Dribbling a soccer ball against a wall, a young boy dreams of lifting trophies above his head. He dreams, he works, he dreams, he works. Eventually, he dons the kit of a professional side as a youth player. Still dreaming, the work continues.
On the path to professionalism that dream can be hindered so abruptly – injury, disinterest, a coaching change. There are a chosen few who stray from this mold. Defiant dreamers who keep grinding, chasing their dreams with little regard for setback.
For those lucky few in which passion, talent, and opportunity collide to create the perfect spark, that dream burns brightly.
In mid-March, Justin Dhillon had that dream and checked all the right boxes but was anxiously waiting for an opportunity to prove himself. Little did he know that six months later he would be on a team competing for an MLS Cup.
“That’s something you hope for, but you never think it’s going to be reality. After that and then being in an MLS Cup Final – being unsigned in the first week of the USL season to being on a roster in an MLS Cup Final – I don’t have words for that. If you asked me eight months ago? There’s no way.”
Tacoma Defiance were key to preparing Dhillon for this moment. He did not just have his best year ever, he scored more goals in 2019 than he did in his previous two pro seasons combined. Now he is training with a team hosting its first MLS Cup, and battling for a second title in four years. The whole organization – from First Team, to Defiance to Academy – are focused on winning the Cup.
“It’s a special moment for the city of Seattle and this team. It’s a special group with a great coaching staff. I’m grateful to be a part of it from Defiance to Sounders it’s been an amazing year.”
All three players who started with Defiance and signed with Sounders FC during the season are at practice this week, along with Defiance coaches. The MLS Cup preparations require effort from the entire organization. Seeing familiar faces helps youngsters like Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez and Danny Leyva. The two Sounders shot up from Academy to Defiance to Sounders. Their dreams are becoming reality faster than imagination.
While going through drills alongside MLS Cup winners Nicolás Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan, Leyva can look over and see Coach Little, his former Academy and current Defiance coach.
“It’s always good to have coaches from Tacoma Defiance or the Academy share the field with us,” Leyva said. “It’s a good opportunity for all of us. It’s a joy.”
That joy permeates all three former Defiance player’s faces as they talk about their rapid rise through the club and Sunday’s opportunity to capture a cup.
For Ocampo-Chavez, he has the luxury of studying under two of the best in MLS to prepare for Sunday’s winner-take-all affair.
“Seven months ago, me and Leyva were playing in GA Cup and we won it. I think that gave us confidence to come in with the First Team and get better every day training with Nico and Raúl Ruidíaz. It’s a dream come true.”
For Justin Dhillon and his younger companions, there are grander dreams still to come.
“I am forever in debt and grateful to the coaching staff with Defiance. After that week, they saw something in me that they wanted to keep me on board. They saw me as an older player with Defiance and that I would be able to bring experience and help the group. Even being one of the older guys I was learning every day – something new about myself, and about the game. I have so much love for that coaching staff. I don’t think I would be where I am today without them.”
Now on the verge of winning an MLS Cup in a city and region that adopted him as one of their own, Justin is embracing Seattle, Tacoma, and the whole of Puget Sound just as the fanbase is embracing him.
“Compared to where I was born and raised, the passion for soccer and the culture for Seattle sports, I think it’s the best in the country. The fans know every single person on every roster. They go to all the games, to the community events. I think that’s why we are where we are right now, because of the support we have. Even through tough times, our fans are standing behind us. Now we’re in an MLS Cup Final and we are hoping to give them a trophy back.”