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Craig Waibel seems a near perfect cultural fit for Sounders

Thanks to Garth Lagerwey’s work, the organization probably needs continuity more than dramatic change.

Corky Trewin/Sounders FC Communications

RENTON — As an 18-year-old freshman soccer player at the University of Washington, Craig Waibel randomly found himself seated at some event with legendary Huskies football coach Don James. Waibel says he still isn’t sure how that ended up happening, but James left a lasting impression with something he said during that dinner.

“There’s no loyalty in sports,” James said.

Waibel apparently uses this phrase a lot, almost as a personal ethos. Following his appointment as just the third general manager in the Seattle Sounders’ MLS history, I asked him what it means and why he’s so fond of it.

“[James’] point was simply ‘do what you can while you’re there,’” Waibel told me. “At some point in these positions, you might be asked to leave and that’s usually performance/result based. You can’t really care about all the external adoration or confrontation. You have to perform.

“I have to throw my punch. I have to have a vision, I have to work within this club. There can’t be any ambiguity — if I’m asked to leave — as to what I was trying to accomplish. I would like it to be clear. I would like everyone to understand it. I think I’m pretty good about sharing that.”

What Waibel says he’s trying to achieve is nothing short of clearing the bar previously set by the Sounders under his predecessors. As if anyone needs a reminder, that’s a no small feat. Over their first 14 seasons in MLS, the Sounders have won four U.S. Open Cups, a Supporters’ Shield, two MLS Cups, four Western Conference trophies and, most recently, the Concacaf Champions League.

“They built a legacy just shy of perfect,” he said. “That’s what we intend to live up to.”

Given those lofty ambitions, it’s probably understandable that many Sounders fans seem to be a little underwhelmed at Waibel’s hiring. Waibel has a good deal of relevant experience, but his teams at Real Salt Lake were pretty average, and his time with the Sounders has mostly been defined by roster stability and his influence is hard to identify.

When the Sounders signed Garth Lagerwey away from Real Salt Lake following the 2014 season, on the other hand, he was considered by most to be the best general manager in MLS. That the Sounders were coming off a double-winning season of their own suggested they still weren’t satisfied and felt compelled to bring in an outside voice.

Lagerwey’s hiring wasn’t just about winning trophies, though. He was also brought in to enact systemic change. As successful as the Sounders had been in their early years, it was still a relatively small organization that was probably too reliant on individual talents. Pull one piece out, and the whole thing could topple.

During his eight seasons with the Sounders, Lagerwey didn’t just deliver results on the field, he also installed far more organizational structure. The academy was modernized, the scouting department built out, the analytics department given far more resources and power, the fitness department expanded. Between the academy and first team, the Sounders had about two dozen coaches and support staff on the technical side prior to Lagerwey’s hiring. There are now about twice as many on their technical staff.

Lagerwey also deserves credit for providing the kind of big-picture thinking that led the Sounders to abandon plans for expanding their footprint at Starfire and instead look for someplace like Longacres, a location that will not only immediately be among the best facilities in MLS but has the capability to keep improving.

Put another way, Lagerwey’s legacy is in creating an environment where his successor can afford to be more focused on the intricacies of roster building and less on ambitious world-building.

In that way, Waibel seems perfectly well suited for the position. Unlike when he was elevated from assistant coach to technical director to succeed Lagerwey at RSL, Waibel now has about seven years of experience running and working in an MLS front office. During his five seasons at RSL, there were near constant off-field distractions, but he still managed to build a competitive roster heavily reliant on homegrown players, MLS veterans and supplemented by a few budget-friendly but successful foreign transfers.

His personality also seems to be an easy fit.

In researching this story, I talked to a half-dozen people who have worked with both Waibel and Lagerwey at RSL and the Sounders. The general consensus was that both have broadly similar philosophies on how to build a successful organization. They believe in empowering their subordinates to do good work without micromanaging and that the best results come from everyone doing their jobs just a little bit better. Neither are willing to give up on good processes, even if there is short-term pain. They both are comfortable enough with who they are and what they’ve accomplished that they can crack jokes at their own expense. They are self-assured enough to command respect without demanding it. But they also arrive at these places very differently.

Although both are former players, it’s notable that Lagerwey went to law school after he retired and Waibel became a coach. One source described Waibel as “cooking on a medium heat” while Lagerwey is more into “searing his steak.” Another source suggested that Lagerwey could sometimes come off as a bit condescending at times, while Waibel could sometimes be a little more overtly stubborn.

My personal observation is that when Waibel attended training, he was there to observe and take notes. When Lagerwey showed up at training, it was almost always to talk to someone, either coaches or the media. I don’t think the relationship between Lagerwey and the coaching staff was necessarily bad, but Waibel’s personality and experience may mesh a bit easier.

“We’ve already had a relationship for 18 months,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer told reporters. “We’re going to see what worked, what didn’t work, what we can do better. There’s things we have to sort through. I’m personally enjoying those conversations. He has a little more conversation in the room because he was invited into the coaches’ room on a more regular basis. He already knows how we operate, so he’s starting at a little bit of an advantage.”

Beyond all that, there also seems to be a genuine cultural component to this hire. Waibel was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, played and coached at UW, and had three different playing stints with the Sounders. He also won four MLS Cups as a player.

Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer has always been big on continuity and that’s a big part of why the team has only missed the playoffs twice since he took over during the USL days more than 20 years ago. The Sounders have had only two head coaches in that time and there are so many former players working for the team in various capacities that it’s hard to count.

When the Sounders hired Waibel last year, it was at the end of an exhausting interview process that took several months. Hanauer insisted that part of what made Waibel so attractive then was that he was confident the Sounders had a potential successor to Lagerwey.

“I say this a lot, but organizations win and lose together,” Hanauer said. “It is the sum of the parts, it’s not an individual. Something I really appreciate with Craig is he absolutely gets that. He knows that it is going to take everyone in the same boat rowing the same direction for us to continue to have success, winning championships and being that shining beacon for all of North American soccer to admire and aspire to.”

From the outside, I think you can argue that there was an element of loyalty in Hanauer’s decision to hire Waibel, too. But true to his ethos, Waibel sort of rejected that. Although he had previously turned down general manager jobs in order to remain with the Sounders, even if Hanauer might have hired him with an eye toward eventually taking this job, Waibel never believed he was promised anything.

“It’s kinda wild and kinda fun to write the stories in hindsight, but in reality I was spending a glorious amount of time with my wife and daughter,” Waibel said of his mindset before joining the Sounders. “The opportunity to come in and work with good people is what attracted me here. There was no thought process of what was the next step. Candidly I had the opportunity last summer to take the next step and it didn’t fit at the moment. It had nothing to do with my future or current situation here. They let me pursue other opportunities, but it was never a conversation or expectation that I’d take over here. This is just a byproduct of Garth’s awesome opportunity, and I guess my work over the past 18 months warranted a chance at this one.”

When Lagerwey and Hanauer first started seriously discussing a potential extension about six months ago, Waibel took the extraordinary step of asking not to be involved at all. He didn’t want his interests or ambitions to influence those discussions one way or another. He just wanted to be judged on his performance.

“That was out of respect to Garth and Adrian,” Waibel said. “I didn’t feel fundamentally it was right to put any pressure on either one of them. Yes, that makes me different and I understand that, but I’m comfortable being different in this world of sports.”

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