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What to make of Garth Lagerwey-to-Chicago Fire rumors

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It’s mostly speculation, but we dig into how there might be legs to this.

Mike Russell / Sounder at Heart

The most intriguing name you’ll likely hear as potentially leaving the Seattle Sounders this offseason is not a player. Rather, expect to hear more than a few rumors about the departure of General Manager and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey to the Chicago Fire.

Lagerwey’s name has been linked with the Fire almost ever since billionaire Joe Mansueto finalized his purchase of the team back in September, and those rumors got a bit of a boost in October when The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio mentioned the possibility. But what really got the rumor mill going was a seemingly overlooked piece by Grant Wahl in Sports Illustrated just a couple days before MLS Cup.

The story mostly talks about what a wonderful job Lagerwey has done with the Sounders in directing them to three MLS Cup finals in four years. Eventually, though, Wahl mentions Lagerwey’s Chicagoland roots and even directly asks him about his interest in the Fire job.

“I’m really happy here, and Nelson Rodríguez does a great job there,” said Lagerwey, who has three years left on his Seattle contract.

While that’s an almost impossible question to answer in anything like a tactful way, it’s also notably not a denial of interest. It’s also not that hard to imagine that five years into this job with the Sounders that Lagerwey may be starting to wonder about what’s next. The reality is that he’s done just about everything he set out to do here in terms of helping build out the club’s infrastructure, modernizing a lot of the systems, and winning two MLS Cups. The Fire are poised to enter a new era with a billionaire owner, are moving to a downtown stadium, have created a ton of roster flexibility, just fired their coach — after Rodriguez had said he’d be back a few weeks ago — and will be pulling out all the stops to make a big splash immediately. There might not be anyone better suited for the job than Lagerwey.

There is at least one notable piece missing from Lagerwey’s resume, however, and it’s the one that has been a sort of white whale for him: a Concacaf Champions League trophy.

Aside from all the stuff that would sensibly keep Lagerwey in Seattle — he and his family seem to genuinely like it here, he’s enjoying a ton of success, he’s well resourced, he’s under contract — the chance at near-term CCL glory might be the thing that at least delays any potential move. Even in a best-case scenario, the Fire aren’t going to be in any position to compete for a CCL trophy for a couple years, while the Sounders could make a serious run at it next year without doing anything overly drastic to their current roster.

In a lot of ways, this is pretty close to the roster Lagerwey has been trying to build for the last five years. He’s got one of the continent’s top No. 10s and one of the best strikers; a winger in Jordan Morris who few can match; and international-quality players at virtually every spot in the starting lineup. As Lagerwey has said, this is a roster at the mature point of its cycle. It would make a certain amount of sense for him to stick around long enough to at least see the fruits of his labor, no matter how enticing the Fire project may be.

If Lagerwey were to leave, the Sounders seem well positioned to make it relatively pain free. The new GM may not have Lagerwey’s big-picture management ability, but they might not have to. In Chris Henderson and Ravi Ramineni, the Sounders already have one of the league’s top traditional talent evaluators and one of the best data analysts. They also just hired Peter Tomozawa as the President of Business, meaning whoever replaces Lagerwey will only need to be focused on soccer. Further softening the potential blow is that the Sounders would likely be well compensated to allow Lagerwey to leave before his contract expires in three years, meaning more resources for his successor to use.

To be clear, I’ve not seen any reliable reports that Lagerwey is poised to make this move aside from Internet whispers and general speculation. But it’s definitely something I’ll be keeping an eye on as this offseason progresses.