Commentary

Wade Webber on leading the 'crossroads' Tacoma Defiance, Northwest soccer culture, and Clive Charles' influence

Wade Webber became head coach of Seattle Sounders affiliate Tacoma Defiance, which now competes in MLS Next Pro, in February of 2021 after serving as assistant coach since January of 2018. He had previously coached in the Seattle Sounders academy following a Western Washington youth coaching career that included director of coaching for Washington Premier.

After his college playing career at the University of Portland (1985-1988), the Federal Way, Washington, native played for WSL's Portland Timbers and Seattle Storm, and the Seattle Sounders during their USL era before making 53 MLS appearances for Dallas and Miami.

Prior to taking the Defiance helm, Webber coached seven players who went on to sign first-team contracts with the Sounders, including five Homegrown signings. Within the last year, the Sounders have signed Obed Vargas, Dylan Teves and Reed Baker-Whiting to Homegrown contracts, all three of whom played for the Defiance.

SOCCER AMERICA: Do you have a first memory of playing the game?

WADE WEBBER: I do, and it's a painful one. We played on a surface called Centrex — it was essentially crushed brick. Like dirt, but harder. We'd get a lot of rain and that surface wouldn't get muddy.

I was running as a 6-year-old, chasing the ball on a field, and I got tripped and slid on my knees for what felt like 100 yards. It was probably three inches. I never wanted to play soccer again.

SA: Sounds like playing soccer on a baseball diamond. Was that the career-ending knee injury I've read about on your Wikipedia page?

WADE WEBBER: [laughs] Not exactly. But it's funny how results can influence a kid — that first year in 1973, we lost every game. We scored one goal the whole season. My dad was asked if he could coach because he had a work schedule that allowed him to coach. He had no experience in soccer. My dad agreed to coach so I had to play the second year. I didn't want to but I did.

That second year we got a bunch of new players and started winning. I suddenly liked the game. Back then, we played 11-a-side.

SA: As a 6-year-old?

WADE WEBBER: Eleven-a-side, yep. Full-size goals. The fields were slightly smaller, but just a little. It was ridiculous.

SA: Describe the soccer culture of the Pacific Northwest when you were growing up and in high school.

WADE WEBBER: It was healthy. There was a clear organizational structure. I have to thank Karl Grosch — there are these mythological figures of the past that established the hierarchy. We had a state association and different member associations. So I played in the Federal Way Junior Soccer Association. There was one in Seattle, Lake Washington, Renton, Tacoma.

Each association had a board — it was all volunteer. Every kid played — it's just what you did in first grade. Soccer signups would come home in your folder on a Friday.

That predates the Sounders — everyone associates the Sounders with the success of soccer in the Pacific Northwest, but there was a structure in place before that. The Sounders played at high school Memorial Stadium underneath the Space Needle for their first two seasons in 1974 and 1975.

SA: Did you watch Sounders games early on?

WADE WEBBER: It was exotic to go downtown to watch a Sounders game. Even though the stadium was rudimentary — just benches and cement construction. These guys — we were learning the rules of the game. No one understood offsides. Then these English guys come in — to watch them head the ball when the keeper punts it down the field — it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen.

SA: I’ve always thought it’s interesting how much of a focal point soccer is in Portland, Seattle, etc. Most soccer-rich areas owe that aspect to immigrant communities. In New Jersey, there’s a legacy of industry-based teams, for example. What about he Pacific Northwest?

WADE WEBBER: You can go back into Washington's history. There was a thriving league in the 1910s, 20s and 30s of coal miners. There's a town called Black Diamond — that's coal. I have a picture of my great grandfather, Stewart Tullman, coming off of a field in Black Diamond, Washington, wearing a full kit and big muddy boots from that era. That's 105 years old now.

We have the same thing as teams from the East Coast, such as Bethlehem Steel, industry workers who made a team of their own.

Wade Webber’s great grandfather, Stewart Toman, coming off a field in Black Diamond in 1917.

SA: When you played for the Seattle Storm, your first contract was $1,000 a month for six months, your wife was pregnant and you were 23 years old. Describe that time in your life?

WADE WEBBER: I would say part naive, part realist. I had seen the North American soccer die in 1985 when the NASL folded. By the time I graduated college in 1989, even indoor soccer was waning. The APSL started in 1990 and I played for Seattle's team — but I harbored no illusions that this was going to be my career. I thought to do it was long as I could do it.

It lasted a little bit and then I had to get a real job. I got extra money from working soccer camps in the morning and then trained at night — that's not professional, right?

SA: What did you do next?

WADE WEBBER: I went to graduate school to become a teacher. And I've always kind of seen myself as that — you still want to affect people, help them become more than just a good soccer player ... just the principles are different.

SA: Now that you're coaching the Tacoma Defiance, what for you are the biggest changes as soccer has evolved in the Pacific Northwest?

WADE WEBBER: Probably, the commitment from the ownership and administration — not just from the Sounders but coaches from other clubs that I speak to. There never used to be, until about 10 years ago, this kind of investment and commitment in developing assets. I use that word — I was described as an asset when I was sent to Miami in 1998 from Dallas — because I can see it clearly that they have potential to be valuable beyond what they can do on the field.

Alphonso Davies for example: If it weren't for the pandemic, maybe [the Whitecaps] maybe could've bought a big star, or built a building, or something like that.

SA: Talk about the role the Defiance plays in developing Sounders’ academy kids into first-teamers.

WADE WEBBER: Things have changed in the last three years. We have signed so many young players from our academy. Since 2017, we've signed pretty much the entire 01' and 02' starting lineup to the Sounders II. Many have gotten first-team contracts.

They're still young and need to play. It gets harder and harder when you have a backlog of talent that's signed to the first team. It's harder to play a true academy kid now than it was in 2018 when we played 15 different academy guys. Now I've given a debut to Wyatt Nelson, our 2005 goalkeeper, and Stuart Hawkins, our 2006 center back.

We have 15 signed guys to our team. Then we have four, five first-team guys who are routinely in the playing mix.

The speed with which we demand our players train is just ... bigger than they've ever experienced. It's the bridge, if you will, that you can walk both ways on. First-teamers can play with us, then go back.

I've heard it said that other people — and I'm not sure I agree but I'll repeat it — that my job is the hardest coaching job in a club. I get players imposed on me in the last minute, they're not really invested in it. Nobody that's signed to my team wants to be signed here for long.

SA: It's a place of transition for many players.

WADE WEBBER: Yeah, the word I use is crossroads. Tacoma Defiance is the crossroads and there are all sorts of paths that lead out of this place. For some, they are difficult and for others they are smooth and well-paved.

You don't get to choose the path you walk on — it's chosen by your contract and whether a club wants you or not.

What's that old Robert Johnson song? You meet the Devil at the crossroads. I'm not the Devil. But there is that transient, temporary nature of a second team. That's what young guys are getting a taste of. And it can be tough.

I have a 26 year-old journeyman — he's not going to sign for the first team. He is hard as nails. He screams, he's tattooed, he's horrifying.

Then I have a 15-year-old wide-eyed academy kid that's gotta go against him in training. There is an element of that we really like — identifying players who can serve that role for you.

SA: It sounds like you have a lot of guys you want to play. Do you need another reserve team in Seattle?

WADE WEBBER: I don't know if that would help. But the notion of a U-23 team might help. We consider ourselves the second team, not the reserve team. We're kind of like the Brentford model — they don't have an academy but they have a second team where they sign players to and give them a chance.

Last year we had a roster that was way too big — it was a pandemic roster. We had 20 academy kids last year and now we have about 15 — that's about right for now. You can't just have academy kids run your training. It doesn't matter how good they are — you need to diversify the gene pool to create the most robust person at the end of that experience.

SA: How about your staff? Are they on the more temporary side of things as well?

WADE WEBBER: The crossroad nature of this team is that staff members leave. We had our equipment manager move up to the first team, our trainer move up. My assistant coaches — none of them are smiley, pleasant, chummy guys. It's all business. Which is exactly what these guys need. It's professional with a capital P. We just want to instill the discipline that comes with being a pro as early as we can.

The University of Portland reached the 1988 NCAA Division I semifinals, falling to eventual champion Indiana in Bloomington. Wade Webber is in the back row, four from left, next to goalkeeper Kasey Keller. Coach Clive Charles  is in the front row, far right. Charles, who coached Portland's men's and women's teams from the late 1980s until 2003, also coached the U.S. men to a fourth-place finish at the 2000 Olympics. He died of cancer in August 2003, after guiding the Portland Pilots to the 2002 women's NCAA national championship.

SA: Some coaches who’ve taught you what to do or not to do as a coach?

WADE WEBBER: What to do? Clive Charles was hugely influential. He taught me how to deal with humans — young men in particular. How to be flexible with them.

What not to do? I played for some coaches when I was a pro — I don't feel comfortable naming them — that just threw the ball out during training and had us do a five-a-side. No training, preparation, or tactics. I got paid well playing for them, but I wasn't better for the experience, I was just older.


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Arlo Moore-Bloom's From the pros to youth coaching series:
Shalrie Joseph (New England Revolution)
Benny Feilhaber (Sporting KC)
Paul Holocher (Houston Dynamo)
Brian Johnson (Tampa Bay United)
Mike Kraus (RSL-Arizona)
Jeremy Hall (Toronto FC)
Tyson Wahl (Austin FC)
Federico Higuain (Inter Miami)
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SA: What’s your advice for coaches just getting their start?

WADE WEBBER: I don't know where I head this one, but here it is: Ex-pros own pubs and race horses. They don't coach. Coaches coach. If you're coaching on the fact that you played professionally, and that's on your resume, you don't have a good resume.

I don't care who you played for. It's about going and watching other coaches, taking notes, reevaluate what you do every year. You should reflect everyday on the session you ran. Create an environment rather than worrying about whether you won on the weekend or not.

One thing Clive said a lot was that he wants training to be the hardest thing we do every week. He doesn't want the game to be. A coach needs to make sure the training is hard.

Understand your players need a coach, not a friend. That doesn't mean you can't be friendly. But it does mean their affection isn't what you're seeking. If you choose to do it for the right reasons, it's the most rewarding thing you can do.

It's never perfect — you work hard all week and try and get a result on the weekend. But when you win a title, the sun shines a little brighter the next day.

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