Tacoma Defiance set to join new MLS development league in 2022

The Tacoma Defiance finished its most successful season since its 2015 opening, narrowly missing out on the USL Championship playoffs on the final day of the regular season.

This appears to be the swan song for this team’s current iteration.

Although there was no official announcement, team officials confirmed at their annual business meeting that Defiance will be exiting the USL Championship for the new MLS Division 3 League, due to launch in 2022. An announcement is expected next week, in conjunction with the commissioner. The title of the state of the league, according to a source familiar with the announcement.

The new league was previously announced by MLS in June, but details have been hard to come by since then. Nearly 20 teams have committed to the new league, which has a working name of the Lower Division, or “LDL” for short. A different name is expected to be revealed next week, when MLS will announce more information about the project.

The Sounders previously gave strong indications that they were planning to be among the teams moving to LDL for their inaugural campaign, but comments at the annual business meeting went further about the team’s plans.

“We have a lower-tier league that has been announced by Major League Soccer,” Hanauer said. “This is a compelling league that we will work hard to make sure it is very successful and continues to evolve our player pipeline which eventually leads, hopefully, to the stars in the first team. Some of our young players are really starting to emerge.”

After a promising start to their existence in 2015 with a team composed mostly of marginal talent in the MLS, the then-named S2 quickly found it difficult to compete as the team’s focus shifted to developing young players from the academy and beyond. While the results on the pitch weren’t always great, the decision allowed many of the first team’s talents to develop. Notable success stories include Nohu, Jordi Dilem, Josh Atencio and Dani Leva.

“This is a pillar of who we are and how we’ve evolved if you look at the players currently in the first team that came through Defiance,” said Sounders GM and Soccer President Garth Lagerwey.

However, those field results created some challenges, especially for their trading partners, Tacoma Rainier. The Defiance has spent most of the past five years mired at the bottom of the USL table while fielding field rosters made up primarily of academy players and local Sounders players. Attendance at Starfire and Cheney Stadium started well, but stopped.

However, the last two seasons have seen a more competitive challenge as the talent begins to mature, and this season’s near-playoff loss could have given the Sounders confidence that the team can compete at the USL level in the future.

“We had one of the best challenging seasons in recent memory,” Lageroy said. “We were in the playoffs until the last 30 minutes of the season. A number of really young players have come on that podium and have done a great job and we are still seeing talent progress.”

Some of the things that have apparently led the Sounders to rethink their participation in USL is the added flexibility of sending teams out to view tournaments. Additionally, while there has been a huge benefit to having high-level prospects against players who are physically mature and have years of experience, there is some thought that the USL level has limits in developing the technical aspects of academic players and homegrown players.

Most players on independent USL teams can be considered “AAAA” talent, a baseball reference that describes players who are arguably too good for AAA, but not talented enough to contribute to Major League Baseball. Given this account, MLS may have decided that being able to fully control the development of its players within its own ecosystem is better than leaving teams and players scattered across the USL landscape without an overarching plan.

There are also increasing challenges related to the construction of a dedicated football stadium in Tacoma. Hanauer said Sounders will continue to work on the Tacoma project, but acknowledged that current economic realities have dealt the project a serious blow.

“This is a dynamic situation at the moment,” Hanauer said of the stadium. “Pre-Covid, we felt we had a very clear path. After Covid, the priorities have changed. [and] The world has changed a little. We now have this LDL league into existence. We certainly, and in collaboration with Reign, would love to see more stadium options in our region.”

Even with no immediate prospects for an anchor field, Defiance’s move to the new Third Division doesn’t appear to be directly motivated by money. Few – if any – expenses will be reduced and there will be significant start-up costs for both Sounders and MLS in launching this new venture, including salaries, infrastructure, travel and showcase events, which will likely include bringing in teams from all over the world to compete against MLS talent.

“[Building a stadium] It is certainly an ongoing collective goal, [but] “Quite frankly, the dynamic has changed,” Hanauer said. “We’re going to keep working on that, and we’re going to keep talking to the people in Tacoma. There’s noise from a stadium that’s being built in Spokane, and there’s Memorial Stadium that’s potentially being funded. [through a Seattle schools levy] and rebuild it somehow.”

Leaving USL in its own league will inevitably draw comparisons to the old MLS “Reserve League”, a project that launched in many iterations between 2005 and 2013 but collapsed due to limited interest from seemingly all parties – teams, players and fans. While it was designed to get players competitive minutes, most games ended up on training grounds by players who hadn’t seen time in MLS matches the day before.

A fully established third division league that requires compliance with the professional league standards established by American football must ensure a basic level of professionalism. It’s an open question as to whether the teams can generate significant local interest, particularly in markets that will engage both MLS and “LDL” sides. Additionally, there has been a benefit for Defiance players being road-tested against teams like New Mexico United, who attract over 8,000 fans per game, so how will you operate at a lower level in front of limited crowds with uncertain risks affecting the development of the Sounders prospects?

“There are a bunch of things in the pipeline that will come out after the season. It wouldn’t be that different,” Lageroy said. “We expect we’ll be playing the Tacoma Defiance. We hope to hold matches at Cheney Stadium. We could be in other places as well.”

An ostensibly semi-nomadic presence won’t sound attractive either to players or fans hoping to watch young players develop, although at this point the Sounders are convinced that the stadium’s status will produce its own, even if there is some uncertainty in the short term . The Sounders are taking a more thorough look, particularly as they hope to finish a new training ground and other improvements, with a view to Seattle hosting the 2026 World Cup matches.

And Lagerwey insists the Sounders will continue to put his weight behind the team as they embark on what is likely to be an uncertain future in a new league.

“We will continue to emphasize this team even though they play in a league with different letters up front,” Lageroy said. “It’s going to be mostly the same.”

Leave a Comment