Garth Lagerwey is nothing if not consistent. Every year around this time, the Seattle Sounders president of soccer and general manager likes to remind fans that signing players from abroad is very complicated. No matter how much roster space or financial flexibility the Sounders may have, we should never simply assume that impact players are on the way, he often says.
None of that is untrue, of course, but Lagerwey has also made at least one notable signing every summer he’s been here while making similar comments. It’s a classic under-promise, over-deliver ethos and it has served him well.
Well, Lagerwey was doing it again on his most recent appearance on Sounders Weekly while underscoring how much more complicated all of this is with Covid-19 continuing to ravage much of the world.
Lagerwey was asked to respond to head coach Brian Schmetzer’s recent comments concerning the state of the roster. The Sounders, as you probably know, have been dealing with an inordinate number of injuries this year and as a result have not been able to field a full 20-man gameday roster at all. In their most recent game, 5 of the 7 players on the Sounders bench were teenagers and at least three of them were there only in the case of extreme emergency.
“It’s a completely normal thing for a coach to say,” Lagerwey said. “He’s living in the moment with two games in three days. The good news is 16 guys can play in a game and we had that many available and we will have that many available going forward. Is it ideal? No, it’s not.
“As frustrating as this is in the short term, I’m telling you some of these are good things. If you do this when it’s hard — the only guy we know is out is Jordy Delem — everyone else has a chance. [editor’s note: he later acknowledged that Jordan Morris returning this year is unlikely.] We can really look at this as a chance to expand our roster, to give guys some minutes in July, can you get them in now and you get these guys back in August/September and you're ready for the stretch run.”
Given the Sounders’ play, it’s hard to find much fault with Lagerwey’s reasoning. Yes, the thin roster is going to make Sounders coaches understandably nervous, but it has also given them an excuse to give players like Josh Atencio, Danny Leyva, Stefan Cleveland, AB Cissoko and even someone like Ethan Dobbelaere more opportunities than they’d likely otherwise gotten. While those players have all had varying degrees of success, and each has had moments of struggle that a veteran might not have, we’ve also seen improvement.
That the Sounders came into this season knowing that some of those opportunities were going to be there was a good thing, Lagerwey argued.
“What I think is in some ways, in years past, we would have had a crisis in the first part of the season,” he said. “One of the basic reasons for that is we had three full DPs. We add [João Paulo] going into ‘20. JP has been instrumental, he’s playing at an MVP level. With that in mind, that stabilized the team and allowed some guys to develop.”
The relative stability has a knock-on effect, Lagerwey added: “That means the summer isn’t going to be as impactful.”
The other part of the equation is due to the CBA. When MLS and the players’ union agreed to extend their contract through 2027, one of the tradeoffs was keeping a flat salary cap for 2020-22. Teams have chosen to navigate that in different ways, but Lagerwey is inclined to be conservative. Yes, they have some flexibility, he acknowledged, but if the Sounders continue to play the way they have, some of these players on very team-friendly deals are probably going to be looking for raises next year. The only way to keep from having to blow up the roster is to build in room for maneuverability, which means not maxing it out now.
“If there’s one thing I’ve gotten right in my career, it’s recognizing the guys on our team and giving them credit for what they’re doing,” he said. “That doesn’t change what you can do, but that’s what gets tricky. You have to think about doing right by the guys on your roster right now.
“If you can add to that, that’s great. But the best thing that can happen to us is growing the number of players who can play, who have a role. I think the staff has been awesome about that and getting through the adversity.”
While maybe not as bullish as many of us would like, none of this should be taken as a plan to be inactive. As one MLS front office executive told me, “Garth is very good at his job and chooses his words carefully.” Lagerwey acknowledged that the team is hoping to get someone signed under the U22 Initiative and left open the possibility that others could join the team as well. What Lagerwey is guarding against is the idea that some player will be brought in from outside the organization who will be immediately impactful.
Lagerwey pointed out that the U22 Initiative is designed to bring in players who likely have not broken in with their current team, have probably not played outside their home country and are considered longer-term investments.
Those players will also have to navigate an increasingly complicated visa process that will delay their arrival at least several weeks and then need to be integrated into a team that is playing well enough to be leading the Supporters’ Shield race. By the time these new players are ready to meaningfully contribute, most of the currently missing veterans will likely be back.
“In these moments of adversity we have to focus on the guys who are here, guys on our current roster,” he said. “We have to focus on strengthening that.
“Can we add some people? Yes, but the reality is those players are coming in right around the time that some of the big dogs are coming back. Do I think the Sounders will be better after the summer window? I do, but the majority of that change is from fielding the players currently in our locker room that are sitting on a trainer’s table and not on the field.”