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How the new MLS CBA affects the Sounders

Garth Lagerwey’s prudent approach to offseason proved prescient

Seattle Sounders Victory Parade Photo by Jim Bennett/Getty Images

Around mid-December I talked to Garth Lagerwey about the current state of the roster. At the time, the Seattle Sounders had not made a single significant offseason signing, but Lagerwey didn’t seem worried. When I asked him if the roster might remain unchanged between then and the opening of training camp, he almost matter-of-factly stated “it might.” He had even cautioned, almost defiantly, “sometimes you have to wait when it’s uncomfortable.”

Those words proved to be interesting foreshadowing. By the time training camp opened a little more than a month later, Lagerwey’s demeanor had seemingly changed even if his words hadn’t. Still without a significant signing — and most notably just a single centerback under contract — there was a more defensive tone.

Where once he seemed confident that his plan would eventually come together, there now seemed to be a seed of doubt. Most that had descended, I suspect, from the reality that neither Román Torres nor Kim Kee-hee had opted to accept diminished contracts when the thinking at Starfire seemed to be at least one them would.

While the offense was largely unchanged from the one that romped through the playoffs with 12 goals in four games and led the Sounders to their second MLS Cup in four years, the defense was almost comically thin.

In addition to just one centerback, the Sounders had no backup at right back and with Nouhou not yet in training camp, their only available left back had spent most of the past two years playing as a midfielder.

At that moment, all the talk of making a run at becoming the first MLS team to win Concacaf Champions League was feeling rather hollow. Signing journeyman centerback Shane O’Neill later that day did little to significantly alter the equation.

The culprit, Lagerwey had insisted all along, was the still unsettled CBA negotiations between the players’ union and the owners.

“For better or for worse, I’m pretty meticulous and pretty stubborn,” Lagerwey said. “When you don’t tell me the rules, I tend to not do my best.”

Lagerwey’s caution about preparing to be uncomfortable had originally seemed meant for fans. Now, he seemed to be feeling it.

Fast-forward a couple weeks and Lagerwey was exuding a much more confident energy. The Sounders had just signed João Paulo to a Designated Player contract and were on the verge of announcing Colombian centerback Yeimar Gomez Andrade as a TAM player.

While the Sounders weren’t breaking transfer record like so many of their fellow MLS brethren, Lagerwey had made two additions about as significant as anyone else in the league. Both had the experience and resumes to suggest they can hit the ground running and will likely make the Sounders an improved team — even over the one that won MLS Cup — as soon as they’re fully integrated.

Just as importantly, Lagerwey had managed to get both players without taking unnecessary risks.

When a deal on the new CBA was finally announced on Wednesday — just a day after Yeimar Gomez Andrade’s signing became official — Lagerwey’s prudence proved prescient.

Lagerwey’s caution all along had not necessarily been about having something as drastic as a contract being voided. Rather, it was avoiding the potential of getting locked into a contract that suddenly became far less manageable in the coming years or, even worse, be forced to carry “dead” money by being stuck with a well-compensated player who wasn’t contributing.

From the look of it, Lagerwey avoided that nightmare scenario.

João Paulo comes to the Sounders on a one-year loan that likely means he’d only count as a DP for 2020, even if he were to return. That could prove doubly important if owners decide to exercise their ability to limit the full use of the third DP spot to players 23 or younger, as the new CBA allows.

Similarly, the Sounders are likely no worse off in terms of available TAM now than they were at the end of last year. My back-of-the-envelope accounting and some educating guessing suggests the Sounders were able to shed about $1.2 million in TAM by parting ways with Victor Rodriguez, Torres, Kim, Emanuel Cecchini and Brad Smith. That’s likely pretty close to what they’re having to spend to buy down both Xavier Arreaga and Gomez Andrade.

With the amount of available TAM remaining at $2.8 million for 2020, that shouldn’t be a problem. They increased pool of General Allocation Money should give them the flexibility they’ll need to make another significant signing, most likely in the summer.

The new CBA does pose some challenges, though.

Perhaps overlooked by the significant gains players made in the deal — dramatically improved free agency, more charter flights, greater access to the whole pool of money — was the reality that the overall player budget increased only modestly. In fact, each team’s on-cap budget only goes up about 5 percent per year. Once raises and bonuses are factored in, it’s entirely possible that a team locked into a bunch of high-cost, longterm contract would be left with virtually no room to maneuver from one year to the next.

Being able to spread money around with much more freedom likely comes as a massive relief to a GM like Lagerwey. But he’s also lost a degree of the spending advantage he’d had the last couple years by having an owner willing to fund the full amount of discretionary TAM. Over the course of the new CBA, that number will gradually decrease to $2.125 million by 2024.

The new DP rule — as well as a still vague program designed to encourage teams to sign players between the ages of 18-22 with sell-on potential — will also add a new area adept GMs can exploit. Lagerwey has spearheaded the maturation of the Sounders Academy to the point where regularly producing first-team caliber players is easily on the horizon. New rules will only add to the value of those types of signings.

What the Sounders have not done much of is successfully sign younger players from foreign leagues. Nouhou, and to a lesser degree Jordy Delem, were both relatively young but were also extreme bargain buys. Not since striking gold when they signed a still 21-year-old Fredy Montero in 2009 have the Sounders made a significant investment in a player that would fit the new third DP criteria. At the very least, we’re likely to see them try to use those new signing mechanisms.

Taken together, these are the types of rules Lagerwey had cautioned against trying to predict. Now that they’re laid out, he can figure out the best way to bend them to his will. That prospect should make Sounders fans very comfortable.

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