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For Sounders and Brad Smith, ‘long, short’ process worth reunion

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Patience pays off for Smith and Sounders.

Real Salt Lake v Seattle Sounders FC - Western Conference Semifinals Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

You might think Brad Smith would be impatient while he waits out his mandated 10-day quarantine period before he can rejoin his Seattle Sounders teammates. But considering how long he’s waited to finally call a place home, two weeks doesn’t seem like such a long time.

After a career that has seen him switch teams five times since making his professional debut in 2014 and never spending as many as two full seasons in one place, having some stability will be a welcome change.

“Football is all about a journey and everyone has a different pathway,” Smith said. “I’ve played in the Premier League, it’s the best league in the world. I’ve played for Liverpool and for me that’s a true honor.

“I came to Seattle on loan not knowing what to expect and I loved it and I decided to come back. I could have stayed in England but I wanted to come out here and be back with the Sounders family.”

To be sure, Smith’s reunion with the Sounders was in some ways nearly a year in the making, as he left the team after helping to deliver a second MLS Cup title last November. As the Sounders clinched the Cup at Century Link Field, Smith’s time with the team effectively ended with his loan expired. He then returned to his parent club, AFC Bournemouth in the English Premier league before going on loan with Cardiff City in the EFL Championship.

The Sounders obviously valued what Smith brought to the team, so even as he left, the Sounders took something of a risk in a MLS expansion year, protecting Smith’s MLS rights in the event he decided to return to the league.

“We think he’s a player that’s going to have value in MLS,” Sounders General Manager and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey said at the Sounders end-of-season press conference in November. “Brad’s 25 years old, so whether it’s next year or five years from now, maybe holding onto those rights might be something that is of value long term.”

Protecting Smith meant that the Sounders were at risk of losing a potentially valuable player. They did end up losing a player — Bryan Meredith — in the expansion draft, though they picked up some allocation money and an exemption from the 2020 expansion draft. With Smith’s rights secured, the Sounders and Smith continued to keep in close contact with each other as he left for England.

“Since I left, I was in contact with Adrian, and Garth with my agent,” Smith told the media on Thursday. “We’d been in talks for awhile, with Covid and stuff getting the logistics right and making sure the deal was right for both parties. It was sort of a long, short process.”

The process was surely helped by Smith’s successful tenure with the Sounders, which culminated in the 2019 championship run. Smith was able to get consistent playing time on the field, and enjoyed his life in Seattle off of it. When he returned to Bournemouth, he only made two League Cup appearances before going out on loan to Cardiff City, where he made three appearances in the Championship as the 2019-20 season ended.

Though his run in England ended in a disappointing fashion, Smith had no shortage of options overseas, according to Lagerwey.

“We always want players that, first and foremost, really want to be here,” Lagerwey said. “Brad really wanted to be here. Brad had other offers, he had other opportunities [and] things he could have done, but he chose the Sounders and we’re certainly grateful he made that decision.”

Of course, desire is only one part of the equation, especially in MLS with its restrictive salary budget rules. In an ideal situation, the Sounders probably wouldn’t have let Smith go in the first place, but the economics of purchasing a Premier League left back simply didn’t work. “There really wasn’t any way to extricate him at that time,” Lagerwey said.

And coming into the season, the Sounders had stretched their budget to the limit, having signed Designated Player João Paulo on loan for the year, and Yeimar Gómez Andrade to a Target Allocation Money deal.

“We spent all our money,” Lagerwey said with a laugh. The offseason moves, combined with the Sounders already-loaded roster, meant that the prospects of a reunion were fairly dim until there was a breakthrough of sorts.

It seems that the global pandemic may have helped in that very specific way, as world soccer economics were thrown into disarray. The market for a 26-year-old left back simply wasn’t as robust as it once was and Smith was possibly a bit more open-minded in regards to his next contract.

“He was willing to be flexible with what we had available this year,” Lagerwey said. “We structured the deal in a way that allowed us to get him in now. We able to get more on the back end for Brad, and we were able to pull it off.”

So with Smith now in the fold, the Sounders have arguably the deepest, most talented team they’ve ever had and another run at MLS Cup is likely the expectation. The Sounders are in “win now” mode, with a roster in their prime and a modified Collective Bargaining Agreement which could make for some interesting roster decisions in the future.

“Potentially some difficult choices,” Lagerwey said. “We’ve added a number of good players, we’ve kept a number of good players, and this is what happens when you have championship teams.”

But for Lagerwey, the potential pain of making those choices in the future is outweighed by chance of winning titles by signing players like Smith.

“For us, we believe we have a chance to win the title,” Lagerwey said. “If we’re able to repeat, that gives us three titles and we’ll be remembered as one of the better teams and that’s a thing worth playing for.”