TUKWILA, Wash. — Perhaps the most notable thing about the list of players whose options the Seattle Sounders exercised on Tuesday was how long it was. A year after winning the MLS Cup, and then immediately parting ways with 14 players, the Sounders only declined their option on one player (Callum Mallace, who never played after being acquired in a midseason trade).
One of the players who will be back is Clint Dempsey, whose re-signing had been long rumored but was only now made official. The Sounders’ leading scorer in both the regular season and the playoffs this year had an option for 2018, but he and the team came to terms on a reworked one-year deal that will keep him as a Designated Player, while also falling more in line with the rest of the roster.
“Clint worked with us and he’s taking less money than he was on before to come back," Lagerwey told reporters in a wide-ranging interview. “Still well-paid, well-compensated, but yes, we hope long term that creates a little more balance with respect to our DP spend.”
The money the Sounders saved on Dempsey will likely be used to help fund the new $2.8 million in discretionary spending that MLS is allowing teams to use on Targeted Allocation Money.
“Our team expects to fund the TAM and that means a healthy move away from top-heavy rosters and into more balanced rosters, with more depth, more competition for places,” Lagerwey said, using players like Kelvin Leerdam, Roman Torres and Victor Rodriguez as examples of previous TAM signings. “You’ve seen with the TAM guys we’ve brought in so far, those are all high-level players. If we’re able to bring in guys like that, the DP who’s up there and making an amount no one else is making, it makes a lot more sense to have guys in a much more narrow salary band. I think it makes a more cohesive whole and re-signing Clint was consistent with that.”
While having better spending distribution throughout the roster should help build teams less reliant on a few players, the knock-on effect should also allow them to compete with their Mexican counterparts.
“Make no mistake, when the league makes the kind of investment they have in TAM, we’re trying to go toe-to-toe with Liga MX,” Lagerwey said. “There’s no ducking that. This is a huge challenge. No one is saying our payroll is the same as Club America or anything like that, but we’re going to take them on and try to beat them. We think the way to grow the league is to win Champions League and that’s an ambition of our club. It’s an ambition of our league. It’s incumbent on us to try to get better and try to win the thing.”
When the Sounders will get around to spending those added resources, though, is still a question left unanswered. Despite having 22 players under contract, including players who started at every position during the run to the MLS Cup final, Lagerwey indicated there were likely to be some impact signings made during the winter.
At same time, Lagerwey didn’t sound like someone feeling any immediate pressure to sign a Designated Player, even if that would make three consecutive windows without a new one.
“If the best player is available in summer and not in January then honestly you’ll probably see us sign that player in summer and not in January,” Lagerwey said about signing a DP. “We would look at that as a net positive, it gives our younger players an opportunity to play and it allows us to add assets in the summer. It also means we have the flexibility to adjust.”
Lagerwey pointed to the right back situation a year ago as an example of why leaving wiggle room is valuable. Brad Evans was the presumed starter and Oniel Fisher was expected to push him for minutes. But Evans got hurt in preseason and Fisher struggled. The Sounders ended up starting five different players at right back through 12 games before eventually signing Kelvin Leerdam at midseason and stabilizing the position.
Obviously Lagerwey would prefer to avoid a situation that extreme, but he’s obviously not exactly itching to tear apart a team that only lost three times in nearly six months and went 12-3-6 down the stretch. That one of those losses came in the biggest game of the season is important, but not causing panic.
“You never want to read too much into one game,” Lagerwey said. “I have a lot more confidence in where our roster is. Were we at Toronto’s level on the day? No. Do we believe we are better than we showed on that day? Absolutely, yes. Do we need to dig into the causes? Yes. But some of those causes might be emotional, cultural, off-the-field type stuff, as opposed to we don’t have the talent and can’t compete with Toronto. The league is evolving, getting better, and we’ll try to look at that and be as clear-eyed as we can and come in as humbly as we can. We lost a final and were comprehensively outplayed, if we’re honest. We need that to not happen again.
“That said, if you had said when I came in three years ago that you’re going to go to two finals and win one of them on the road, I’d probably take that. I like the progress we’ve made. We need to continue to make progress, we need to continue to get better.”