MLS's Ultimate Contender Builder Lagerwey Has Come a Long Way

Garth Lagerwey has made a habit of building title-contending teams in MLS, where parity is supposed to make consistent success a difficult thing to achieve. And to think he used to be a wise-cracking, backup goalkeeper with a guest writing spot on SI.com.
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SEATTLE — By any reasonable standard, Garth Lagerwey of the Seattle Sounders is the most successful general manager in MLS’s modern era, which is to say the last decade. With Seattle competing in its third MLS Cup final in four years on Sunday, Lagerwey has now built the rosters of teams that have reached five MLS finals in the last 11 seasons—he also had two at Real Salt Lake on a much smaller budget—and one Concacaf Champions League final (with Salt Lake in 2011).

On Thursday, I sat down with Lagerwey for nearly two hours catching up—as a Miami Fusion backup goalkeeper in 2000, he used to write hilarious guest columns for SI.com when I would go on vacation—and discussing how his job has evolved as MLS has grown, to say nothing of the resources that he has to work with in Seattle compared to Salt Lake.

At Salt Lake, Lagerwey said, he was able to oversee the building of a team, but in Seattle, where he has been since the start of the 2015 season, he has the support to build a club—which he views as a more complex organization. 

“The largest staff we ever had [in Salt Lake] was 11 people,” Lagerwey said, “and it was guys in a rowboat rowing as fast as we could, knowing that if anybody jumped overboard you were all going to die.

“In Seattle, you have a ton more resources. More scouts, more analysts, more people involved in video, performance and player development. More money. So the job becomes really different, and honestly more like what I dreamed it might be. We were running a soccer team in Salt Lake. In Seattle, we launched the USL team and decided to invest in the academy. We became a soccer club. A lot of planning and strategy and blood, sweat and tears went into that. We were able to make a strategic plan and say we’re going to work on developing players for the next five years.”

Lagerwey has assembled a formidable roster with Designated Players (led by Nicolás Lodeiro and Raúl Ruidíaz), Targeted Allocation Money players (including Víctor Rodríguez, Román Torres, Kim Kee-Hee, Brad Smith and Kelvin Leerdam) and a homegrown star in Jordan Morris.

But the scary thing is that Seattle has been making MLS finals (and winning the title in 2016) before seeing the fruit of its developmental labor. That may well be on the way. The club’s under-17 team won the national title for the first time in 2018 and earlier this year became the first MLS team to win the U-17 Generation Adidas Cup in Dallas (beating Flamengo, River Plate, West Ham United and Valencia). No MLS academy produced more than the three Sounders products on the most recent U.S. Under-17 World Cup team.

Lagerwey has high hopes as soon as next season for first-team signees Danny Leyva (16) and Alfonso Ocampo-Chávez (17), as well as the foundations that have been laid for more to follow. 

“We think those two kids can help us next year,” he said. “It’s a part of a transition, and it’s also not about just the two of them. The whole point of having the process is that you create X number of players over time. Will we ever get to half of our team being homegrowns? Maybe, maybe not. But I think if you have DPs and you have TAMs and you have homegrowns, that’s a heck of a way to build a club.”

As for his own role, Lagerwey has a saying: General managers should generally manage. 

“I generally manage lots of things, and I’m a mile wide and an inch deep,” he said. “What I want to do here is take experts in each department and turn them loose. I want them to go crazy and do everything they can within their department, and then get all that information and then stitch it back together and make the best decisions we can.”

Lagerwey has empowered Chris Henderson, the VP of soccer and sporting director, to “run basically all of our player acquisition”; Marc Nicholls, the director of player development, to head every aspect of that; and Ravi Ramineni, the director of soccer analytics, to oversee the salary cap, among other things.

When then-Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts, who had once run the New York Knicks, took a risk and hired Lagerwey as his general manager in 2007, one of his messages on the first day of Lagerwey’s job was simple but perhaps counterintuitive. Ask questions. Don’t ever pretend to know what you’re doing.

“I was taken aback by that at first,” Lagerwey said. “But if you ask a bunch of questions to a bunch of smart people who have done this, they’re going to pretty freely give you that information that will allow you to learn on the job. If you become self-assured to the point where you don’t take new inputs, then you literally stop learning, and then you’ll lose.”

These days, Lagerwey said with a smile that if he asks questions of Ramineni, a Microsoft alum, “a lot of times he’ll come back and be like, ‘That’s an idiotic question. This is the question you should be asking.’ We can tease him that he’s always the smartest man in the room, but the good news about having the smartest man in the room on your team is that if you ask questions and nothing else, you will provoke a better question from him. And then he’ll go down a rabbit hole if necessary to get you all this information.”

All of this in the end makes Lagerwey, a graduate of Duke University and the Georgetown School of Law, look like a pretty smart guy himself. And if you happened to read this very SI column back in 2000 and see his handiwork, you might be asking yourself another question: Is this the same knucklehead who used to write about doing the 100-beer weekend in college?

Seattle Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey

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The sad truth, unfortunately, is that you can no longer find those columns from 2000 with Lagerwey’s contributions on the Internet. But back then, I would write a weekly column on MLS and U.S. Soccer, and for one department each week I would send a survey question—Who’s the league’s best dribbler? Who are the most overrated and underrated players in the league?, etc.—to a list of about 30 MLS players from around the league. The respondents were given anonymity in exchange for their honesty, and we typically had a lot of fun with it.

But Lagerwey, for his part, would provide hilarious answers and didn’t care that his name was on them, so I finally just gave him his own weekly GARTH LAGERWEY QUOTE OF THE WEEK. It gave him the opportunity to talk about life in those days as an MLS backup, the social lives of MLS players and, yes, his successful completion of the 100-beer weekend during his days at Duke. He basically became a soccer version of baseball’s Jim Bouton or basketball’s Paul Shirley.

Even though you can’t find them online anymore, I got lucky this week when I searched the contents of my laptop hard-drive and actually found a snippet from May 1, 2000:

This week’s question:

Say you’re a 17-year-old American stud soccer player. You have the option of developing your skills in any league in the world. Salary issues aside, which league would be the best choice for developing your game?

(Choose one: England, Germany, Holland, Italy, Spain, United States, Other—please specify)

GARTH LAGERWEY QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Anywhere but Germany. I played there for nine months just as the mythical 17-year-old in your question, a Jason venturing abroad without even the aid of his Argonauts, or more importantly in those testosterone-inundated days, my high school sweetie. I can attest that the stultifyingly conformist mores of the culture ultimately led to the behavioral breakout which was the 100-beer weekend a scant four years later. So dominating is the inability of this people to have fun that they could only find solace here in America by continually viewing Fusion-Revolution pillowfights for supremacy at the pinnacle of the almost dominant Eastern Conference, which inevitably wind up tied after 85 overtimes, assuming no penalties are called. This is no slight to the two aforementioned protagonists, but merely an observation by someone who has had a good seat to watch most of these duels that when these two powerhouses meet, no one wins, unless a goalkeeper gets ejected during the shootout. Which can’t happen anymore, though it nearly decided a playoff berth last year, which leads me to refer the loyal reader back to my original point.

Bereft of wine (they only have beer, which is real, real good), women (I don’t believe Gillette has opened a German branch to date), or at least song (they only have techno, which hardly counts), any soccer development is ultimately overwhelmed and destined for the trash bin of 35-year-old former pros with bad ankles who aren’t educated enough to run the 35 millionth soccer camp for screaming tykes in America.

Man, I miss those days. Lagerwey started laughing when I brought up his old column contributions on Thursday. 

“I mean, we were making $24,000 back then,” he said. “What were they going to do? Fire me? I was below the poverty line. But back then it was fun. We were inventing this stuff as we went along. In Dallas, our locker room was a double-wide trailer and we had to beat the peacock off the field and we had to train before the sprinklers went off for recess for the private school in order to go on. In Miami, we didn’t have a dedicated training field. You can’t make this stuff up.”

Lagerwey ended up going to law school, becoming a lawyer and doing entertaining freelance TV work for D.C. United and the New England Revolution. (His signature call for a goal was, “SWEET, CREAMERY BUTTER!!!”) I still think he could have been amazing in the long-term on TV. But then Checketts hired him at Salt Lake and he became the best GM in the league.

Garth Lagerwey has overseen the Seattle Sounders

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Ask Lagerwey what have been his hardest decisions in Seattle, and he doesn’t hesitate. “Moving on from players,” he said. Clint Dempsey, Oswaldo Alonso, Brad Evans, Zack Scott. All four of those players are in Seattle’s all-time MLS Best XI. All four were eventually let go. 

“That group was toward the end of its cycle,” said Lagerwey. “That’s not an attack on anyone. That’s just sports. Only [coach Brian] Schmetzer could have won that title in ’16 with that kind of run and blood-and-guts-type team. And he deserves the credit for that. You don’t often rebuild after winning a title, but I felt like that’s what needed to happen because that group had reached the end of its lifespan. And that was probably not so well-received in the short term.”

Lagerwey looks at the signing of Lodeiro as creating the foundation of the current team and of Ruidíaz as the capstone. There is risk in any major signing, he said, but his DPs’ ages and track records were promising, as were their desires to make a move to Seattle happen. In Lodeiro’s case, Seattle was struggling mightily in 2016 and had to wait to acquire him because Boca Juniors wanted to keep him through the Copa Libertadores. Facing pressure to go with another player, Lagerwey stuck to his guns and got Lodeiro—and Seattle still went on to win the title that year.

“We waited and waited,” Lagerwey said. “That was maybe the wrong choice for four months, but it’s been the right choice for four years.”

Lagerwey is originally from the Chicago area, and his success as a GM has caused some to wonder: Now that the Chicago Fire have an ambitious new owner (Joe Mansueto) who’s willing to spend money, might the Fire go after Lagerwey? 

“I’m really happy here, and Nelson Rodríguez does a great job there,” said Lagerwey, who has three years left on his Seattle contract.

But Lagerwey does add that at some point he would like to run both the soccer and the business sides of a club, and he quickly cites other executives who do that in MLS, including Rodríguez (Chicago), Tim Bezbatchenko (Columbus), Chris Klein (LA Galaxy), Darren Eales (Atlanta), Ian Ayre (Nashville) and Padraig Smith (Colorado). 

“It just seems like that would be interesting,” Lagerwey said. “That would be a challenge.”

Maybe Lagerwey could do that eventually in Seattle. Maybe it could be elsewhere. But if things keep progressing the way they have over the last decade, you can be sure that the demand for his work will be there.