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What it really means when Garth Lagerwey says he doesn’t ‘put much weight in the Supporters’ Shield’

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The soundbite is damning in light of results, but the context shows a deep, layered plan that involves winning plenty of regular season games.

When President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey told Radio Cascadia Live that he values the MLS Cup more than the Supporters’ Shield, he echoed debates that many Seattle Sounders fans have had with each other. But when you and your seatmate disagree in regards to the value of the two trophies, the way the roster is built is not impacted. When the President and GM thinks one trophy is worth more than the other, it impacts how they use their salary and roster budgets, build their second team, and even reaches into Academy philosophy.

The soundbite of “I don’t put that much weight in the Supporters’ Shield” is quick, simplistic, and yet, still is captured in how Garth builds his roster. It also lacks the nuance of his full quote on KJR, nor does the full quote explain how it impacts roster construction. Lagerwey spoke with Sounder at Heart about how his valuation of those two trophies impacts his choices in regards to signing players, because it does.

“I want to try resist this dogmatism that there’s one and there’s the other and you can’t do both because it’s not an absolute like ‘it’s MLS Cup and therefore the Supporters’ Shield doesn’t matter.’ Obviously winning the Supporters’ Shield is very helpful,” he said on Tuesday. “You qualify for Champions League; you get a first seed; you can host MLS Cup. There are ways that it blends neatly with the ‘winning MLS Cup’ model.”

Lagerwey is a lawyer. He speaks like a lawyer. The word “nuance” will come up many times. He also suggests that circumstances, in regards to player signings, can prevent him from holding to his philosophical base.

“What I would say in general is that you want to build a roster that has you playing your best at the end of the season, which maximizes your chances of winning MLS Cup. Sometimes you are able to accomplish that in January and sometimes you are able to accomplish it in June [Editor’s note: The transfer windows are March-May and July-August] but the point is that when you get good players, you sign them. If you see three good players in January, then you sign those three. Rather than sign three mediocre players and say, ‘my roster’s full I want to compete for the Supporters’ Shield.’ If your philosophy is that you want to win MLS Cup because that is what comes with the parade and the ring, two pretty cool things, then I’m going to wait. I’m going to sign players that I think are really good even if that means it is a couple months later in the cycle, in the season.”

Targeting an MLS Cup means qualifying for the playoffs and then performing in them. Right now, the Sounders are below the red line, looking up past Vancouver towards the Galaxy. The stars are not performing to their expectations. The roster has space for a Designated Player, a TAM signing, and even more backend veterans.

With six open roster slots, two of those internationals, the team is leaning on younger players for depth. In some ways this mirrors a philosophy in baseball circles called “Stars and Scrubs.” The idea being that you spend the limited resources on top end talent and then surround them with youth hoping that some succeed.

Lagerwey recognizes the phrase, saying that it is similar to his ideal, but cannot be wholly pursued due to the regular season. “In any sport, to win a title, your big guys got to show up. The Golden State Warriors don’t win without Steph Curry and [Kevin] Durant and all their big guys playing big time. We don’t win MLS Cup without [Nelson] Valdez showing up, and Lodeiro and on-and-on, Stef Frei, [Roman] Torres, whatever you can go down the list.

“But, you have to make the playoffs. This is not an absolute scale where there is a 10 and a zero, because you have to have enough depth on your team and enough ability to rotate your squad because you are playing three games a week from May to August most of the time. With that in mind you are going to have to have guys that are going to step in and fill those roles. If you simply take the approach that you have top end talent, [and] we’re not going to worry about the rest, you are going to lose a whole bunch of those games which is going to put you in a harder time, higher-pressure situation in terms of trying to win MLS Cup.”

Seattle is again entering the high-pressure zone. They are not as bad off as they were at the end of July last season. The schedule is about to get easier.

At the same time, Lagerwey is looking beyond just 2017, as he has from his hire date. He doesn’t want the Sounders to be a big-spending club. He doesn’t want the Sounders to be a developmental club. His ambitions are bigger than that. Garth Lagerwey, President of Soccer, wants both.

“What you are kind of seeing in MLS, which has had, at different times, clubs that were very good at DP signings — they spent a bunch of money, identified good players, were very good at that. You have other clubs that tended to be smaller ones, that were better at player development,” he explains. “What we are doing now is starting to tie that all together. I think Toronto is a very good example of that this year. They’ve been able to rotate their squad, even through busy sections of the schedule, but they have the depth coming up through their player development system to handle that and they still have the top-end spending.”

TFC’s big money players are rather well known. Their Academy has produced eight starts, two goals and seven assists from their Homegrown Players, with Raheem Edwards being this year’s standout. Their Academy team plays in a semi-pro league called League1 Ontario. They finished 3rd in their division in 2016 and are currently third in 2017.

The Reds’ scrubs (per the stars and scrubs concept) are producing at every level. While S2 is not winning and Seattle’s depth is struggling to help its stars win at the MLS level, Lagerwey is unwilling to say that development is more important than winning. Players need to learn a winning culture while improving their skills.

“I’m super excited as the two biggest games in our youth development history are coming up July 6 and 7. The U16s made the quarterfinals for the first time. The U18s made the quarterfinals for the first time. You’ve heard me on my soap box, ad nauseam, talking about how important it is to improve our Academy. We now have tangible evidence that our Academy is improving. We’ve signed some guys to the First Team but it starts, our foundation to the whole thing, is Academy and if you are able to advance out of the playoffs and get into these elimination games and hopefully compete for national titles at the Academy level, now your talent level is better for S2. If you can make that better, you can push better players to the First Team.”
emphasis added by author

“I’m going to give you a nuanced answer. If you don’t teach them to win, they can never succeed as a professional athlete. Literally, at the highest level, it is about winning. But if you want to develop players, what I would say is that, from a coaching perspective, you want to prioritize technical and tactical development. You want to put players in positions, even if they struggle there, if you believe that’s where they have a long term future. The whole point is to teach.”

The way the Sounders are teaching may impact their Academy and, to some extent, S2’s record. It is by design. Some players will struggle as they are forced to adapt to situations that push their boundaries.

“We are not interested in what is their end product at 15 years old. We are interested in end product at 20 years old. If that means that you might be a lousy right back right now, but with some development you can be an awesome elite right back, then even if that means your team loses some games because you can play at center back and be super athletic, you can fight other teams and win the game, I would rather have that player at right back — develop them. Maybe it is harder for the team to win, but the group develops. That said, you must have a winning culture. You must advance in meaningful games because how you perform under pressure is really important.”

Those groups are developing. The evidence is not just in wins by the U18s and U16s, or even S2. The evidence is on the MLS roster where five players are HGPs and the USL roster where three players signed directly from the Academy and another signed to a USL deal after college.

There are misses. There are earlier successes as well. This club’s history of development at the peak level is great. It continues to get stronger at replacement level and MLS rotational player tier because of the choices made by Lagerwey, Academy Technical Director Marc Nichols, and the near-dozen coaches.

“In general development becomes about individuals. We want to have the best individuals in our group. We believe that we will have a critical mass of talent which will have the highest level of competition which will give all of those kids the best chance of making it at the highest level. They will have been put under pressure. They will have been put in this scenario where the best players are all on one team, or on one of a limited number of teams, and that then will raise everybody’s level of play.”

One example is teen phenom Azriel Gonzalez. At just 15, he was training with the First Team. While at the lower levels of the Sounders Academy, he was a withdrawn forward or central attacking midfielder. With the First Team and with the U18s, he plays out wide.

“At the 16s he can play as a 10 and get in the middle and be on the ball, but we want to put him situations where he is less comfortable and he has to learn as he comes up a level. If Azriel needs to be Nicolas Lodeiro to get on the field that’s a pretty high bar. If he can go in other positions, or even just have positional flexibility, it’s going to give him a better chance of breaking into the First Team sooner than later. For sure we’re taking that under consideration,” Garth explains. “Again, the idea with the young kids is that if you put them in different positions, they develop better tactically because they see the field from different sides. They’re going to understand different timings and different pressures.”

Lagerwey circles back. Not to the beginning of our conversation, but to the beginning of the season.

“Above all else, it is continuing what we started with this preseason which is: taking these kids, bringing them in with the First Team in preseason, exposing them to a higher level, pushing them into S2. We have four kids signed at S2 that came from our Academy. We had one the year before that, and we had one the year before that. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but once you get S2 up to 10 to 12 homegrown academy guys, you have guys that understand your system. They understand how to play. The other nuance I lay on you is that yes, you need top end talent, but you also need role-players. Role-players are effective when you give them specific defined roles and allow them to succeed. Not everybody is going to be a gifted, special player, but you can make replacement level players successful if you give them a defined task and ask them to execute it as a part of a group when they understand over a period of years, which is to say within the player development system.”

And we need to circle back. This organization is now targeting another MLS Cup. It is not ignoring the Supporters’ Shield, though that is a nearly impossible dream at this point. It cannot ignore the regular season. The Sounders must be good enough to make the playoffs or the entire philosophy of targeting the MLS Cup is useless.

Things are not good in Mudville. There is little joy. Crashing out the US Open Cup has people doubting the plan. The soundbite “I don’t put that much weight in the Supporters’ Shield” is quick, simplistic, and lacks nuance.

No one — not President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey, his bosses the owners, head coach Brian Schmetzer, not the players — no one is satisfied. Nothing about the organization’s philosophy suggests tanking the early season.

The Seattle Sounders, according to the President of Soccer, isn’t just a spending team. It’s a building team too. Not many in the league are both. But that’s the goal, that’s what produced a 2016 MLS Cup and what will produce successes in the future, if not next week.