In Garth Lagerwey’s office is a board with list of various potential signings. The list includes some names that apparently display a good deal of ambition.
For now, it remains very theoretical.
Despite having just 20 players under contract — only one of which is a natural centerback — and knowing full well that Concacaf Champions League is right around the corner, the Sounders GM will not be rushed into making decisions solely focused on the 2020 season.
“I think our body of work allows us to be patient,” Lagerwey said in a phone call shortly before the CCL draw was announced. “Is that the best thing for the Round of 16 CCL game? Maybe not. But we’ve not gotten to where we’ve gotten by being reactive. We’ve not gotten where we’ve gotten by saying we have to have such-and-such done by such-and-such date or the thing is going to burn down.
“We have to look at the big picture. I have had success in my career looking at the long term and I don’t think that’s going to change.”
Lagerwey is happy to point out that he was preaching a similar message early in 2016 when the Sounders’ patience resulted in the summer signing of Nicolas Lodeiro, who promptly led them to their first MLS Cup. It was much the same in 2018 when calls to sign an immediate replacement for Jordan Morris were answered with the summer transfer of Raúl Ruidíaz, who ended up playing a massive role in this year’s MLS Cup run.
But there’s waiting for a potential franchise-altering DP signing and then there’s waiting to add a second natural centerback to the roster.
“Oh, you noticed that?” Lagerwey quipped before noting that the Sounders made offers to both Roman Torres and Kim Kee-hee, and that he’s still hopeful at least one will choose to return.
Unsettling as it may be, though, the reasons for Lagerwey’s reluctance to rush into action go beyond his normal reasons. In Lagerwey’s eyes, the ongoing negotiations over the Collective Bargaining Agreement make it almost impossible to make significant commitments.
“If you don’t know how much money you’ll have, it’s really hard to know — not just how to fill holes — knowing what’s a good contract and a bad contract,” Lagerwey said. “It’s hard to decipher that value if you don’t know the whole picture.
“We have to be cautious about how much we load up before we know the rules. When you’re talking about DPs, that’s a three- to five-year commitment and you don’t know the rules for the next three to five years. I know it’s not what anyone wants to hear, but it’s a wrinkle you have to think about.”
The Sounders have the ability to make one DP spot available. With the normal caveat that identifying, recruiting and signing players worthy of large expenditures takes time, filling the spot could be straightforward enough. There’s no reason to think players commanding eight-figure commitments — like Nicolas Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz did — won’t count as DPs no matter what happens during CBA negotiations.
It’s a bit more complicated when it comes to players signed with Targeted Allocation Money. For one, it’s not even clear if that mechanism will exist going forward. Assuming it does, though, it’s much more of a guessing game what the salary range for a player like that would be. On the expensive end, the Sounders could end up signing a player they expect to buy down with TAM only to later find out that player will count as a DP. On the less expensive end, they could wind up committing money to a lower-salaried player only to find out they could have brought in a better but more expensive option if they’d waited to find out the new rules. Maybe transfer fees will be calculated differently or the age of the player is factored in. Knowing exactly how those players will hit the salary cap is perhaps the biggest wrinkle of this offseason.
Given all the unknowns — even after acknowledging he might be more inclined to make winter signings this offseason than in previous ones — Lagerwey admitted there’s a chance the roster the Sounders open training with will look an awful lot like the one they have today.
“It’s not our first choice but it’s possible,” he said.
Another reason for Lagerwey’s reluctance to act quickly is an acute sense of where the Sounders are in their roster-building efforts. As seriously as he takes CCL, Lagerwey’s long-held belief that the current roster is at something like the mature part of its cycle makes it even more important that any big signings they make now are able to help the team do more than make one final push.
“Once you’re at the mature point of your cycle you better start building the level underneath,” Lagerwey said, noting he thinks this group has at least one more title run in them. “Otherwise when the mature cycle ends you just get old. When you get old, if you don’t have the next generation ready, you can fall off the cliff.”
Ultimately, Lagerwey hopes that winning two MLS Cups and advancing to a third — not the mention the Sounders’ newly earned status as “Team of the Decade” — will keep the mood from getting too dark.
“Sometimes you have to wait when it’s uncomfortable,” Lagerwey said. “That was true with Lodeiro and true with a number of other acquisitions. It’s a pattern at this point. It causes some angst in the fanbase and hopefully we’ve built up some credibility that we’ll tackle these things and do the best we can.
“I assure you, we haven’t just been sitting on our hands sniffing glue.”