SEATTLE — For much of Garth Lagerwey’s tenure as Seattle Sounders general manager, there’s been a certain defensiveness. It’s not so much that the results haven’t been there — for the most part, they have — it’s that there’s been this underlying distrust of him in certain circles of the fanbase. Lagerwey has always seemed to be at least aware of this, and as a result the Sounders’ moments of triumph have felt more “see, I told you to trust me” than “isn’t this great?”
On some level, it’s that he’s very much an outsider in an organization where local ties are starkly evident at virtually every level from ownership all the way down. But I also suspect it was born out of the knowledge that fans literally had the power to fire him if they became so inclined. Whether it was the potential to launch a recall or to simply vote him out on a normal schedule, I don’t think the possibility of that happening ever really escaped Lagerwey’s consciousness.
Lagerwey’s popularity — and to a lesser degree the fanbase’s overall satisfaction — was formally tested this year. The results were unveiled on Tuesday, and it sure seems like Lagerwey passed with flying colors.
Perhaps more telling than the 87 percent support he received in the second-ever GM vote was that less than 40 percent of the eligible votes were even cast, suggesting a tacit endorsement of the organization’s direction. It should be said, those votes were cast before the Sounders failed to advance to the conference finals for just the second time in five years. But they also came before the Sounders had clinched a playoff spot, let alone finished off the best half-season in MLS history and surged to the No. 2 seed. In any case, I don’t get any sense that the results would have changed significantly if that information had already been available.
More so than any of the previous five times the Sounders had failed to advance beyond the Western Conference semifinals, the level of unease was palpably lessened. The crowd at the Alliance Business Meetings is almost always generally supportive, but this year’s event had a genuine buoyancy that in my memory was only eclipsed by 2016 (which featured the all-time feel-good moment of local-boy-done-good Brian Schmetzer being formally unveiled as head coach).
No one wore that relative lack of burden quite like Lagerwey, who was behaving like a weight had been lifted, one that even back-to-back MLS Cup appearances previously couldn’t remove.
When asked if he saw this season as a success, he was refreshingly honest.
“We can’t lose to Portland and call the season a success,” he said to mild applause. “You can’t be the only favorite to be knocked out and call it a success. We’ve said we’re going to win MLS Cups so our performance in the playoffs matters. Take nothing away, I don’t think anyone watched that game and didn’t think the players gave everything they had and staff gave everything they had. I’m far enough away from it to appreciate what a spectacle it was. But we want to compete for championships. We’re happy we got the bye, but hopefully we can get there with less stress next time.”
Lagerwey basically doubled-down on those statements later during a talk with media members.
“We’re not in this for half-regular seasons,” he said. “That’s not the business. It feels good, it’s nice, it doesn’t mean we don’t have a good foundation or you start over by burning the place down, but you play playoff games to win. If you don’t, you have to take a look at yourself and say ‘We had the No. 2 defense in the league and at the most important time we allowed four goals.’ That’s a collective thing, and you don’t want to over-analyze two games, but you have to do everything you can to set yourself up for success and hold yourself to a higher standard. If our stated goal is to win MLS Cups, you do that by winning playoff games. If you go out in the first round, that’s not good enough.”
Finding success in failure always feels problematic, but there’s also an almost commonsensical truth to the idea that the Sounders will be better set up to succeed at the start of next season as a result of their early exit this year.
“The biggest thing for us is this offseason is getting some rest,” Lagerwey said. “We’ve had two straight years of no offseason and that’s just not sustainable. I know people don’t like that answer, but there’s a physical limit on how hard we can push our guys. You saw that with Toronto (who failed to make the playoffs after two straight MLS Cup appearances).
“I do feel good about next year. I feel good about being able to compete on all fronts. We don’t have to play Champions League. I don’t want the message to be, you go out early in the playoffs and you start the next season well, but I think for our third year in a row that’s the silver lining in this cycle.”
At least over the last two seasons, Lagerwey’s stated confidence in the roster he’s helped assemble has always been high. He’s received a lot of flack for that confidence, especially when it came in the face of record-worst starts, but it does seem genuine.
Like last year, the turnover this offseason is expected to be low. Unlike last year, though, the Sounders head into this offseason having already added a franchise building block to the roster in Raúl Ruidíaz. They’ll also be adding Jordan Morris, who — let’s not forget — was considered a budding superstar as recently as nine months ago.
Integrating Morris into a lineup that already features Ruidíaz, Nicolas Lodeiro and, presumably, Victor Rodriguez will have its challenges. He’s not an obvious pairing with Ruidíaz in a two-forward set and he seems more comfortable coming off the left wing, which is where Rodriguez has looked his best. Maybe Rodriguez moves to the middle with Lodeiro on the right? At the same time, there’s a tantalizing upside that seems worth trying to figure out.
“It affords us the luxury of patience,” Lagerwey said about adding Morris to what was already a reasonably strong roster. “When you have a player of his caliber coming back, it gives us more opportunities to see how he fits. It’s a big piece to add to the team; we missed him all year. He hasn’t played with Raul, he hasn’t played with Nico, Victor and Raul all together. We’re going to see what that looks like. Cristian (Roldan) played some wing, but we may push him back, so maybe that’s the role he plays, maybe we play a different formation. That’s all stuff we have to see how it goes.
“We believe we have a good team and because we have that belief, we’re going to give Jordan a long leash to prove himself. We’re going to rely on the people around him to fill roles and if we have some bumps, that’s OK. We’re not interested in having a perfect regular season. We’re interested winning MLS Cups and putting ourselves in Champions League. We’re in a better spot than we were a year ago and Jordan is a big part of that. We need to make sure we don’t just put him in a box, give him three weeks and panic. We have to be patient and see how he fits with other pieces.”
It’s entirely possible that the positive emotions following this season are misplaced. Last year, the Sounders were stuck licking their wounds after getting badly outplayed in an MLS Cup final. Maybe the same fate would have awaited them if they advanced that far again.
Misplaced confidence or not, Lagerwey is finally heading into an offseason with the verified support of the fanbase. It feels like a good place to be.
A few predictions
The Sounders could announce a slew of roster moves as soon as Friday, but probably no later than Monday, that will set the table for an always interesting offseason. Here are a few things I suspect will happen
- Osvaldo Alonso will be allowed to test free agency. I honestly don’t know if he’ll be back, but the only way he is if it’s at a greatly reduced salary and with the acceptance of a reduced role. Alonso can still look similar to the guy that will go down in history as an all-time great among MLS defensive mids, but it’s coming in smaller and smaller bursts.
- Cristian Roldan will sign an extension that makes him a TAM player. He deserves it. The Sounders will hopefully have an easier time convincing MLS HQ of this than they did with Joevin Jones and Stefan Frei.
- Gustav Svensson will be back. Losing Svensson would have caused a trickle-down effect that could have created some real headaches, but having him back provides more flexibility.
- Rodriguez will be back too. I’m sure the Sounders were given pause due to the various injuries, but at his best he’s a DP quality player at a TAM price.
- If the Sounders pursue any high-priced players — either of TAM or DP quality — I think it will be a more defensive player, either a midfielder or a center back, likely younger than 25.
- There will surely be some reinforcements brought in and my suspicion is that at least one or two will come from inside MLS. Someone like Kelyn Rowe sure would look nice as an option in that attacking band, and I think the Revs may have finally depressed his value enough that he’s attainable.