One of the most sought-after names in Major League Soccer wasn't a player, and that man has found a new home. The Seattle Sounders named Garth Lagerwey general manager and president on Tuesday, introducing the front-office maestro as the club's latest coup and making official what SI.com had confirmed a few weeks ago.
The architect of Real Salt Lake’s rise from a tenuous existence in 2007 to MLS Cup winner in 2009 and CONCACAF Champions League finalist in 2011, Lagerwey said working in the larger Seattle sports market appealed to him.
“I felt like it was time for a new challenge and that I wanted to move forward in my career,” Lagerwey said on a conference call with reporters following the announcement. “I’d even say five years ago when I signed my previous contract, I figured that would probably be it with RSL.”
It’s not that working at RSL was unfulfilling, but Lagerwey seems ready to help Seattle leverage its resources and infrastructure toward winning the major trophies that has eluded the franchise: the MLS Cup and CONCACAF Champions League.
“What’s cool about it is it’s a different challenge,” he said. “To take all these smart people and try to unify them and get them to pull in the same direction, I think that’s a great challenge. … It’s that kind of ambition, it’s that kind of scale, where you want to try to take all of this stuff and harness it and have a strategic plan … for how you want to spend your money to maximize your long-term growth.”
Lagerwey learned his leadership principles at Latham & Watkins, the law firm he joined after attending law school at Georgetown (which followed a five-year career in MLS as a goalkeeper and stints at various media outlets, including part-time at Sports Illustrated). Others who have worked there include MLS founder Alan Rothenberg; MLS deputy commissioner and president Mark Abbott; former MLS executive and current Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis; and American soccer agent Richard Motzkin.
“I got trained in terms of how to work and how to manage people and how to take on big, big projects. The short version of it is, you empower people and then you hold them accountable,” Lagerwey said. “You make sure you make inclusive decisions so that everyone’s invested in the outcome, and you’ll usually get the best out of your people that way. I took those management principles from a very large company and brought them to a very small place in Salt Lake and had a lot of success with them.”
Essentially, he plans to transfer those same principles to a larger-scale operation in Seattle.
“No doubt, you’ll have to tweak some things. Again, when we started at RSL, we had nothing,” he said. “That’s one of the cool things, is working with really talented people and trying to get the most out of them. If you can do that, and you can work collaboratively in that instance, that’s when the potential becomes really limitless because you’ve got all of the ammunition, and you’re really just kind of lighting the match and trying to get everybody to work together.”
One of Lagerwey’s goals is to smooth the transition and close the gap between the academy and the first team, a continuation of his philosophy at RSL.
“One of the things I think we got right at RSL was the player-development model,” he said. “[Academy teams] played the same way the first team did and really believed in a philosophy of how we played.”
Adrian Hanauer, who owns a third of the Sounders franchise and held the general manager’s job until Lagerwey’s arrival, said he’s more than happy to step aside. He never planned on being involved on a daily basis as long as he was, but he said he wasn’t going to hire somebody just to relieve himself of the extra duties.
“I really had no intentions of being a general manager for seven years. Maybe you could have convinced me I was going to be general manager for three or four, but not seven,” said Hanauer, whose ownership partners include Seattle tycoon Paul Allen and Hollywood executive Joe Roth. “Along the way, probably starting three or four years ago, I talked to Joe and said, ‘Look, when the time is right, I’d like to replace myself.’”
Lagerwey pads Seattle’s overall profile, which was already one of the most formidable in MLS.
The Sounders have thrown their weight around in the transfer market to land Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. They moved DeAndre Yedlin to Tottenham Hotspur after a breakout rookie season and solid World Cup debut. Rounding out the team is one of MLS’ most successful coaches in Sigi Schmid.
“You can’t find talent as good as Seattle has,” Lagerwey said. “If you’re trying to take things away from people, trying to keep them in their box or whatever, you’re not thinking big enough. … How do I allow everybody who works for me to fill as big a role as they’re possibly capable of so that I can do even more stuff on the outside?”
Since breaking away from the National Football League’s Seahawks, who continue to share CenturyLink Field with the soccer franchise, the Sounders have taken steps to cement their own identity as a standalone operation. Hiring Lagerwey, who squeezed every drop out of more modest resources in Utah, is another step on that path.
It allows Hanauer to step farther back and run the team’s operations with a view toward long-term goals. Before, he would roam the field at the Starfire training complex every day, cell phone glued to his ear, looking for the next deal.
“I’ve been pretty mired down in the day-to-day of watching player video and going to college games and spending time at combines and going on scouting trips, and I think I just haven’t had enough time to really focus on the bigger picture,” Hanauer said.
Those involved in running the team daily will still report to Hanauer, ensuring his involvement won’t change drastically. Chris Henderson worked closely with him on personnel matters as the sporting director, and Hanauer said his role probably won’t change much with a new partner.
Between the vision of vertical integration and launching USL Pro team Seattle Sounders 2 in the spring, Lagerwey said he doesn’t anticipate any of his charges getting bored.
“I think there’s going to be plenty of work to do and plenty of work to go around,” he said. “Far from being a negative thing — people with different opinions having discussions, having debates — I view it as a real strength, and I view it as a way that, honestly, we can collectively push each other over the top.”