The first time Garth Lagerwey hired Craig Waibel — as an assistant at Real Salt Lake — it was over endless breadsticks at Olive Garden. Or maybe it was a pretzel-bun hamburger from Ruby Tuesday. The exact details are slightly contested. But what both agree on is that the interview process was considerably less formal than the one that resulted in Waibel being hired by Lagerwey to be the Seattle Sounders’ new VP of Soccer Operations and Sporting Director.
To get this job, Waibel had to navigate an interview process that featured dozens of highly qualified candidates, at least two rounds of video interviews and a written assignment. Sounder at Heart understands that no internal candidates formally applied for the position.
“The interview process was pretty arduous,” Waibel said during his first meeting with local reporters on Friday. “Unfortunately, it was far more thorough than any interview process I’d ever run. There were several different detailed projects to discuss... meet different people in the organization. It was challenging. I felt there weren’t many secrets by the end of the process. We knew who each other were by the end and it made it a simple decision for me.”
From the dozens of applicants — all of whom were asked to submit a formal resume, and a least one of whom was an assistant coach at a top Premier League team — the Sounders settled on an initial list of about 17. That group, which Lagerwey described as “diverse from a gender and ethnicity standpoint,” went through an interview process that lasted about two hours each and involved various Sounders personnel from the technical and front office staff.
A list of five finalists was chosen. They were then asked to submit a written assignment in which they projected how they would build the Sounders roster over the next several years. The idea was not necessarily to collect specific names that the Sounders should pursue, but to see how each of the candidates would approach the process. Another round of interviews followed, with majority owner Adrian Hanauer and head coach Brian Schmetzer joining the panel.
Only then did Waibel emerge from the two-month-long journey as the clear top choice.
“We wanted to screen out any bias we had in the process,” Lagerwey said, noting that the interview panel was equally diverse. “We tried really hard to get a really broad pool of people from South America, from Europe and from the United States. We talked to agents, scouts, coaches, really a broad brush to try and learn, to make it an exploratory thing. It was a cool process. We learned a lot.
“It’s a credit to Craig that he stayed with it. Three separate rounds, and Craig impressed in all of them.”
Of the three finalists who most stood out, only Waibel had clear local ties. While not necessarily a prerequisite for the position, the Washington roots and familiarity with many of his new coworkers clearly worked in his favor.
“The biggest challenge when you enter any club is figuring out the culture and identity, how the club feels on the inside,” Waibel said. “How does that represent the community and the fanbase? Typically in sports, you were needed yesterday. The familiarity with the community is important.”
Beyond growing up in Washington, attending school and coaching at UW, playing for the USL Sounders and marrying a Bellevue woman, Waibel also impressed with his understanding of both the intricacies of building an MLS roster and his experience in youth development. Most importantly, however, Waibel was also able to articulate a vision for the Sounders that would potentially keep them competitive even after the likes of Nicolas Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz move on.
“Oftentimes in life, people confuse friendship and work,” Waibel said. “I think Garth is the best at what he does. I put my nose to grindstone and built some traits of my own. It’s a little different than what Seattle and Garth has built.
“We are friends, but at end of the day we’re both full of opinions and both unabashedly unafraid to challenge each other. I think that will show as time goes. There will be moments where we need to disagree. That’s what sport is, it’s such a beautiful canvass for opinion. Garth has always encouraged [constructive disagreement] when I worked with him and something I encouraged in people I worked with as well.”
Lagerwey acknowledged that hiring a former MLS general manager with ties to the region probably wasn’t the sexiest choice, especially at a time when teams are hiring coaches with ties to names like Marcelo Bielsa and chief soccer officers who came straight from Europe. But not having to make a hire like that is itself a sort of advantage, he insisted.
“I’ve never worried about star status when we signed players,” Lagerwey said, pointing out that neither Lodeiro nor Ruidíaz were exactly household names in the United States. “The great thing about working in Seattle and such a well established fanbase is we don’t have to pander. We can just sign the best people. It’s a credit to our fans that we can go out and just get the best talent. Chris [Henderson] was a great talent but Craig is as good of a talent.”
And in a couple months, maybe they can even go celebrate with chocolate tallcake.