TUKWILA — Traditionally, the secondary transfer window is when the Seattle Sounders make their big moves. Starting with the signing of Uruguay international Alvaro Fernandez in the summer of 2010, they’ve made a midseason signing every year, often big-money additions like Clint Dempsey, Nicolás Lodeiro, Raúl Ruidíaz and, most recently, Léo Chú. Even in years where they don’t sign a Designated Player, they’ve always found a way to bolster their roster with at least one addition.
That streak stopped when the transfer window closed last week.
Despite their best efforts and clearly identifying at least one spot in the starting lineup that they wanted to upgrade — either defensive midfielder or right winger — a combination of factors conspired against the front office from making a move.
“It was the most tricky window we’ve ever had in terms of threading a needle, and ultimately it was a little frustrating from a front-office perspective,” Sounders GM and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey told the media on Thursday, his first availability of any kind in about three weeks. “We probably chased as many or more deals than we have in any other summer window, but we did so with really limited resources.”
Lagerwey effectively pinned the lack of activity on three factors:
1. This is the third year of what was effectively a flat salary cap that was a result of the twice renegotiated Collective Bargaining Agreement. During those three seasons, the Sounders have managed to keep the core of their roster mostly intact, while qualifying for three cup finals — MLS Cup in 2020, Leagues Cup in 2021 and Concacaf Champions League in 2022. The Sounders did that while absorbing raises brought on by bonuses and new deals.
Although the salary cap will finally go up in 2023, the Sounders have effectively structured their salary-cap accounting with a “balloon payment” that will come due. In fact, just one player — Jimmy Medranda — will be outside club control at the end of this year. The Sounders have the allocation money set aside to pull that off, but any significant additions during this window would have thrown off their careful accounting.
During the offseason, the situation was further complicated by the addition of Designated Player Albert Rusnák, but the team has since accounted for that with a series of trades that have netted them an additional $1.225 million in General Allocation Money. The Sounders’ market analysis suggested they’d need to spend somewhere between $750,000 and $1 million in GAM in order to find a clear upgrade in their starting lineup. That would have needed to be accounted for in next year’s budget.
“It’s all structured and handled, but if you pull one of the Jenga pieces out the whole thing can come crashing down,” Lagerwey said. “The positives are that everyone is signed. ... The downside is on a wage that makes it very difficult to do anything.”
2. As neat and tidy as that may all be, if it were clearly not working Lagerwey had the ability to make changes. But as much as the Sounders have struggled of late — they’re 3-6-0 in their past nine matches — they’re still just one point out of the playoffs and Lagerwey was at pains to remind everyone that this is effectively the same roster that became the first MLS team to win CCL just a few months ago.
“These guys had done something historic, made an immortal team,” he said. “We believe in them and we should believe in them because this was the best team on the continent three months ago. So to break up the team didn’t make any sense to us.”
3. The final complicating factor was that the Sounders were simply uninterested in taking on any contracts that went beyond this year. Not only are all of their starters under contract for 2023, but they’ll also be getting back João Paulo, who tore his ACL in the CCL final but should be back in time for next preseason. Obed Vargas, who had replaced João Paulo only to suffer a back injury, should also be fully back next year. There’s been a rotating cast of partners alongside Albert Rusnák since then, but the Sounders still like their options in Cristian Roldan, Kelyn Rowe, Danny Leyva and Josh Atencio.
“We have our team,” Lagerwey said. “We have good young players in that spot as well.
“One of the exciting things is we have opportunities for the younger players and hopefully they prove themselves. It feels like we’ve been playing forever but we still have 10 games left, almost a third of the season. It’s a long way to go. Overall, we feel good about the team and the organization.”
As Sporting Director Craig Waibel put it a few weeks ago, the player who fit all three of those criteria was a bit of a “unicorn.”
“It was frustrating in the sense that we want to help,” Lagerwey said. “That’s our job and ultimately we weren’t able to do that.
“We were trying to stay disciplined. We could have gone out and spent $1 million and gotten a starting-level player, but at the cost of our team. That’s the decision we stuck with. There were definitely moments of temptation there. ‘Man, the shiny thing is right over there and I just need to go pick it up.’ But ultimately we stayed disciplined and time will tell if that was the right decision or not.”
One that kinda got away
Although Lagerwey was not interested in actually sharing any of the names the Sounders pursued, he did give credence to the most notable rumor: Luis Suarez.
Lagerwey said the negotiations never got to the point where he actually talked to the Uruguay international — who eventually signed with his boyhood club, Nacional — but he acknowledged that efforts were made.
“I wouldn’t say we were ever holding our breath,” Lagerwey said, noting that the Sounders weren’t even able to offer him something comparable to the roughly $1.5 million LAFC is reportedly paying Gareth Bale. “I would have been pretty surprised if he had accepted what we offered.”
Speaking of Bale, Lagerwey tipped his cap to LAFC’s John Thorrington, who also managed to sign Italian legend Giorgio Chiellini and Designated Player Denis Bouanga. He called the signing haul “probably the greatest transfer window in league history” and said Thorrington should win MLS Executive of the Year, but still managed to deliver a slight jab.
“Kudos to him and kudos to LAFC, but so far we’ve done all right against them in the playoffs,” Lagerwey said. The Sounders beat LAFC in the 2019 and 2020 postseasons.
Still the possibility of signings
The Sounders can not make any trades or international transfers in, but there is still a chance that they can make a signing. Among the players eligible still to be signed are anyone who was out of contract before the window closed on Aug. 4, MLS players who are placed on waivers, and players who are currently under contract with Tacoma Defiance.
Internally, the most obvious candidate for a potential first-team contract would seem to be Marlon Vargas. Still just 21 years old but already in his fifth professional season, Vargas has been among the best offensive players in MLS Next Pro. Vargas has 12 goals and six assists, which rank third and second in the league, respectively.
Perhaps the most interesting chatter surrounding the Sounders during the last few weeks has been the future of Lagerwey himself.
This being Lagerwey’s eighth year with the Sounders, Alliance Members will have their second chance to vote on his retention next month. As such, Lagerwey’s contract is timed to run out at the end of the year and that has led to speculation that he could be job hunting.
As you’d probably expect, Lagerwey didn’t entirely shoot down the possibility of leaving but also left the door very open for his return.
“When the club does well, recognition and rumors will follow,” he said. “The thing that’s special about our club is the GM vote and that’s coming up. We’re the only team in North America that does that and it’s an exciting part of our culture. It’s important for us to respect that and that process.
“Intended or unintended, what’s going to come with that is speculation about the GM — not even specific to me — when you have to vote you’re going to have contracts run out and that’s public. You’re going to have speculation. We’ve done well in all aspects of the organization and hopefully that’s enough to be retained.”
No date or details of the next Club World Cup have yet to be announced, but the prospect of becoming the first MLS team to compete in that tournament is one additional element that could potentially work in favor of Lagerwey sticking around.
“It’s important,” he acknowledged. “I’ve said the most bitter defeat of my career was losing the Champions League final in 2011 and having the picture on my fireplace, looking at it for 11 years and being able to take it down and put it in storage, that was a big deal. That felt really good for me personally, so, yeah it’s something l’d like to be a part of. More importantly, it’s really good for our club, really good for MLS to have our club part of that and to present ourselves well.”