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Magnus Wolff Eikrem’s release: Explained

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In which we try to make sense of a very surprising personnel move.

MLS: Columbus Crew at Seattle Sounders FC Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

By now, you probably know that Magnus Wolff Eikrem was officially waived by the Seattle Sounders on Friday. All told, Wolff was under contract for less than six months, made just seven starts and logged 728 all-competition minutes. Despite the relative lack of playing time, you were probably taken by surprise, if not on Friday then late Thursday when Sounder at Heart first reported it. Heck, I was surprised when I found out about it.

At the time, it seemed like a strange move that didn’t make a ton of sense. Sure, the Sounders needed to figure out how to open a international roster spot somehow and Wolff seemed to be underperforming expectations, but he also came to Seattle with a fair amount of fanfare and had at least showed some promise.

Over the following three days, I wanted to see if I could get a bit more information that would help explain the move. Allow me to share:

Is Wolff the biggest bust in Sounders history?

Wow, just going to start there, eh? Well, I think he’s definitely in the running after scoring just two goals and logging one assist in half a season. There have been plenty of other players who spent less time on the First Team roster than Wolff did, but none of them were getting paid like him. The only other players who deserve to be in this conversation are Christian Tiffert and Blaise Nkufo, two Designated Players who were bought out after spending half a season in Seattle (and made comparable amounts to Wolff). I think it’s tough to argue either were bigger disappointments than Wolff, though.

While neither player worked out, both at least established themselves as starters. Nkufo started all 17 games in which he appeared for the Sounders — including a U.S. Open Cup final, two playoff games and two CONCACAF Champions League matches — while Tiffert started in 15 of 18 all-competitions appearances. Nkufo scored five goals during his Sounders career, while Tiffert had three assists.

Beyond that, the Sounders played well with both of them. The Sounders were 12-4-1 in Nkufo’s starts and won the U.S. Open Cup while they were 8-4-4 in matches Tiffert played at least 20 minutes, which includes a penalty-shootout loss in the Open Cup final and the team’s first-ever playoff-series victory.

Wolff, on the other hand, failed to establish himself as a starter despite playing on a team that was starved for offensive talent and is off to its worst-ever start. He flashed some brilliance when given a chance, but clearly never earned the trust of the coaching staff.

Whose fault is that?

That’s a great question and one I’m not sure I have a satisfactory answer for. Head coach Brian Schmetzer said straight up that Wolff was a professional while he was here and that the coaching staff never questioned his commitment. Schmetzer suggested that Wolff was brought here with the expectation that the Sounders would be playing a certain way and that the plan was effectively ruined when Jordan Morris went down with injury. That seems like a spurious argument, especially when you consider the timing of his release coinciding with the acquisition of a player who should allow the Sounders to play their preferred style again.

At the same time, there were definitely rumblings of a disconnect. How else do you explain a rookie like Alex Roldan getting four starts over Wolff despite the Sounders being starved for goals during that time? There was obviously something the Sounders coaches weren’t seeing from Wolff that they wanted to.

Is that Wolff’s fault for not adapting to the coaches’ desires or the coaches for not figuring out how best to utilize a talented player? I suppose that’s a bit of an “eye of the beholder” situation, but I will say that I think both sides reasonably share the blame.

But surely the front office must share some blame too?

Absolutely. Anytime you spend the sort of resources the Sounders did on a player — his salary was close to $550,000 according to the MLS Players Union and the Sounders were likely using a healthy chunk of Targeted Allocation Money to pay down his cap hit — and that player doesn’t work out, the front office needs to own it. What percentage of that blame goes to the general manager, the head scout or the scouting network is harder to assess, but hopefully some sort of lesson was learned.

Why now, though?

Another good question and one I definitely didn’t understand on Friday. At the time, it was strange to me that they’d waive a potentially useful player before having his replacement lined up. Best I could tell, the only gain the Sounders were getting from his release was the international roster spot (which they’d probably eventually need to sign another TAM player). I had originally speculated that since Wolff was a veteran player that his salary was almost surely guaranteed and as such he would continue to count against the salary budget. I even speculated that the Sounders would continue to need to use TAM to pay down his salary-budget hit. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I came to the wrong conclusion.

On Sunday, the Sounders clarified to me that even though Wolff’s contract was guaranteed, he was removed from the team’s salary budget because the contract termination was mutually agreed upon.

How much does that save the Sounders?

My guess is that they’re saving at least $200,000. Here’s the back-of-the-envelope calculation I used to get there:

  • At the time of his release, Wolff had been with the Sounders for about 24 weeks.
  • The MLS Players Union reported Wolff’s guaranteed compensation as $546,666.67.
  • The Sounders were probably using TAM to pay that all the way down to $150,000, the lowest amount allowed by MLS roster rules.
  • If Wolff’s compensation was paid out over 52 weeks, he had been paid about $252,000, of which about $69,000 was against the salary budget and another $138,000 had come out of TAM.
  • That would mean the remaining $162,000 of TAM would be returned to them, along with $81,000 of salary budget space.
  • Add that together, and you get $243,000 of cap space and TAM.

Knowing what I know about how salary budget numbers are figured — there are a bunch of hidden costs — I conservatively estimated that the Sounders’ should save at least $200,000. It’s possible that the Sounders agreed to give Wolff a sort of severance package that makes the savings a bit smaller, but this seems like a decent ballpark estimate.

Why would Wolff agree to terminate his own contract?

If you’re like me, you like getting money you’re owed and the Sounders apparently owed Wolff more than $250,000. Most normal people don’t willingly walk away from that sort of money.

In this case, though, being released from his contract allows Wolff to become a free agent and seek employment with whoever he wants, most likely in Europe. Although he went through a waiver process within MLS, teams were likely only being offered his rights, as opposed to holding his contract. Most of Europe is still in preseason and there’s a pretty good chance he can find something there and recoup most, if not all, of the money he was owed by the Sounders.

And it looks like he may have already found a club.

What do the Sounders do with that money?

I don’t think that’s enough to try to sign an additional TAM player, but this does likely give them a bit more wiggle room when trying to negotiate an incoming player’s salary or maybe even paying for a small acquisition fee.

When should we expect a signing?

When I thought the Sounders were still on the hook for Wolff’s salary, I figured a signing must imminent. Now that I know the timing was likely timed to give Wolff the best shot at finding a new job, I’m less sure on when we might expect the Sounders to add a TAM.

What kind of player do you think the Sounders will sign?

The most recent rumor suggested the Sounders were discussing a contract with Dutch left back Miquel Nalom. Frankly, that would be a bit disappointing if it were the only signing the Sounders were to make. At the same time, both Chris Henderson and Garth Lagerwey have suggested they are targeting an attacking player. I know finding a “pacy winger” has become a bit of a meme around here, but it does seem to represent the type of player they could use.

Couldn’t they have cut Tony Alfaro, Alex Roldan, Clint Dempsey or some other player I’m frustrated with?

I suppose, but that would not have made signing a new TAM player any easier as they don’t occupy international roster spots, also have guaranteed contracts and probably weren’t as inclined to “mutually consent” to walking away.

Who are the Sounders other internationals?

They also could have opened an international spot by ridding themselves of Raul Ruidiaz, Kim Kee-hee, Victor Rodriguez, Nouhou, Kelvin Leerdam, Gustav Svensson or Jordy Delem, or hoping one of them got a green card in the next few weeks. Everyone on that list played in Saturday’s win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, which probably speaks to how valued each of them are. I had previously speculated that Delem might pick up a mysterious injury and be placed on IR, but he seems to have a pretty solid place in Schmetzer’s rotation at this point.

The only other way to get an international roster spot is to trade for one. Before Wolff was waived, I believe there were five open spots around the league and the last time one was traded in a straight swap — March 2 by D.C. United from the Portland Timbers — it cost $175,000 in general allocation money.

I feel better, but I’m still annoyed.

I get that. I think that’s how I feel too. I definitely liked Wolff’s game and was very excited by his debut way back in February, but I’ll admit that he had a tendency to disappear and wasn’t quite as starved for opportunities as the popular narrative suggests (all but four of his 17 all-competition appearances were of at least 15 minutes). I think there’s plenty of blame to go around on this, but ultimately am glad the Sounders found a way to move on sooner than later once they decided Wolff wasn’t the player they needed him to be.