders enter year two in Tacoma.
Stability in Year Two
Throughout the offseason, Sounders FC General Manager Garth Lagerweyoften remarked about the club’s three-phase plan for overhauling player development: (1) create a sustainable pipeline of talent in the Academy, (2) successfully integrate elite youth players into the USL side, and, eventually, (3) sign the top talents to Homegrown deals.
Despite having one of the youngest teams in the country, the club is optimistic that the Defiance will enjoy a vastly more successful season in 2019. One reason is that the players under contract who are still age eligible to compete in the USSDA have already amassed 2,867 minutes, six goals, six assists and 25 key passes in the USL Championship.
Yes, the team took its lumps in 2018. But with a returning core of influential USYNT prospects that already possesses a wealth of professional experience, the organization has set its sights on a playoff berth in 2019.
Alec Diaz, 17, bagged two goals and two assists in 312 USL minutes last season | Charis Wilson
Another reason to be excited about the Defiance’s chances in 2019 is the return of so many players with vast experience in the USL.
“It starts with the question of what is experience,” said Sounders FC Director of Player Development and Academy Director Marc Nicholls. “Most people look at experience as someone who’s a bit older. But experience is really professional matches. It sounds strange that we’re talking about experienced 18 and 19-year-olds, but they’ve been given a lot of experiences at the professional and international level. While we recognize there’s a lot of room for growth, they have been provided with experience at all levels of the game, including the First Team.”
Hopeau, 20, enters his third professional season with the club | Charis Wilson
From the organization’s perspective, there will be a strong veteran presence on the Defiance this season. Aussie midfielders Jesse Daley and Antonee Burke-Gilroy joined midway through the 2018 campaign but still managed to combine for 2,994 minutes, five goals, four assists and 29 key passes. Defenders Denso Ulysse and Sam Rogers, both of whom were named to the 2018 USL 20-Under-20 list, have two years of professional experience under their belts, totaling 6,819 minutes. At just 20 years old, midfielder Shandon Hopeau has already tallied 2,858 minutes, three goals and 33 key passes.
For Club and Country
One high-class problem that could arise for the Defiance in 2019 stems from the numerous USYNT prospects littered throughout the roster. With the U-20 and U-17 national teams in a World Cup year, the USL side could miss several starters as they compete in Poland and Peru, respectively. Rogers and Homegrown goalkeeper Trey Muse have been consistent fixtures with the U-20s, while Ray Serrano, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, Josh Atencio and Danny Robles have all been called up by the U-17s in the past year.
Last but not least, this is the first season that the Tacoma outfit will compete under a new banner that captures the spirit of the city. With a new brand identity in place, the USL side provides an additional layer of symbolism, as it is a more tangible milestone that Academy standouts can strive for in their journey to the First Team.
Moreover, increased engagement with the community and success on the pitch will lead to more people in the stands, smoothing the transition from USSDA matches to competing at CenturyLink Field in front of 40,000 boisterous supporters.