TUKWILA, Wash. — Throughout his career as an MLS talent evaluator, Craig Waibel has stood out with his ability to find players others may have missed. That’s how he was able to regularly put out competitive teams at Real Salt Lake while being outspent by most of the league and it’s what made him such an attractive candidate to the Seattle Sounders when they were looking for someone to replace Chris Henderson as Garth Lagerwey’s No. 2.
Rarely has Waibel been afforded the luxury of scanning a list of players, identifying the one he felt was simply “the best” and having the confidence he’d have the resources to push the signing across the line.
But that’s basically how the Sounders ended up signing their newest Designated Player Albert Rusnák.
Waibel estimated that it took him about “three seconds” after the release of the MLS free-agent list to identify Rusnák as the player the Sounders should pursue.
“It doesn’t take long to highlight a player like Albert,” Waibel said during Friday’s press conference officially introducing Rusnák. “It’s the biggest move we’ve seen in league history in terms of moving from one team to another.”
The attraction was easy to understand. Since coming to MLS in 2017, Rusnák has established himself as one of the league’s most consistent goal-creators with 41 goals and 39 assists in that time. He’s also a Slovakian international who at 27 has never missed more than two consecutive games in his professional career due to injury or discipline.
While Lagerwey didn’t need much convincing of Rusnák’s quality, he was also a little skeptical. Not only was Rusnák the best player on the team who just knocked out the Sounders from the playoffs, but also had no shortage of suitors from both MLS and abroad.
“I said ‘Rusnak’s not coming. Come on,’” Lagerwey recounted with a laugh.
In Lagerwey’s telling, at least, Waibel’s personal relationship with Rusnák was a key factor. That’s because this was actually the second time Waibel had recruited Rusnák. The first time was in 2017 when Rusnák was much less of a known commodity, a 22-year-old trying to find his place in a mid-table Eredivisie team. Although Rusnák had come through the Manchester City youth program and had enjoyed a fair amount of success in the Netherlands at a relatively young age, RSL were still able to sign him on a transfer fee of less than $500,000.
Rusnák repaid that faith in him almost immediately. He logged 7 goals and 14 assists in his first MLS season, then followed that up with consecutive 10-goal campaigns while earning himself a handsome new contract that paid him more than $2 million a year. Along the way, Rusnák also got to know current Sounders coach Freddy Juarez, first as an assistant and then as the main man.
“Really truly, if these guys didn’t know each other ... we were very lucky to be able to have some of the conversations we had because there was some trust there,” Lagerwey said. “As much as I was initially skeptical of it, I was also thinking ‘if we can do it, that would be amazing. This will be the biggest deal in MLS history from a free agency standpoint.”
The Sounders seemed to sense that in the introductory press-conference. Lagerwey, Waibel and head coach Brian Schmetzer all wore suits — although, in a nod to the organization’s business-casual approach, they all went tie-less — while the livestream had an air of polish that is often skipped.
Taken together, there was a clear message that the Sounders have no intentions of cutting corners in a year in which they have a roster that should be able to compete in Concacaf Champions League, the U.S. Open Cup and in league play. Adding Rusnák to a roster that was left almost completely intact from the one that claimed 60 points last year is almost too good to be true.
Based purely on his résumé, Rusnák is easily the most accomplished player to be joining a new MLS team for the start of the 2022 season. In addition to his MLS production, he has 12 goals and 8 assists for various European teams and another 7 goals and 4 assists in international competition. Players outside of Europe’s so-called Big Five leagues at Rusnák’s age and boasting his bonafides are routinely valued in the $5-$10 million range.
In a purely rational market, the lack of needing to pay a transfer fee probably should have allowed Rusnák to virtually name his price. This is, of course, not exactly a rational time. Instead, Rusnák surveyed his options and agreed to a two-year guaranteed deal that includes a team option year in 2024 and is actually a slight pay cut from what he’d been making the last few years.
That not only speaks to his comfort with the Sounders brain trust and his desire to play in front of crowds like those at Lumen Field but also to his desire to start winning trophies, the one thing that has so far eluded him. Rusnák will be joining a team that has won two MLS Cups since 2016, has made the playoffs for 13 straight seasons and, most excitingly, now features a roster that is probably its most talented ever. At full strength, the likely starting lineup will feature a player at every position who regularly plays for their national team, has been named to an MLS Best XI or has started an MLS All-Star Game. In several cases, the players fit all three categories.
Even if reports are true that Rusnák asked for positional guarantees from the RSL technical staff before choosing to leave, a Sounders source offered assurances that he made no such demands during their talks. Rusnák had been the team captain at RSL, a team that had almost been around him. But in Seattle, he seems to appreciate that for all his accomplishments, he can afford to be almost a complementary piece and focus solely on raising the team’s level as opposed to racking up individual accolades.
It’s not at all hard to imagine Waibel using all that in what may have seemed a long-shot pitch.
“The key factor for me was the winning mentality of the whole organization,” Rusnák said. “It’s that privilege, that pressure of winning basically every competition we enter.”