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Craig Waibel brings wealth of experience to Sounders sporting director role

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During his time at RSL, Waibel oversaw one of the league’s most successful academies and developmental pipelines.

Photos via Real Salt Lake

Ever since Garth Lagerwey first took charge of the Seattle Sounders’ soccer operations, contending for championships has been the primary goal. By any reasonable metric, that has been a roaring success.

But somewhere close behind that on the list of priorities was building a sustainable model that would allow the Sounders to restock their roster with players from both the Academy and their USL affiliate. The metrics are a bit more mixed on that front.

While there have been some obvious breakthroughs, the developmental pipeline is still not flowing quite as freely as anyone would like. That’s where the Sounders are likely hoping Craig Waibel — their newly hired VP of soccer operations and sporting director — can make the biggest difference.

“After an exhaustive interview process, we feel Craig Waibel is uniquely qualified to make us better,” Lagerwey said in a team statement. “His years of experience as a GM gives him a track record of success picking players and overseeing a club, while his experience with player development will hopefully push our best young talents into further success with our First Team.

“Perhaps most importantly, his personal connection to our community here in Seattle, through UW and the Sounders, is what gives this hire the potential to be really special. With all of these qualities in mind, I could not be more excited to work with Craig going forward as our new Sporting Director.”

In addition to working with Lagerwey at Real Salt Lake — and eventually succeeding him as the team’s chief soccer officer — Waibel also brings familiarity with both the region and the team. Waibel grew up in Spokane, played and coached collegiately at the University of Washington, and had three separate stints with the USL Sounders, where he was a teammate with head of scouting Sean Henderson and played for Brian Schmetzer. His wife also has local ties, hailing from Bellevue.

“I’m very excited to return to the Pacific Northwest and join one of the most successful organizations in MLS,” Waibel said in the release. “I have very fond memories of Seattle from my time at the University of Washington and as a Sounder in my playing days, on top of respecting this club as an opponent in the Western Conference while with RSL. I look forward to working with Garth and Brian and doing what I can to continue the success that they, and others have already built here.”

As helpful as those personal connections were, what makes Waibel particularly well qualified for this position is that he oversaw one of the best developmental systems in American soccer while he was in charge of RSL for five seasons.

Waibel took over an RSL team that was in the midst of a massive transition. Although they had gone to MLS Cup two years earlier and finished third in the Western Conference in 2014, RSL’s core of veterans was aging out and they were among the league’s lower spending teams at a time when MLS was getting ready to dramatically increase its budget capacity. Waibel was effectively charged with rebuilding the roster around a younger core while expanding the organization’s ability to supply talent for the first team while the spending gap between them and the league’s top teams got bigger.

On top of that challenge, RSL was also undergoing an even bigger transformation in the other parts of the organization. In addition to starting up a USL team that would ultimately become one of the most competitive MLS-operated teams in the league, they were in the midst of moving their academy from Casa Grande, Ariz. to the current facility in Herriman, Utah, which includes an on-site high school.

Combined, it was in many senses an unprecedented task for Waibel to undertake, especially for someone who took the job with no prior managerial experience.

Few got a better look at Waibel’s time at RSL than Brian Dunseth. The former national teamer and current broadcaster for both RSL and Fox Sports covered the team before, during and after Waibel’s tenure and came away impressed.

“Without throwing shade at any of the other candidates, I think Craig was the most qualified based on what he did in MLS,” Dunseth said during an interview with Sounder at Heart. “This club was set up for success (when Waibel left).”

Among Waibel’s accomplishment during his four full seasons in charge at RSL were three trips to the MLS playoffs, the Monarchs finishing among the top 4 in the USL Western Conference three times and producing a host of academy players who have gone on to successful professional careers. That includes putting five players on the most recent United States U23 team, sending several players overseas and doing a good enough job producing enough first team talent that homegrown players accumulated more than 10,000 minutes for RSL in both 2018 and 2019.

Andy Williams, who started as an assistant alongside Waibel and eventually became one of RSL’s top scouts, described Waibel’s style as collaborative. Williams also noted that Waibel was one of the few people within RSL that he’d remained in contact with since being furloughed last year.

“He ran a tight ship, but I really liked him,” Williams said.

Waibel also deserves some credit for identifying Dane Murphy, who he hired as technical director in 2015 and is now the much celebrated CEO of Barnsley FC, one of the the darlings of the advanced analytics community.

“He knows how to hire people, how to let people do their jobs and be successful,” Dunseth said. “He’s really, really close with Garth. I can’t think of a better working duo to replace a guy like Chris Henderson. They’re friends, but they work well together and they’re strong enough that they can challenge each other. I think there’s a mutual respect.”