Usually around this time of year, Chris Henderson is flying around the world, leaving clues as to his whereabouts by posting pictures on Twitter. Past trips have taken him everywhere from Japan to Iceland to all over South America and helped the Seattle Sounders establish themselves as arguably the standard bearer of foreign scouting in MLS.
These days, Henderson’s itinerary is far more mundane. Like the rest of us, he’s been grounded and following the Washington’s stay-at-home guidance. That doesn’t mean that his role as Sounders’ chief scout has been entirely diminished.
Technology has allowed the Sounders Sporting Director to continue to watch film and do research on potential targets and his vast rolodex of contacts has perhaps never been more handy.
“I think the way the league is going, these relationships are going to be so important and they are so important to getting deals done,” Henderson said during a recent interview with on the Sounder at Heart podcast. “I mean, you just want to be the person that they pick up the phone and call you first.”
Henderson noted that it was relationships like this that were key to the Sounders’ acquisitions of players like Mauro Rosales, Gonzalo Pineda and Djimi Traore in previous seasons.
More recently, Henderson’s network of scouts and contacts have helped the Sounders make more marquee signings and put them in a position where they could bring in a player like João Paulo without having to break the bank. Although MLS has not historically done a lot of business in Brazil, Henderson discovered that João Paulo was interested in coming to the United States and was eager enough that it wouldn’t require a longterm commitment.
Henderson’s eye for talent hasn’t just benefitted the Sounders. While exact records on such things are not kept, the Sounders seem to have an inordinate number of players on their Discovery List signed by other MLS teams. Henderson confirmed that the Sounders once had discovery claims on players like Diego Valeri, Sebastian Blanco, Miguel Almiron and Josef Martinez. The Sounders have also been compensated by the Chicago Fire when they signed Nicolas Gaitan and by Nashville SC when they signed Hany Mukhtar.
“You just hope that you end up signing the right players along the way to to make your team successful,” Henderson said.
In addition to whittle down his list of potential targets, Henderson said the Sounders scouting department and coaches have also been using this period to refine their systems. One project has been improving the way the team profiles players throughout the organization.
“Now everything is in line, and under the same format from the academy through the first team, which is really helpful,” Henderson said. “It’s down to performance demands, it’s technical comparative analysis by position.
“That really helps us when we’re going to do depth charts. We focus on the positions that we need. We know which players we’re looking at, which players will fit in in and at least check most of the boxes for us.”
One other big project they’ve been working on is figuring out a way to better understand how performance in one league might translate to another, which has been a particular focus of Sounders Director of Analytics Ravi Ramineni.
“There’s new software out there that helps compare leagues and they have their own rating system,” Henderson said. “So digging into that deeper using Ravi and the rest of our staff to be able to figure out how MLS compares to leagues in Europe and South American leagues that we’re scouting and all the time. And that will help us on both buying and selling players in the long term.
“As long as everyone is willing to put in that information, the more information we can gather and sift through and then narrow down ... that’s the part of the process that has to be refined. I think you can make some really smart decisions that are going to be long-term decisions for the club, and where you’re cutting out mistakes.”
While Henderson clearly believes that his lived experiences and in-person scouting are important elements, he also acknowledged that the Sounders’ willingness to embrace technology has helped keep them at the forefront of the league.
“It’s art and science,” Henderson said. “I think that it goes also with building organizations: you can’t hire people who all think the same way. You have to balance with the creatives and the scientific in the analytics. And I think getting a balance of those personalities often make a good organization.”
You can download the whole interview here.