Starfire Sports Complex has been home to many memorable matches for the Seattle Sounders First Team over the years, particularly in the U.S. Open Cup.
On Sunday night, Tacoma Defiance added one of their own to the list.
It was already a historic occasion in Tukwila, as Tacoma took the field against Houston Dynamo 2 for their first-ever playoff match as members of the newly formed MLS NEXT Pro league in its inaugural season. What transpired during the match won’t be forgotten any time soon.
Facing a 2-0 deficit as the match approached 85 minutes, Tacoma mounted a furious comeback, starting with a penalty kick from star winger Marlon Vargas that hacked the deficit to 2-1. The theatrics really started in second-half stoppage time, when Tacoma were awarded a second penalty kick that would have afforded them an improbable equalizer.
After Vargas missed his follow-up attempt, the home side’s frantic press for the leveler was rewarded with the game’s final seconds ticking off the clock, when a cross intended for Sota Kitahara deflected into the net. The rest is history, as Tacoma prevailed 5-4 in the decisive penalty kick shootout following extra time, with all five takers converting their attempts.
“I think we're all excited,” Vargas said after the match. “We dug ourselves a big hole. I thought the first 20 minutes of the game we were actually creating great chances off transition. We were just off. But from [Achille Robin’s final] PK and the second goal we scored, for me especially, I missed the second PK to tie it up and it was just a relief because I felt like I let my team down when I missed.
“When the game was over and when we tied it, everyone was talking about having each other's backs and they had my back. So I'm just really excited. And I thank my teammates for putting their backs for me, just like I have been doing for them for the entire season. So I just want to thank them. We're moving on, that's all I can say.”
The moxie displayed by the group in erasing the 2-0 deficit, and picking up Vargas after he missed the initial chance at the leveler, was evidence of the camaraderie developed within the group, head coach Wade Webber said.
The emotion was evident on the field after the leveling goal, which saw Vargas crumple down to the ground in the penalty box in a display of both euphoria and relief – and extended to the raucous celebration that transpired at Starfire following Robin’s winning penalty.
“It's a resilient group,” Webber said. “They love each other and I use that word sometimes casually, but it really is that. They really, really care for each other. Doesn't mean they don't have those moments where like siblings you quarrel.
“But it's exciting. I think ultimately on the course of events, they had some great chances as well to put the game to bed. But we bent and didn't break and here we are.”
The result sends Tacoma through to the Western Conference Final, where they’ll take on another side that has established itself as an MLS NEXT Pro powerhouse in St. Louis CITY2. A chance to go to the first-ever MLS NEXT Pro Cup will be on the line.
Come playoff time, no matchup is easy, especially on the road. But with Sunday’s emotional, historic victory in their pocket, Webber said there’s a palpable sense within the group that they can keep the run going.
“It'll sink in more tomorrow,” Webber said. “But we have a lot of work to do. St. Louis are an excellent team, we lost to them when we went there. It's not going to be easy, but this wasn't easy. We're in the playoffs, right? So, we don't expect it to be easy.”