He had worked as a goalkeeper, attorney, TV broadcaster and even as a writer (check the SI archives), but it was at Real Salt Lake that Garth Lagerwey established his professional identity.
He had next to no experience as a club executive when he moved to Utah in 2007. Seven years later, after successfully establishing modest RSL as one of Major League Soccer’s most consistent winners, Lagerwey was regarded by many as the best in the business. He was, understandably, proud of what he, former coach (and Duke University roommate) Jason Kreis and RSL president Bill Manning, among others, had built in the league’s smallest market. Lagerwey had become synonymous with RSL’s shrewd yet stylish, us-against-the-world, the-team-is-the-star ethos. And it wasn’t easy to walk away.
“It was heartbreaking to leave Salt Lake. I loved it there. We built that from scratch. We had nothing,” Lagerwey said.
Now, as the president of soccer and general manager of the Seattle Sounders, Lagerwey, 42, has so much more at his disposal. The league’s wealthiest club, which attracts crowds of nearly 44,000 per game, offers possibilities that might feel like fantasies elsewhere. Lagerwey will have the opportunity to stretch his managerial legs.
He’ll oversee an ambitious, well-funded operation that includes an academy and youth discovery and recruitment program, a USL squad, a full-fledged scouting department and an MLS team managed by Sigi Schmid, who’s won more games than any other coach in league history.
At RSL last season, the highest-paid player earned a base salary of $360,000. Seattle’s top earner pulled in $4.9 million.
Lagerwey, the plucky X-Wing fighter pilot, now finds himself at the helm of an Imperial Star Destroyer. And with all those toys comes a different sort of challenge.
“I think it’s valid to say that at RSL, if you made the playoffs you were doing something right. In Seattle, the expectation is greater than that,” Lagerwey told SI.com.
He’s making a transition in identity from underdog to favorite.
“When we were down at the combine [last month], the first time I threw on that Sounders polo, it was a little weird looking in the mirror and thinking that it’s all changed and it’s all different and there’s no going back. My wife says she likes it just fine. She said it looks O.K. on me,” Lagerwey said. “As expected, there’s an adjustment. I was at RSL for seven years so, we put a lot into that and we felt like we built something pretty special. We had to be pretty efficient, and hopefully those concepts can carry over to a larger organization. Certainly there are more resources in Seattle. That is an exciting opportunity, to try to take efficient principles and apply them on a grander scale.”
In MLS, the rich aren’t supposed to get richer. Sure, there are a handful of clubs able to pay millions to a single player. But that largesse is limited to three per team. League-imposed salary budgets, a dizzying array of drafts and the absence of free agency are there to create a playing field that, if not totally level, is at least manageable for organizations like RSL. Under Lagerwey, Salt Lake won the 2009 MLS title, advanced to four major finals and surpassed the 50-point barrier in five straight seasons.
But league rules govern the movement of men in jerseys, not polos. And as Lagerwey’s RSL contract came to an end last season, he emerged as the MLS' most coveted free agent. His time in Salt Lake was coming to an organic end.
Kreis was already gone, having departed the year before to coach New York City FC. The culture at Rio Tinto Stadium was changing.
Owner Dell Loy Hansen, who bought out RSL founder Dave Checketts in January 2013, was opinionated, hands on and new to professional sports. Like any new boss, Hansen, a real estate mogul, had his own ideas and habits. And he and Lagerwey had their share of disagreements. A contract offer finally was extended late last season, but Lagerwey already had his eye on the exit.
He had options. Toronto FC reportedly was interested, but the Reds were still in a period of transition. There was speculation about potential opportunities in Chicago and at Red Bull Arena. Lagerwey’s wife is from the Washington area, where he worked as an attorney and a color commentator on D.C. United broadcasts. But the timing wasn’t right. As Lagerwey entered the final year of his contract, United GM Dave Kasper was engineering a worst-to-first resurgence.
Seattle made the most sense, and not only because of the club’s resources. In the end, the Sounders got richer because they had a keen sense of the bigger picture. Lagerwey was enticed by the presidential position and potential, not the paycheck. And he’ll report directly to ownership. Adrian Hanauer, a minority shareholder who’d been the GM since the Sounders entered MLS in 2009, wanted to focus on the club’s long-term business initiatives. The club has moved out from under the Seahawks’ roof to its own office in Pioneer Square. As big as the fan base is, there’s still room to grow. And questions about a soccer-specific stadium will continue to be raised.
“I always said that if the best general manager was available, I would hire that person to replace me. I believe that Garth is that man,” Hanauer said when announcing Lagerwey’s appointment on Jan. 6
Seattle felt right because a front office full of stars was willing to put the organization first. That’s an environment where Lagerwey should feel at home. Hanauer stepped aside. Sporting Director Chris Henderson, a Seattle staple, will continue to oversee the team’s scouting and player identification efforts while GM Andrew Opatkiewicz and coach Ezra Henderickson run S2, the new USL side. And Schmid, who was in position to demand more control, instead has welcomed the help.
“Successful people know how to be successful. Garth’s record at Salt Lake speaks for itself. I think there’s things we do in Seattle that he’s going to be able to pick up on and learn from, but I also think there’s things he did at Salt Lake that we’re going to be able to roll into what we’re doing,” Schmid told SI.com. “It’s just a matter of everybody tweaking it a little bit different … Our success at Seattle has always been that we have been very open in our discussions, as a group.”
Said Lagerwey, “Sigi’s been doing this for so long. He’s got so much experience. Every time we have a conversation, he knows six guys. He can call somebody who played for him and you’re just reminded of the vast wealth of experience the guy has. It’s an awesome resource. Any successful GM/coach combination is collaborative. I had the great fortune of working with my good friends, Jason and Jeff [Cassar], and this is a business relationship with Sigi but hopefully over time we can become friends. He’s been really open minded and I give him credit for that, because he certainly didn’t owe me that.”
Schmid said he was excited by the stability the first team should enjoy in 2015. DeAndre Yedlin is gone, but Clint Dempsey (16 goals and 10 assists last year) and Obafemi Martins (17 and 13) now have established a season's worth of chemistry. MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall and midfielder Marco Pappa (six and six) are entering their second year in Seattle and there’s momentum coming off a campaign that featured Supporters' Shield and U.S. Open Cup triumphs and ended just one goal short of an MLS Cup final.
“That continuity is something we want to build upon,” Schmid said. “I don’t think we’re done yet in terms of new players. I always think you need a little bit of spice in there. Those are the players who keep everything fresh and everything going. It’s a mixture of both. But continuity is important.”
All of which leaves Lagerwey feeling “zero pressure to make a splash.” Seattle’s three Designated Players are locked up. Schmid’s squad has been knocking on the MLS Cup door and seems bound to break through sooner or later. So Lagerwey has been focusing on getting acclimated. He’s spent time with the team during preseason sojourns in California and Arizona. He’s met with media members and fans back in Seattle, and he’s added a bit of the spice referenced by Schmid.
At last month’s MLS draft in Philadelphia, Lagerwey orchestrated a trade with his old club that allowed the Sounders to draft Cristian Roldan, a University of Washington playmaker coveted by Seattle. Last week, the club signed Colombian left back Andrés Correa.
“Seattle was a pretty darn good team last year. They believe in continuity as I believe in continuity from my RSL days. I think we’re going to be cautious in terms of how we change the team,” Lagerwey said. “I’m going to do things judiciously. I’m going to do things strategically. I’m going to do it over time. My task here is to build the organization and to make it as close to inevitable as I possibly can that we will eventually win a championship.”
He can’t score the goal that would have put the Sounders into last year’s MLS Cup final, or the one that would have made the difference in previous playoff defeats. Lagerwey’s mandate is about building a long-term foundation, deeper and stronger than the one that was possible in Salt Lake. He wants to win the CONCACAF Champions League title that eluded RSL in 2011. He wants to fuse the Sounders’ resources with his own resourcefulness and build something that’s as close to a dynasty as MLS will allow.
“I’m here to vertically integrate the organization. I think the Seattle media has already mocked me for how many times I’ve said that, and I understand why. It’s a goofy term. But any time you grow a company to a certain size and you want to expand it, you have to figure out how to acquire the means of production and find more efficiencies so you can continue growing,” Lagerwey said, channeling the lawyer within. “Seattle grew to a certain size, and now they have to incorporate the academy and S2 and create three- and five-year strategic plans for player development and make sure we have continuity in terms of system of play and tactics from 12 years old on up. That is task one.”
The expectations will be higher. The pressure will increase. But that’s the price of joining a big club, and Lagerwey has proved his worth and paid his dues.
“Now, the signings you make are going to be for more money, sure, and it sounds like a privilege. But there’s also a responsibility that goes with it and when the numbers get bigger, there’s that much more scrutiny around who you’re acquiring with those resources. You exchange more resources for more pressure,” Lagerwey said.
“But I think the concepts are the same. You have to be efficient. You have to work together. You have to be open minded. If you’re willing to do all those things, then there’s an awful lot of talented players and an awful lot of resources at Seattle and hopefully we can push it over the top.”