TUKWILA, Wash. – After his comments to Extra Time Live host Andrew Wiebe set social media ablaze following the Sounders’ loss to Los Angeles FC over the weekend, Seattle general manager and president of soccer Garth Lagerwey addressed the media at Starfire Sports Wednesday to try to clarify his comments and reaffirm the Sounders’ ambition to be a top club in MLS.
Lagerwey said he had used a poor choice of words when he told Wiebe the “days of Seattle being the biggest spender in the league are probably behind us.”
“I screwed up,” Lagerwey told reporters on Wednesday. “I said some things inarticulately. I came to this club from Real Salt Lake because of the ambition of the club. Because of the 40-year legacy and all of the things they had done and I hoped that we could do. If you look at the performance of the club far before me, it’s always been one of the best in the league. I think we’re first or second in terms of the league record in the last decade with the longest active playoff streak. The club definitely has ambition.
“Historically, we’ve always been, at worst, in the top quarter of the league in spending. We’ll continue to be there going forward. I expect that we will always be there and I do think that makes us competitive with any market in the league. If you look at spending in the last couple years, we’ve won a title and made it to a final, so I think we have been competitive.”
The comments, combined with Seattle’s quiet end to the primary transfer window on Tuesday night, had reverberated through fans online, who wondered if the club was still seeking to be the league’s benchmark in the new landscape that includes Atlanta United and LAFC.
Lagerwey revealed that the club plans to make an “eight-figure investment” in a player during the summer transfer window, and potentially signing another player as well. The comments on Sunday, he said, were a misstep after a long transfer window of being asked why nothing seemed to be happening in the front office.
“I got frustrated by being asked the same questions, and that’s not on (the media), that’s on me,” Lagerwey said. “I think that’s what caused me to melt down a little bit. Not good on my part, but hopefully we can correct the record here. Again, we’re trying to win championships. We’re trying to win Champions League. We’re trying to win MLS Cup. We’re going to compete on all fronts. I am really excited to be at the Sounders, there is absolutely no reason we will not continue to be the excellent team we’ve been since before me and since I’ve been here.
“I was honestly excited about being in LAFC’s stadium. They’ve done a lot of things right, I really like those guys. The first question of the interview was ‘tell us about how great this stadium is.’ That’s what I meant to articulate was, ‘hey, there are all these other great stories.’ We don’t want to be the only great story in MLS. To our fans: if you want to have good competitive games and exciting soccer and grow the league, Atlanta’s really good and LAFC’s really good, those are all good things. Where I meant to go is the rising tide is lifting all ships. That’s a really great thing as a consumer and as a fan of the Sounders because it means you’re going to watch better soccer. Every time we launch and we expand, it strengthens the league and it shows we’re going to get bigger and bigger. That is really exciting.”
Lagerwey also addressed concerns that arose around the teams commitment to fans, saying that on reflecting on what had been said during the weekend, he understood how it might sound like he or the organization took them for granted.
“My intention was the opposite,” he said. “I am so grateful to our fans and to our fanbase, because they give us this financial ability to hang in this elite neighborhood. Look, the fan ticket revenue is one aspect of our business, the sponsorship revenue is another. In-stadium revenue is another. To state the obvious, if you own your own stadium, you have more control over the revenues inside the stadium. Those are ancillary. Our fanbase is very important to who we are. We’ve also striven to keep prices reasonable. Our ticket price as compared to a Toronto or a New York—or an LA—is quite reasonable, because we want to be inclusive, we want to have a large fanbase with that energy; that’s really important to us”.
A reddit thread from March has a list of the minimum and maximum season ticket prices by club for the 2018 season (though as it clarifies, they are prices for new season ticket holders rather than those renewing old seats). While Seattle has a higher cost of entry than Toronto and LAFC, it also seems to have a much lower maximum price. This is by no means an exhaustive study, but it does suggest that Seattle does have a vested interest in putting butts in seats at CenturyLink Field.
Head coach Brian Schmetzer, for his part, was clearly incensed by the implications of the topic, going strongly after reactions making claims “...about this club not wanting to compete, or they can’t compete, or whether what Garth said or didn’t say, or what people heard or didn’t hear – I need to tell everybody that we, and the players on the field, haven’t quit on the fans”. He also defended vehemently the team’s desire and intent to compete with any team in the league. “We are not afraid to compete against New York, LA, Atlanta. We aren’t afraid of that. ... [The front office] are busting their ass, the coaching staff is busting their ass trying to find solutions, and we are going to push forward. I want to push forward on all this mess because, I have already told you, as long as I am here, this team is never going to quit”.
As for what else Seattle can do apart from spending to keep itself ahead of the game as Atlanta and LAFC enter the battle for league supremacy, Lagerwey addressed the infrastructural investments made in youth development in his time in Seattle.
“Compared to an LAFC or an Atlanta, our academy is in a better place than theirs is,” Lagerwey said. “We’ve tripled, now, our player development investment between S2 and the academy. Our 17-year-old group is now one of the elite academies in the United States. We’ve done this in three years. The project takes five or six years before it’ll trickle up to the first team. We started off signing 20-year-old kids out of college, we’re now signing 15-year-olds…I’m grateful for our owners that they’ve been willing to invest in player development because I think that’s a big part of who we’re going to be going forward.”
Finally, Lagerwey explained Seattle’s deadline day inactivity through the context of the impending World Cup. He sounded confident that once the World Cup ended, the right player would be available for Seattle to bolster its roster at the midway point of the MLS season.
“In a World Cup year, the market is very slow because very few people are willing to switch countries and take on a new project and a new adventure with a World Cup place at stake,” Lagerwey said. “For us, we felt like we had an opportunity in the first week or so of February once the European transfer window closed. In fact, we made an offer to a player, and we wound up closing a deal, and the player wound up walking away. We were almost there, and 90 percent of deals that’s the way it goes, but once that opportunity passed, yeah, the window was open, but if you’re talking about making a good long-term investment to the club, a three- to five-year investment, no matter how tempting it is you’ve got to have the ability to be patient and wait and make a good decision.”
The clarifying comments won’t do much to remove the heat on the Sounders, who are still averaging 0.67 points per game, six matches into the season. On the whole, however, they may help restore a sense of normalcy to the message that has been consistently preached by the front office since the club entered MLS in 2009.