When the Seattle Sounders made Garth Lagerwey their general manager and president of soccer, they weren't just adding an experienced and successful person to their front office. They were making the first significant change since the current team was assembled prior to the 2009 season. Until now, there's been no significant changes among the decision makers. Even down to the coaches and trainers, the staff has been a model of stability.
Of course, there's been very little reason for change. The Sounders have qualified for the playoffs in each of their six MLS seasons, compiling more regular-season points than everyone but the LA Galaxy and stocking their trophy case with four U.S. Open Cups and a Supporters' Shield. "If it ain't broke, why fix it?", goes the age-old cliche and until now the Sounders very much lived by that, at least in terms of their front office.
This is why Lagerwey's hiring seemed to come from so far out of left field. Sure, Adrian Hanauer had given hints here and there that he might want to step away from running the soccer side of things. But the assumption, at least by me, was that someone like Chris Henderson would be promoted or Sigi Schmid would possibly move upstairs. Bringing in someone new to be their boss? That just seemed to be something the Sounders were unlikely to do. Hanauer even admitted as much.
"We're a club that has had seven years of basically the same group intact," Hanauer said when asked how Henderson and Schmid took the news of Lagerwey's hiring. "People are always averse to change and people don't know how that's going to affect them. They both know Garth, respect Garth, know his track record, like him personally, he checks all the boxes."
So what do I think this all means?
Hanauer took a step up, but not necessarily a step back
Hanauer has been fond of saying he's not big on titles? You know who says stuff like that? People who don't need a title to feel like they have authority. Hanauer is still very much an owner and still very much the owner who's most involved in the way the Sounders operate. He seems to have been largely responsible for hiring Lagerwey, and while he sought to include Sigi Schmid and Chris Henderson in the process, it was ultimately his decision.
"I'm an owner, I don't care if I have a title or not," Hanauer said. "Garth is going to report to me. Bart [Wiley], on the business side reports to me. Everyone basically reports to me. What they call me, I don't care."
Instead of operating at a "2,000-foot level" Hanauer now says he'll be at more of the "15,000-foot level," meaning he's still very much observing everything but can still drop in when it's necessary. A couple times Hanauer said he had a tendency to get "mired down" in some of the more day-to-day elements of running the club and this will allow him to be more focused on big picture items.
"Really, it's about continuing to build our fanbase, continuing to build our revenues overall ... and just genuinely trying to be a little bit more strategic and look out five, 10, 20 years," Hanauer said.
That said, Lagerwey is very much in charge of the soccer side
The press release announcing Lagerwey's hiring made it clear that he's where the buck stops when it comes to the on-field product. He can, presumably, fire Schmid or Henderson or trade any player he wants. He'll need to answer to Hanauer ultimately -- just like any GM answers to the team's owner -- but a loud and powerful voice was just injected into the Sounders' front office.
While Hanauer was always the team's GM and was one of the key decision makers, there was also an undeniable sense that Henderson and Schmid held significant sway on any big move. Lagerwey promised to involve them just as much, but Lagerwey didn't turn RSL around virtually overnight by simply sitting in the corner.
Lagerwey is a coalition builder
Even if Lagerwey ultimately exerts more say over player personnel decisions than Hanauer ever did, he made it clear that he doesn't see himself as some all-powerful dictator. He went out of his way to praise the Sounders' current brain trust and said all the right things about empowering them.
"There's a number of really smart people in the front office and on the field," Lagerwey said. "If you're a manager, you can develop talent to a degree but the hard part is getting the talent and Seattle has the talent. To take all these smart people, unify them and get them pulling in the same direction, I think that's a great challenge."
This management style was apparently borne out of his first post-playing job as a lawyer at Latham & Watkins.
"You make inclusive decisions so everyone is invested in the outcomes," Lagerwey said. "I took those principles to Salt Lake. My hope and my belief is you're going to keep the leadership principles the same and apply it on a bigger scale in Seattle. We'll have to tweak some things but that's why this is a cool challenge. We've got a bunch of infrastructure and a bunch of a talent, one of the cool things is working with a bunch of talented people and getting the most out of them. That's when it becomes really limitless.
Lagerwey "gets" our soccer culture
Not only did Lagerwey score some points with locals by pointing to the 49ers as an example of what can happen when a GM and head coach don't get along, but he seems to fully embrace the pressures that are inherent in his position. He understands that he will constantly be second-guessed and the prospect of facing a public vote of confidence doesn't seem to faze him in the least, pointing out that his job is always on the line anyway.
That pressure includes coming into an already successful organization and being confident enough to work with other talented people.
"From a leadership stand point, you can't find talent as good as the Sounders have and it's a privilege to work with people who are really smart and really good at their jobs," he said. "It's really exciting to try to bring the best out of them. If you're a leader and trying to taking things away from them, you're not thinking big enough."
The time to make this change was now
While the timing of Lagerwey's signing struck me -- and many outside observers -- as odd, it does make sense. First off, Hanauer gave every indication that he believes Lagerwey may have been the single best person to take over and now was the time he was available. Hiring Lagerwey was effectively a now-or-never situation.
Beyond Lagerwey's availability, the Sounders' organization is about to get a lot more complicated. The truth is that with the split from the Seahawks, a USL affiliate and an ever-expanding academy system, they probably needed another voice near the top of the leadership pyramid. The organization is growing and becoming more complicated and now there won't be as much concern about focus being lost in one area to address another.
The pressure is already on
For all the talk of five-year plans and building for the future, Lagerwey is keenly aware that he's going to be expected to hit the ground running. The Sounders are coming off their most successful season in their history, are poised to bring back most of their key contributors and are still sitting on a pile of allocation money with which to make additions. If things go wrong, you can bet that a lot of eyes will be turning toward Lagerwey.
But that's why he came here. Lagerwey wanted to test himself in North America's biggest soccer market and the Sounders wanted him badly. It has all the appearances of a match made in heaven.