The Tacoma Defiance ended its most successful season since its first season in 2015, narrowly missing the USL Championship playoffs on the final day of the regular season.
That appears to be swan song for this current iteration of the team, however.
Although no official announcement has been made, team officials confirmed at the annual business meeting that the Defiance will be leaving the USL Championship for the new MLS Division 3 league, which is slated to launch in 2022. An announcement is expected next week, coinciding with that of the commissioner. League address state, according to a source familiar with the announcement.
The new league was previously announced by MLS in June, but details have been difficult to come by since. About 20 teams have signed up to the new league, which is known as the Lower Division League or “LDL” for short. A different name is expected to be revealed next week, when MLS announces more information on the company.
The Sounders have already given strong indications that they plan to be part of the teams moving to the LDL for its inaugural campaign, but comments at the annual business meeting went further about the team’s plans.
“We have a lower division league that was announced by Major League Soccer,” Hanauer said. “It’s a compelling league that we’re going to work hard to make sure it’s very successful and continues to evolve our pipeline of players eventually leading, hopefully, to stars who make it to the first team. Some of our young players are starting to really break out.
After a promising start to life in 2015 with a squad made up mostly of marginal MLS talent, the then-appointed S2 quickly found it harder to compete as the team focused on developing young academy players and from abroad. If the results on the pitch were not always excellent, the decision allowed several talents of the first team to develop. Notable successes include Nouhou, Jordy Delem, Josh Atencio, and Danny Leyva.
“It’s a pillar of who we are and how we’ve grown if you look at the players who are currently part of the Defiance First Team,” Sounders GM and Soccer President Garth Lagerwey said. .
However, these results on the ground created some challenges, especially for their trading partners, the Tacoma Rainiers. The Defiance have spent most of the past five years mired at the bottom of the USL table while fielding rosters mostly made up of academy players and local Sounders players. Attendance at Starfire and Cheney Stadiums started off relatively well, but declined.
Still, the past two seasons have seen a more competitive Defiance as talent began to mature, and this season’s near-playoff failure might have given the Sounders confidence that the team could compete at the USL level at the future.
“We have had one of our best Defiance seasons in recent memory,” said Lagerwey. “We were in the playoff race until the last 30 minutes of the season. A number of young players have really stepped forward on this platform and have done a great job and we continue to see talent growing. “
Some of the things that have apparently led the Sounders to rethink their involvement in USL is the added flexibility of sending teams to present tournaments. Additionally, while there was a significant advantage in having high-level prospects against physically mature players with years of experience, some believe that the USL level has limits in the development of technical aspects of academic players. and local.
Most players on independent USL teams could be considered “AAAA” talent, a baseball reference describing players who are arguably too good for the AAA level, but not talented enough to contribute to Major League Baseball. . Given this calculation, MLS may have decided that it was better to have more complete control over the development of their players within their own ecosystem rather than leaving teams and players scattered across the USL landscape without a comprehensive plan. in place.
There are also the growing challenges of building a football specific stadium in Tacoma. Hanauer said the Sounders will continue to work on the Tacoma project, but acknowledged that current economic realities have taken a heavy toll on the project.
“It’s a dynamic situation right now,” Hanauer said of the stadium. “Before Covid, we felt we had a pretty clear path. Post-Covid, the priorities have changed [and] the world has changed a bit. Now we have this LDL league being born. We would absolutely love to work with Reign to see more stadium options in our area. “
Even without the immediate prospect of an anchor stadium, Defiance’s move to the new Division 3 league doesn’t appear to be directly money driven. Little expense, if any, will decrease, and launching this new business will result in significant start-up costs for Sounders and MLS, including salaries, infrastructure, travel, and demo events, which will likely include recruiting teams from all over the world. world to compete with the talents of MLS.
“[Building a stadium] is absolutely a permanent collective goal, [but] being totally outspoken, the dynamic has changed, ”Hanauer said. “We will continue to work on it, we will continue to speak with the people of Tacoma. There is noise from a stadium under construction in Spokane, there is Memorial Stadium which will likely be funded [through a Seattle schools levy] and rebuild itself one way or another.
Leaving USL for its own league will inevitably invite comparisons to MLS’s former “Reserve League”, a company that started in several iterations between 2005 and 2013 but collapsed due to limited interest. from all parties – teams, players and fans. Although it was designed to give players competitive minutes, most games ended up being played on training grounds by players who hadn’t seen the weather in MLS games the day before.
A fully established Third Division league that requires compliance with professional league standards set by US Soccer should ensure a basic level of professionalism. It’s an open question whether teams can generate significant local interest, especially in markets that will share both MLS and “LDL” sides. Additionally, there was an advantage for Defiance players to be road tested against teams like New Mexico United, which draw over 8,000 fans per game, so how to function at a lower level in front of limited crowds with uncertain issues will impact the development of the prospects of the Sounders?
“There’s a bunch of stuff in the pipeline that will come out after the season. It won’t be that different, ”Lagerwey said. “We anticipate that we will play as Tacoma Defiance. We hope to have games at Cheney Stadium. We may be in other places besides that.
A near-nomadic existence would not seem appealing at first glance to either Defiance players or fans hoping to see the young players thrive, although the Sounders are at this point confident that the stadium situation will work out even if there is some uncertainty in the short term. The Sounders are taking a more holistic view, especially as they hope to finalize a new training ground and other upgrades, with an eye on Seattle to host 2026 World Cup games.
And Lagerwey insists the Sounders will continue to put their weight behind the team as they embark on what will likely be an uncertain future in a new league.
“We’re going to continue to focus on this team even though they play in a few different league letters up front,” Lagerwey said. “It’s going to be similar most of the time.”