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Garth Lagerwey reflects on his first eight years as Sounders GM

This will be the second time Lagerwey’s position has come up for a vote.

Garth Lagerwey hugs Lindsey Wasson / Sounders FC Communications

By just about any reasonable standard, Garth Lagerwey’s eight seasons as Seattle Sounders general manager and President of Soccer have gone about as well as anyone could have hoped. He’s helped deliver two MLS Cups, led the Sounders to six cup finals in three different competitions and, of course, scaled the regional mountaintop by becoming the first MLS team to win Concacaf Champions League.

Beyond the first team success, the Sounders have also laid the foundation for future achievements through the academy and Tacoma Defiance. He hasn’t gotten literally every decision right, but the overall direction of the team seems as strong as it has ever been.

As Lagerwey enters his second retention vote, now seemed like as good of a time as any to ask him to reflect on the previous eight years and to look ahead to what might happen over the next four. Seattle clearly has a special place in his heart, even if it won’t be his last stop. There is obviously no guarantee that he’ll be around that long, but he does seem bullish on both the future of the Sounders and MLS.

Here are some of the highlights:

How he views the GM vote

Lagerwey has been consistent since his hiring that he may not love the uncertainty that comes with fans casting a binding vote on his job performance, but he definitely appreciates the process and considers it a foundational part of the Sounders organization.

“I enjoy it holistically in that it’s an important part of the Sounders. The pragmatic aspect is that the vote could go badly. But this isn’t about me personally. You have to put it into context. If you’re the GM of the Sounders, you’re the steward of the club and part of this nearly 50-year history. It’s part of the job. It is authentic.

“It’s hard to completely divorce yourself personally because if we lose the vote, our family has to move and we lose all our friends and our school and all the cool things that come with living in Seattle. But I also realize no one cares about that, nor should they. It’s personal to me in that sense, but you do have to look at the big picture.”

Is he still having fun?

Lagerwey has been doing this job for 15 years now, dating to his time with Real Salt Lake when he was lured away from a cushy job as a lawyer at a Fortune 500 firm and could easily do something different if he wanted. His perspective has evolved, but while the daily work may still be a bit of a grind he finds great joy in bigger-picture aspects of the job.

“I work for a kids’ game and they pay me for it. I pinch myself every once in a while, I joke with my wife that ‘I get to watch tv tonight.’ It’s a good gig.

“Eight years in, the good news is we’ve had some success. The other side of it is you do it for long enough, you know where the moles are, too. What’s fun is working on the people with the soccer side, the 40 people here and how we came through the pandemic, who were the frontline workers. That’s the kind of stuff that is its own reward. Yes, it’s a fun job.

“There’s no other place in America — except, maybe Atlanta — that you can put this crowd together and to do it twice in four years [in addition to MLS Cup 2019], it was a spiritual experience. People are literally swaying back and forth but it was a shared moment we collectively had together and then we score the third goal and you thought the building was going to collapse. That will be with me forever. I can’t imagine having a memory that’s better than that. My family was there with me. It was everything you ever hoped for. What do you work in sports for? It was that.”

He helped turn Sounders into a ‘club’

The Sounders were coming off a Supporters’ Shield-U.S. Open Cup double when Lagerwey joined the team from RSL. Improving things was not going to be an easy task. Lagerwey took on the challenge because he saw room for growth, and that was in helping the Sounders go from a very good team into a great “club.”

“We had a staff of 11 people at RSL. I came in here and Chris [Henderson] could have sunk me or made me. He was incredible for Day 1, he didn’t have to do any of that, I was the new guy imposed on him. I worked out that he’s an elite talent evaluator, and I had done that at Salt Lake, but what’s the one thing I can do for him since he’s done me more than a solid? I’m going to keep him doing what he’s doing, and I’m going to empower him to go further with it. I can work harder and make myself 2-5% better but now that I’m at the Sounders and we have 40 people, the real systematic difference is you can make eight department heads 2-5% better? Now the organization is 40% better.

“This was a soccer team when I came here, but we’ve built a soccer club. I don’t mean that in a derogatory manner to what came before, but we’ve invested on many different levels and platforms. Ownership took a risk with that and made significant investments on things people don’t see, and it’s worth my singing the praises of the ownership here in that they’ve consistently reinvested the fans' heard-earned money back into the club and done it in strategic ways that will be a longterm benefit to the club.

He’s found his ‘tribe’ in Seattle

It’s no secret that Lagerwey will have options outside of Seattle if he wants them. Atlanta United is looking for a club president and has said they intend to at least talk to Lagerwey. There are surely other jobs that could entice him, especially if they offer a level of control he simply doesn’t have here. But Lagerwey also insists that he has fallen in love with Seattle. More than that, his family loves it here. He joked that he feels as though he’s even found his “tribe,” in fellow sci-fi and comic book “nerds” that also happen to love soccer.

“Seattle is awesome the community is awesome, friends and schools … we have a good life. That means a lot. And the family’s happiness is a lot. Yes, there’s always going to be career things but you always have to weigh that against family. Going back to when we came here, there was another club that had floated the idea of me becoming the CEO there, and purely career-wise that was maybe the right choice but family-wise this was the right choice. Family has a way of informing that. That’s the right balance. If you want to be happy and have fun days, I think that goes a long way. We’ll have to see how it plays out.

“I’ve done interviews about the Avengers, Dungeons & Dragons, long conversations about comic books and the MCU. For better or worse, this is my tribe I think.”

Leagues Cup bigger impact than Club World Cup

We still don’t know for sure where or when the next Club World Cup will be held. But even if it’s scheduled for early February and held in the United States, the Sounders would only play two or three games. Lagerwey said they aren’t going to make any plans explicitly designed to bolster the roster for that. A bigger part of the planning process, Lagerwey said, is the upcoming Leagues Cup which will have its first expanded tournament next summer. He also doesn’t think the Sounders will get any sort of general allocation money or roster bonus to help them compete in the Club World Cup.

“I don’t know that [the Club World Cup] does. We don’t know when, where and we don’t know when the transfer windows are going to be. If the transfer windows are lined up like this year and it’s played in early February, there is a scenario where we can’t sign any more players. I think we’ll find a solution, but that’s the level of where we’re at in terms of planning. There’s a ton of uncertainty around it. I don’t know more than you. We have nothing in writing about the tournament. It’s two to three games. Are you to sign a player for two to three games?

“I think the answer is going to be nothing [as far as new resources from MLS]. We had three years of a flat salary cap and because we kept winning, we pushed all that salary into next year. You can undo that, there’s always things you can do, but you’re going to want to balance the chances of winning the Club World Cup. I’m not sure how likely that is. Do you go all in for two games?

“The MLS season fundamentally changes next season. The structure of the season — 34 regular-season games, plus potentially seven Leagues Cup games, plus Open Cup, plus playoffs [plus CCL]. You’re probably playing, at least a good team, 45 games at a minimum. Literally a [UEFA] Champions League schedule every single season. We could be in the 50s. It fundamentally changes how you approach the season. You have to play more players, you have to rotate more and you have to evolve. [UCL teams] don’t play 13 guys 60 times. We have to do the same thing.”

No regrets

Lagerwey has been open about the Sounders effectively going all in on the Champions League. The downside was that the Sounders didn’t have the salary-cap space to do much in the summer. Even as the Sounders head down the final stretch of the season chasing a playoff spot, Lagerwey says he feels they made the right choice.

“For better or worse, I believe what I believe. I believe in player development, I believe in playing young players. We accomplished something no one has accomplished before and whatever the cost of that is I’ll pay. Does that mean I want to miss the playoffs? No, and I don’t think we should. There’s a scenario where we’re favored in every single game the rest of the way. That doesn’t make it easy, it’s very, very hard, which is why websites like 538 have us at a 29% chance because we haven’t previously won six in a row. But we’re certainly capable of that. As recently as July 2 we were playing at one of the highest clips post-Champions League. As recently as last game, we were fielding seven Best XI players and that’s without [João Paulo] and Cristian Roldan.

“It was a test of faith. We had this plan, we knew the downsides and we’ve seen the upsides. The upsides of winning Champions League kinda steeled us. We were offered players, but if you did it it would cost us a starter next year. That was it. If you believe the team is really good and if you believe that you have young players that are really good, it will play out.

“Danny Leyva and Josh Atencio have been very good for the better part of two years. We’re going to make it or not make it on the better part of their efforts. We’ve surrounded them with nine other veterans and put them in a position to succeed.

To the moon on a rocket ship

Lagerwey may or not still be with the Sounders by the time the 2026 World Cup rolls around, but he’s definitely planning to be working in MLS. In fact, he finds it almost bizarre that any league official would consider leaving before the world’s biggest soccer event returns to the United States and he is a firm believer that AppleTV’s streaming deal is the vehicle to help deliver a worldwide audience.

“If you reach a truly global audience through Apple, does that spur all these other ecosystems to come to life around MLS? I think people are still fascinated with America and MLS hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves, which is why winning Champions League is so big. It was really hard but worth trying. I do think that’s the first step. It’s not the whole mountain, but you’ve climbed the mountain once. Now you have to stay on top.

“The Leagues Cup is going to be awesome for the profile of MLS. As we build into the World Cup, soccer is only going to get bigger, if you look at the valuations that have consistently ticked up. I think there’s going to be a ton of investment in the sport and in Seattle specifically. If you look at the infrastructure around MLS, it’s really exciting.

“This is the bet. The whole ecosystem is going to grow and be elevated. I think we’ll see what it can be. I’m really excited to be a part of it.

“People ask if I want to go to Europe and I just can’t fathom going to Europe right now before the World Cup comes to America. Maybe I’m missing something, but it seems like an opportunity of a lifetime.”

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