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Coronavirus pandemic, CBA complicate replacement of departing Sounders

GM Garth Lagerwey admits “it’s going to be rough” trying to fill the holes left by Jordan Morris and Chris Henderson.

Jordan Morris Press Conference

Count the Seattle Sounders among those who may already want a reset on 2021.

Coming off of a 2020 that hardly ended the way they hoped — including an “embarrassing” MLS Cup final loss, in the words of GM Garth Lagerwey — the Seattle Sounders have started off the new year losing two of their native sons. On Friday, it was announced that Jordan Morris was joining Swansea City on a six-month loan that could become a permanent transfer. Days before, they saw off Chris Henderson, the front office member who would normally be charged with replacing Morris.

The task of how and when to replace the irreplaceable begins now, but it’s a job made more difficult as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic which has made scouting overseas more difficult. The pandemic also continues to affect the timing of potential moves, as MLS and the Players Association remain locked in yet another collective bargaining dispute, events which have combined to potentially delay the start of the season.

“Those discussions now are league to players union,” Lagerwey told the media on Friday. “We know what you guys know as far as official announcements. We have not told our players a specific date to report. But speculation that means they’re going to report late is also unwarranted. We just don’t know.”

While the expectation according to Lagerwey is that the season will begin March 1, a minimum of six-weeks preseason is needed prior to the start of the season, meaning that practically speaking, a delay of at least of couple of weeks is virtually guaranteed. The silver lining of a potential delayed start is not a small one in Lagerwey’s eyes, as the Sounders look set to get a sufficient break before the season which ended about six weeks ago in Columbus. It also gives the Sounders more time to bring in a new potential sporting director.

“From a Sounders’ perspective, this uncertainty is maybe a blessing in disguise,” Lagerwey said. “We need a break after you play until Dec. 12. You have seen how exhausted we were at the beginning of 2017 and 2018 coming off of playing into December. Selfishly, for us, this isn’t a bad thing.”

What will be bad for the Sounders by Lagerwey’s own admission will be attempting to replace Henderson, widely regarded as one of the best talent-evaluators in MLS. Lagerwey said Henderson’s departure will force the Sounders to change up how they do things, as finding someone with Henderson’s skills and pedigree may not be possible, at least right away.

“In the short-term, it’s gonna be rough,” Lagerwey said. “I’ll always be grateful to him on a personal level. He is himself such a accomplished person and leader. The most critical part of our business is still talent evaluation, and Chris was the best at that.”

While Lagerwey is optimistic about the world returning to normal in the relatively near future, the inability to fully deploy their resources will continue to impact talent evaluation.

“It’s been hugely disruptive ... at least they’re not new disruptions,” Lagerwey said. “We couldn’t scout for the summer window last year, we couldn’t scout for the winter window, it doesn’t look like we’re going to be able to do much scouting for the summer window this time. We’ve got to adjust [and] adapt.”

Replacing Morris, whether it comes from foreign sources or domestic, will also present challenges in both the short and medium term. The possibility that the loan doesn’t work out and Morris finds his way back to Seattle exists. However, while the Sounders will benefit from Swansea picking up his salary for the term of the loan, the Sounders still have some budgetary issues to deal with.

“We have three Designated Player spots [filled], none of which are convertible for 2021,” Lagerwey said. “[Joao Paulo] could potentially be converted in 2022 into a TAM player. The other possibility for 2021 is that it’s conceivable that some version of a Young Designated Player Rule [currently known as the U-22 Initiative] might come into play.

“That is not official, but were it to come into play, that is potentially another mechanism by which we could try to replace Jordan if he is able to stay in the UK long term after a transaction.”

In the meantime, Lagerwey will do what he can to set the Sounders up for success for the 2021 season, whenever that is.

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