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Big takeaways from Garth Lagerwey’s end-of-season press conference

Lagerwey says the Sounders must get younger.

It wasn’t so long ago that the Seattle Sounders were known for their finishing kick. During Brian Schmetzer’s first five seasons, the Sounders went a combined 17-7-6 during their last six matches of the regular season and made four trips to the MLS Cup final.

That form has been noticeably absent in the last two seasons, as the Sounders have gone 2-5-5 down the stretch and failed to win a playoff game. It’s not that Schmetzer’s teams suddenly got bad. Those finishes stood in stark contrast to achievements earlier in both seasons. In 2021, the Sounders opened with a league-record 13-game unbeaten streak and were averaging better than 2.0 points per game prior to their end-of-season slump. This year, the Sounders became the first MLS team to win Concacaf Champions League and followed that up with a 6-2-1 run in league play before collapsing in the second half.

During his end-of-season press conference on Tuesday, Sounders GM and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey repeatedly came back to the idea that the likely culprit was an over-reliance on the team’s veterans and that adjusting the organization’s mindset was key to turning things around.

“When you make the playoffs 13 years in a row, it’s very hard not to fall into the trap of ‘We’ve always done it this way so therefore it must be right,’” Lagerwey said. “The league is evolving around us. Being a successful club means using young players. That’s something we have to get better at and we know that.

“The core has largely been the same [since Raúl Ruidíaz’s addition in 2018]. That can lead to some complacency and some satisfaction. We won Champions League, worked for a year and a half to get to that point and you win that game. I don’t think our talent fell off, but we got a little fatigued and complacent. We’re going to take a hard look at our structures and player usage and see if we can come up with some solutions, since culturally the group will be mostly the same next year.”

Lagerwey hit on this theme several times throughout the press conference. To drive home his point, Lagerwey said that the Sounders ranked fourth from bottom in terms of minutes given to players aged 25 or younger. Although those players accounted for about 24% of the available minutes — a marked improvement over 2021 when about 19% of their minutes went to such players — and the average age of their starters was closer to the league average, Lagerwey was clear that he felt veterans were too heavily relied upon.

Illustrative of the league’s trend is the success of teams like the Philadelphia Union and FC Dallas this year, both of whom are heavily reliant on homegrown academy players that have been supported by veteran additions.

“It’s an old argument that you have to weigh winning against playing young players and that’s something we have to get past,” Lagerwey said. “You have to consider that young players can be a foundation of our success, especially when you’re talking about having four or five starters being over 30.”

By Lagerwey’s thinking, if the Sounders had done a more effective job at integrating youth into the regular rotation, then the veterans would have been better equipped and energized when wins were needed. To address that fatigue, the coaching staff chose to alter training. That may have helped keep players on the field, but didn’t necessarily leave them better prepared.

That left the Sounders with a sort of “worst of both worlds” scenario that contributed to them going 4-9-4 in the second half of the season, their worst 17-game stretch in franchise history.

“The tweaks that we made allowed us to field healthy players, but I don’t think we were playing our best,” Lagerwey said. “We couldn’t respond in those must-win games. I know they were giving maximum effort, but for whatever reason we couldn’t answer the bell at the most critical points of the season. I don’t think we can repeat the process with the number of players we used over 43 games. We have to have more players involved to navigate the number of games we’re going to be playing next year and going forward.”

None of this suggests there are plans to abandon the veteran core. As the recent roster announcement suggests, Brian Schmetzer will likely have a very similar roster at his disposal in 2023 and there’s ample reason to believe it’s capable of extending the championship window at least another year.

But Lagerwey wants an organizational mindset shift. He came away from the season seemingly ready to double-down on his long-held beliefs of entrusting young players to step into bigger roles and was buoyed by the growth of players like Obed Vargas, Danny Leyva, Josh Atencio and Jackson Ragen. He implied that others could have seen similar positive trajectories if they’d been given more opportunities.

“Young players almost always get better,” Lagerwey said. “That’s the nature of being 19. It’s embracing stuff like that and understanding when we get into evaluations we tend to get hung up on negatives. If a player makes mistakes, we say we can’t have that. But veteran players make mistakes at a similar rate; [we’re] just more attuned to it with younger players. That’s part of adjusting our thinking where we embrace the idea that young players are almost universally going to get better, especially when shown confidence systemically over the course of a season.”

Here are some of the other big takeaways from Lagerwey’s press conference:

Lagerwey’s future

Throughout the press conference, Lagerwey spoke as if he was planning to see through much of this change. But when asked directly about his future, he was a bit less committal.

“We still have the fan vote that has to get announced, to see whether the fans want me back,” he said, adding that the results will be announced on Nov. 16 at the Annual Business Meeting. “The Sounders then need to decide if this is something they want to do. ... Ultimately I’ll need to make a decision that’s best for me and my family for the next 10-15 years. It continues to be amazing here in Seattle. I don’t know how you could ever have a fanbase that’s more supportive of a team. It’s a privilege and a pleasure to be a steward of this club. Either way, I’m grateful for the last eight years and we’ll see what’s next.”

Lagerwey has previously suggested that if he were to be lured away it would be for a job with even more control over an organization. Atlanta United and the Chicago Fire are both currently looking for club presidents, FC Cincinnati is apparently trying to find a “co-CEO” to work alongside Jeff Berding, and there are several general manager openings around the league, as well. Will any of them be enticing enough to lure away Lagerwey? We’ll see.

Will Bruin is probably done with Sounders

Just like last year, the Sounders declined to pick up Bruin’s option. Unlike last year, it doesn’t sound very likely that he’ll come back.

Lagerwey went to great lengths to praise Bruin’s contribution both on and off the field, but only left the faintest of hope that he’d be back for a seventh season in Rave Green.

“The door is open in the sense that we’re never going to kick him out and leave him in the street,” Lagerwey said of Bruin, who first joined the Sounders in 2017. “But that’s a position where we might sign another player. There might not be a lot [of cap space] left. We always try to be respectful. If you can’t promise something, better not leave them hanging around. The door is not closed, but I’m not optimistic we’ll have the resources required to give him a fair offer.”

Sam Adeniran seems likely to return

Among the more interesting details in the Sounders’ roster announcement was the unsettled nature of Sam Adeniran’s future. Adeniran was Tacoma Defiance’s leading scorer in 2021, earning a first-team contract for 2022. But after sparse first-team playing time, the Sounders opted to loan him to San Antonio FC of the USL Championship rather than continue playing him in MLS Next Pro. Adeniran responded with another outstanding season, leading San Antonio with 10 goals and helping them secure the best record in the regular season. Adeniran remains on loan with San Antonio as they enter the playoffs.

Asked about Adeniran’s future with the Sounders, Lagerwey said, “If his season were over now we’d take his option.” But he also suggested Adeniran might have transfer value and admitted they don’t quite know what his best position is.

Lagerwey did note that they felt Adeniran’s loan possibly opened their eyes to doing similar deals in the future, as leagues like the USL Championship aren’t just a place to stash players but now can be seen as a path to increasing their value.

New signings from the Defiance

Lagerwey didn’t name any players, but he did say the team is planning to sign two more Defiance players to first-team contracts. Sounder at Heart has learned that one of those players is likely Sota Kitahara, a 19-year-old from Edmonds who has played several positions. Kitahara spent part of 2021 on loan in with Austrian third-division team FC Pinzgau Saalfelden, but was limited to 17 appearances with the Defiance this year after battling some injuries. He seems likely to be sent on loan again.

It was less clear who the other player might be, but one obvious candidate would be Georgi Minoungou, who was here on loan this year. Minoungou took a bit to settle in but finished the season strong, with two goals and four assists in his last 12 appearances. He showcased some impressive physical and technical ability, winning over the coaching staff.

Other notes

No big updates on FIFA Club World Cup: Even though no dates or location have been announced, Lagerwey said he’s still expecting the Club World Cup to be played in early February.

Annual Business Meeting details: The Sounders will have their first in-person Annual Business Meeting since 2018 on Nov. 16. The event will double as a chance for Alliance Members to get an in-person look at the progress being made at Sounders FC Center at Longacres.

Among the scheduled speakers are Cameron Collins (Alliance Council President); Adrian Hanauer (Sounders FC Majority Owner); Peter Tomozawa (Sounders FC Owner & President of Business Operations); Henry Brauner (Sounders FC Vice President of Player Development); Taylor Graham (Sounders FC Chief Revenue & Marketing Officer); Garth Lagerwey (Sounders FC General Manager & President of Soccer); Maya Mendoza-Exstrom (Sounders FC Chief Operating Officer); and Tom Riley (Sounders FC Chief Financial Officer).

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