How Garth Lagerwey landed Nicolas Lodeiro (and what it says about the Sounders’ future)
TUKWILA, Wash. – “The last six months have been terrible.”
Those are seven words you wouldn’t expect to hear from a man who’s just completed one of the best signings in Major League Soccer history, but Garth Lagerwey is not in a celebratory mood. Far from it. Sitting in his office at Starfire Sports complex, speaking as weights dropped by players in the fitness room, below, send small earthquakes through his floor, the Seattle Sounders’ president and general manager is taking himself to task. He knows he shares the blame for what the team has become.
What it’s become is a team on the outside looking in. For the first seven years of their MLS existence, the Sounders have made the playoffs, casting themselves as an MLS Cup contenders for most of that run. This year, after a 2015 which saw the team lose 10 of 13 games over the summer, Seattle has plummeted to ninth place in the Western Conference. Only 10 teams are in that half of the league; only six make the postseason.
As a result, Seattle parted ways with the only MLS manager it had ever known, a move more akin to losing a founder than dismissing a coach. When Sigi Schmid, MLS’ winningest coach of all time, departed, the Sounders lost part of their foundation. They also lost the ability to truly celebrate the capture of Boca Juniors’ attacking midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro, a transfer that marks the first time an MLS team has been able to lure an impact player from a major power in this half of the world. There would be no Space Needle scarf-raising for “Nico,” though. Schmid’s departure demanded a somber mood.
I’ve got to tell you, there weren’t that many enjoyable moments starting in … whenever we fell apart [in 2015]; June, or whenever."
A week after Lodeiro’s unveiling, the mood had improved. The 27-year-old was the game’s dominant player four days earlier, in the Sounders’ 1-1 draw with the Cup-contending LA Galaxy. Speculation Lodeiro could become one of MLS’ best players was finally playing out, though when asked if he could start taking pride in the signing – enjoying the fruits of a six-month effort to bring the Uruguayan international on board – Lagerwey takes a longer view.
“I’ve got to tell you, there weren’t that many enjoyable moments starting in … whenever we fell apart [in 2015]; June, or whenever,” he explains, changing the conversation. Lagerwey’s not interested in vindication. He’s more interested in process, ruing the fact that he deferred to a different course a year ago.
“We signed, last year, four players in the last four days of the transfer window in a desperate attempt to try and stave off that landslide,” Lagerwey says, discussing last summer’s decisions to bring in midfielders Erik Friberg and Andreas Ivanschitz, defender Roman Torres and, using the club’s last available Designated Player spot, forward Nelson Valdez.
Seattle went on to finish fourth in the West and make the conference semifinals, but the new veterans shifted the balance of what was already an aging core. Some of the initial lineups Schmid used during the team’s 1-4-1 start to the 2016 season featured nine starters at least 30 years old.
“(We) pulled it out of the fire, but (the decisions) probably compromised our ability to do some things at the beginning of this year that you would have preferred to have done,” Lagerwey laments. The playoff streak was still alive, but the team was no closer to its first MLS Cup. And it had further put off an inevitable rebuild.
Unfortunately for the Sounders, that rebuild could only be put off three more months. In February, Obafemi Martins, the team’s best player since his arrival from the Spanish first division in 2013, was successfully courted by China’s Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, leaving Seattle’s decision-makers to answer a question that would define their season: Do you find an immediate stop-gap to would maintain the team’s course, or do you engage a broader process, knowing any delay in replacing a marquee player could severely impact the 2016 season?
For Lagerwey, there was only one answer: Go back to what he knew. His seven seasons with Real Salt Lake, building a champion out of one the most financially limited clubs in Major League Soccer, had taught him the virtues of process, system, and remaining true to your approach. Summer spending sprees aren’t the way to reinforce those values, he felt, and reflex signings in February wouldn’t foster a consistent approach.
That Lagerwey’s view eventually carried the day was telling. Not only did it speak to his growing presence within an organization he’d joined only a year earlier, it hinted at how the team would be managed going forward. It also meant that, for better or worse, Lagerwey gets to own how the Sounders move forward, with the scouting, courtship and capture of Lodeiro providing a microcosm of how Seattle’s future will unfold.