Since officially joining the ranks of MLS in 2008, the Seattle Sounders have been defined by their stability both on and off the field. While their 12 straight playoff appearances is a well-known MLS record, that they’ve had just two head coaches and two chief soccer officers during that time is arguably just as impressive. Chris Henderson has not usually been the one getting the lion’s share of the credit for any of that, but it can hardly be overstated how integral he’s been to the Sounders’ success.
A valid case could be made that Henderson’s departure to Inter Miami is the most significant loss — either on or off the field — in Sounders history. Without Henderson, the Sounders might not have been able to land Sigi Schmid, for instance. Henderson also was instrumental in recruiting Dave Tenney, who helped pioneer the Sounders’ analytics department. Then there’s all the players he helped identify and sign, from Fredy Montero to Nicolas Lodeiro and more recently guys like João Paulo and Yeimar Gomez Andrade.
Over the years, I’ve had numerous chances to talk to Henderson about his process and evolution. Over the past few days, I’ve reached out to several people in the Sounders organization about the change. Combined, I think I’ve been able to create a reasonably good picture that helps explain his decision and what he leaves behind.
Why would he leave?
I’ve done some asking around and best I can tell, it was really just a matter of Henderson wanting to take on a project he could call his own. As big a part as he was in helping the Sounders with their MLS launch — he was apparently one of the key components of convincing Sigi Schmid to join the team — Adrian Hanauer was still the general manager and had final say on the big moves. In Miami, Henderson will have that power.
Henderson knows the market reasonably well, having played there in 2001. He also interviewed for this job two years ago, only to lose out to Paul McDonough. I think he’s also excited about the specific opportunity. Miami is no longer an expansion team, but they seem to have a decent foundation and certainly have an ownership group willing to spend money. They spent more than $25 million on transfer fees alone to build their first-year roster and then committed about $25 million more to Gonzalo Higuain, despite not even being able to use him to sell tickets right away. My understanding is that David Beckham reached out to Henderson personally to help close the deal. Add it all up and it’s hard to imagine how Henderson could turn it down.
Couldn’t the Sounders have convinced him to stay?
Henderson was probably already the most respected No. 2 in the whole league, was working for the team he grew up rooting for and was given a level of autonomy and control few in his position enjoy. I’ve found no evidence that his working relationship with Garth Lagerwey or anyone else in the organization was remotely problematic. If anything, I think his affinity for the organization is the only thing that even caused him any second thoughts. I would not be at all surprised if he ended up here again.
How big of a hole does this leave the Sounders?
Make no mistake, this is a significant loss. Henderson is probably the best talent evaluator in the league — I don’t think anyone can match his hit rate on foreign signings — and won’t be easily replaced. But it’s important to note that the Sounders scouting apparatus is far from a one-man show. At the top is still Lagerwey, whose teams have qualified for the MLS playoffs in all 13 full seasons he’s been a GM. In his six seasons here, the Sounders front office has been significantly modernized and diversified. The Sounders now have separate scouting and analytics departments, in addition to the input they receive from one of the league’s best coaching staffs. The job Henderson was hired to do effectively all by himself in 2008 is now done by something like a dozen people — scouting and analyzing players not just for the first-team but for the Tacoma Defiance and Sounders Academy — all of whom appear to be sticking around.
Who replaces Henderson?
I’m not sure anyone will, at least not right away. Like I said, there are a bunch of people that already do parts of his job and my suspicion is that they’ll just be tasked with a bit more responsibility. Specifically, I suspect that means the opinions of people like Scouting Director Sean Henderson and Director of Analytics Ravi Ramineni will carry a bit more weight than they did previously.
Should we be worried?
With the looming departure of Jordan Morris for at least six months and the pandemic making in-person scouting much more difficult, this is not an ideal time to lose someone like Henderson. The good news is that he leaves a lot of institutional knowledge behind. I don’t think the Sounders will suddenly struggle to identify good players. Where Henderson’s loss may be more acutely felt is in the “soft” parts of the job. Henderson seemed to have a particularly acute understanding of how player personalities fit together and what kind of mentality was going to succeed in MLS. Beyond that, he was a really good recruiter and was often tasked with closing deals. I think the Sounders will be fine, but they’ve definitely got their work cut out for them.