Garth Lagerwey is faced with the consequences of his talents this Sounders FC offseason. As general manager and president of soccer since 2015, Lagerwey is the architect of a franchise that has won two MLS Cups, four Western Conference championships, had six Best XI honorees and a record six All-Stars this season.
But a club-first opening-round postseason exit and star player who’s only contractually obligated to stay is a tough position that has put Lagerwey in unexpected territory. During an end-of-season news conference Friday, Lagerwey offered perspective while also acknowledging the standard he helped set quantifies the season as a failure.
“Reflect for a second,” Lagerwey said about an hour into the availability at Starfire Sports in Tukwila. Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer and Craig Waibel, who was hired in April as the senior vice president of soccer operations and sporting director, joined in taking questions from media.
“We have five guys who were MLS Best XI in the last two years,” Lagerwey said. “We have another five guys who have been All-Stars and four internationals who play for their countries. That’s not bad. It’s OK as a starting point, there are worse problems to have. And we’ve got a bunch of talented guys coming through.
“We’ve got a bunch of good things in place. If we can put the club first, keep that stability, keep calm, work through our contract processes and give Brian as many weapons as we can going into next year. … We’re going to have to be ready.”
A pressing issue is the status of Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz. The club exercised the designated player’s contract option for the 2022 season, but that doesn’t prevent a club in a different country from offering the Sounders a lucrative transfer fee for Ruidiaz’s rights. He could also hold out to force such a deal.
The Peruvian is second all-time in scoring for the Sounders (61 goals) and entered the 2021 season wanting a contract extension. Lagerwey said talks with Ruidiaz and his agent this week have been cordial.
“Certainly, we’re interested in getting a long-term deal with a player who’s been a big part of our success,” Lagerwey said. “If he feels the same way, we’ll get something done. Worst case he’s under contract for next year, (but) our preference is to try to work out a deal with Raul to keep him here with the Sounders long term.”
Ruidiaz is one of 19 players under contract, and Lagerwey announced he had signed Tacoma Defiance forward Samuel Adeniran, who started one of his two matches with the Sounders this season and scored 11 goals in USL Championship competitions.
The Sounders have seven players who are either out of contract or had their club options declined that are now free agents. Free agency begins Dec. 15. Lagerwey would like to have 30 players to make it through a compact 2022 season and was optimistic about many returning, but his staff will have to plan for the MLS expansion draft Dec. 14 to onboard Charlotte FC. Who the Sounders protect will be released by the league before the draft.
Those moves will heavily dictate whether Schmetzer sticks to the new formation used this season. Utilizing three center backs and two forwards up top was primarily because of winger Jordan Morris suffering a knee injury while on loan last winter.
Morris was able to play in two regular-season matches and start the postseason loss to Real Salt Lake in November, but Schmetzer said Friday that the 2020 MLS Best XI player’s return didn’t mesh with the formation.
Schmetzer also felt the lineup didn’t suit Leo Chu, a 21-year-old winger from Brazil who was signed in August. Chu finished his inaugural MLS season with one goal and one assist in 146 minutes as a sub.
The Sounders opened the season on a league-record 13-match unbeaten streak, not conceding a goal through the run of play in 949 minutes. The team finished the year on a seven-game winless skid. Best XI players Morris, Ruidiaz (hamstring), Nico Lodeiro (knee), and Joao Paulo (hamstring) were all limited the final two months of the season because of injuries.
“The reflection of the coaching staff is still going on,” Schmetzer said. “When Jordan came back, we did kick around going back to our (formation used since 2016). We’re discussing those things to make sure we don’t become predictable.”
The Sounders’ biggest success was the development of the younger players. Josh Atencio, AB Cissoko, Reed Baker-Whiting, Ethan Dobbelaere, Danny Leyva, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez and Andrew Thomas are under contract for next season.
Atencio, Leyva and Cissoko had key moments in helping the Sounders win matches. Waibel said Friday that development will be a priority moving forward, especially as the club continues to limit traveling for scouting amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The Sounders have already restructured after the November departure of Ravi Ramineni, who was promoted to vice president of soccer analytics and research last year after formatting how to compartmentalize data to find talent. They will have a video and data analytics department along with sports science.
“Hopefully we’re developing players and hopefully at some point we’re selling players,” Waibel said. “That evolution comes from consistently winning and consistently training these guys and putting them in situations where they improve. I always have that long-term vision.”
MLS expects to open 2022 preseason training camp in mid-January. Seattle’s first competitions will be the CONCACAF Champions League mid-February and it will open the league slate against Nashville SC on Feb. 27 at Lumen Field.
The league championship will be Nov. 5 to clear way for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar that kicks off Nov. 21.
“We do need a break right now,” Lagerwey said. “Collectively — our staff, our players — we need some time to go home, see family, be safe, be relaxed, get away from soccer a little bit. Hopefully we come back ready.”
- Morris and Cristian Roldan were called into the U.S. men’s national team training camp. The sessions will be in Los Angeles from Dec. 6-17.