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The logistics of touching eternity

How do you build a team to make history?

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

At this point you’ve probably wrestled with the idea that the Seattle Sounders are on the verge of making history, of doing something that to this point has been whatever is just this side of impossible. You’ve read and listened to discussions on the topic, you’ve heard Garth Lagerwey say that this is a chance at immortality. I know that the thought has made your heart pump a little faster, maybe heightened your senses a little bit as adrenaline courses through your veins, because I know it did for me. And maybe you’ve also found yourself thinking, “I wonder how that’s even possible,” because, frankly, if no one else has been able to do it then why is this team any different?

It’s easy enough to say that Garth Lagerwey is the difference, or that Garth Lagerwey and a handful of signings are, but none of us are here for an easy or incomplete answer. Garth Lagerwey is a big part of the answer, though, because if you want to build the Tower of Babel you’re going to need a top-class architect to raise that tower into heaven. The Sounders have spoken of a desire to make a name for themselves on a global stage since the very beginning of their time in MLS. They were collecting US Open Cups, a Supporters Shield, and getting into Concacaf Champions League — that aforementioned global stage — consistently, but never quite reaching the heights that they wanted or felt that they needed to prior to Lagerwey joining the club ahead of the 2015 season. Seven years later and the club have won two MLS Cups, been to the final of two more, and now they’re a win away from doing something no other MLS team has ever done to claim the one accomplishment still sitting unchecked on the club’s to-do list.

The success hasn’t come from nothing, and Lagerwey hasn’t done it himself. He came from Real Salt Lake, where he’d built an MLS champion and got as close as anyone else to winning CCL with a limited budget and a thriving academy to feed a talent pipeline that allowed them to compete with better-resourced MLS teams. He had the experience to know what it would require to get back to that precipice and take the final steps into history. He came to Seattle with a plan, and in the subsequent years he’s laid out his blueprint and helped the organization to execute so that now they only need to lay the final bricks.

Garth Lagerwey joined a team that was already at the forefront among MLS teams in terms of the staff and infrastructure supporting players. The Sounders may not have the finest training facilities for the time being — that will change when the club moves to Longacres — but they were among the first to put an emphasis on analytics, player/performance data, and integrating them into both scouting and training and preparation. Since Lagerwey came to Seattle, the Sounders have grown their staff to the point where now the team has a group of 40 people entirely focused on the sporting side. That includes data and analytics, scouting, coaches, trainers, and so on. These folks don’t step onto the field, but their work does. They help to prepare the team day-in and day-out, putting together scouting reports and training plans and making sure that every player is at their physical and mental best when they set foot on the field. They are the scaffolding that is erected around the team, allowing for advancement as well as repairs and corrections. The scaffolding is modular, the pieces can change, and the structure can grow alongside the tower, and it wouldn’t be possible to build the tower without it.

A tower needs a foundation, and the foundation of this tower is the development system. Maybe the biggest direct impact Garth Lagerwey has had on the Sounders is his work to build up and maximize the Sounders Academy and development system. Once again, this existed prior to his hire, but Lagerwey has helped to take it to new heights. The Sounders Academy had certainly helped to develop some quality players, with Jordan Morris and DeAndre Yedlin being the standouts among over a dozen current professionals that came out of that academy setup, but it wasn’t as consistent or nearly as high level as it needed to be to meet the club’s purposes. In the past seven years the Sounders organization has invested in staff and infrastructure for the academy, given greater resources to recruiting and raising the overall level of youth soccer in the region, and it’s paid off. The Sounders Academy made MLS history in 2019 when the U-17s won the top division of the Generation Adidas Cup, becoming the first MLS academy to do so. Then they made history again when they repeated as champions in the same age group this year when the tournament returned. The Sounders First Team now includes eight players who spent time in the Academy, with five of those players coming up during the Lagerwey Era, and there’s no end in sight to the development pipeline.

It’s not just the academy, though. Tacoma Defiance — formerly Sounders 2 — are an important and necessary part of the development path in the Sounders organization. Defiance serves as the incubator where academy players are able to mature and develop, alongside young to young-ish players from outside of the system. Without Tacoma Defiance/S2 we wouldn’t have Nouhou and Abdoulaye Cissoko, we probably wouldn’t have Jackson Ragen, and Josh Atencio, Danny Leyva, Obed Vargas and all of the players who have and will follow along behind them wouldn’t have been as well prepared to step up when called upon. The development system ensures the stability and the future of the club. It guarantees that the beliefs and ideals that guide the team — both on the field and off it — are instilled from a player’s first step along the path to MLS and beyond, and as the quality rises in the academy teams and Tacoma Defiance, that quality is then carried on into the Seattle Sounders squad as those same players fill in the roster. A thriving development system, at it’s best, raises the floor and the ceiling of what a club is capable of, and that’s exactly what’s happening with the Sounders.

With a foundation in place, the structure of our tower begins to take shape. Stones of differing shapes and sizes are sought and found that join together like pieces of a great puzzle. Having brought along expert craftsmen who know which stones will be able to handle the pressure and weight of what’s asked of them, and masons who know how to bind them together, the architect sees his vision take shape. Alex and Cristian Roldan are found in the club’s backyard after playing college soccer at Seattle University and the University of Washington, and familiarity with them and their college coaches allows the Sounders to bring them in and trust them to grow into international-caliber, club legend type players. They might be small, but the club knows that they won’t crack under pressure, that they can be expected to carry the weight of expectations. Will Bruin, Xavier Arreaga and Yeimar join from other teams with a wealth of experience and all of the drive and skill to help the club reach new heights. The mortar that binds it all together is the club’s culture and the connection to the city of Seattle and the region that surrounds it. That bond brings Kelyn Rowe and Fredy Montero to the Emerald City. Rowe, after spending nearly a decade in MLS, came to play for his hometown club, while Montero returned after years away following his first stint as the team’s talismanic goalscorer. To be able to return home they’ve accepted the reality of diminished roles and decreased wages, because some things just mean more. That’s what the Seattle Sounders are made of; that’s what the club represents.

This tower is built of mortar and stones, but to achieve the greatness, to complete the beautiful and intricate designs, it takes more than even just the highest quality of stones. A tower that ascends high enough to converse with God and inscribe your name in eternity, well, that tower’s not much good without a way to get in. This tower needs arches, beautifully designed and expertly crafted, and those arches need keystones. The crowning piece at the apex of each path through the tower, the keystones not only hold the whole thing up but also provide no small amount of beauty and majesty. In an MLS roster, those keystones are the stars. They’re Designated Players, TAM signings, and the captains and leaders that exhilarate and entice.

The infrastructure and scaffolding of the club allows for the right players to be found to make the most of the significant investment that such a place in the team requires. The foundation and brick and mortar of the development system and wise roster construction allows for the Sounders to invest heavily at the top of the roster. That can mean shelling out multi-million dollar transfer fees and millions in salary to attract the likes of Nico Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz, and the high-priced players that preceded them. Players capable of moments of pure beauty and magic in the tensest of situations — revisit what they did in the first leg against Pumas as only the most recent example — while also being the kinds of men and players who will give everything that they can to see the team succeed. It can be bringing in an excellent if unheralded player like João Paulo, who would have been impossible to bring to MLS only years earlier, or it can mean committing serious resources to retain players who have become stars in their time with the club like Stefan Frei, Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan. Morris and Roldan, you may remember, signed big extensions ahead of 2019 in a move that now seems like genius but was met with skepticism by some.

These keystones are arguably the most important to get right, and the Sounders consistently do their best work with them. The track record was good prior to Garth Lagerwey, but under his guidance they’ve been excellent, and it’s no coincidence that the club has reached its highest heights in that time. Now we have one last step to take.

The Tower of Babel is maybe a dangerous metaphor to use when discussing or describing a thing you love, since the story famously involves the tower and its builders being brought low and cast to the wind. But life carries with it inherent risk, and especially so when you try to do what’s never been done before. It requires a leap of faith, the knowledge that the price of making history is the possibility of great pain. Pain is inevitable, though, and so it’s worth to risk a little bit for the chase at immortality. Garth Lagerwey has done the grueling and painstaking work that helped to build the Seattle Sounders into a tower capable of touching heaven. Now all that’s left to do is to reach for it.

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