How can an MLS team – especially one, such as the Sounders, that built its scouting network from scratch less than a decade ago – hope to compete in the global market? Welcome to International Scouting for Dummies.
The next time you’re outside on a clear night, preferably away from the haze of the city lights, pick out and identify the brightest star in the sky.
Next time you’re at the beach, locate the single-most impressive grain of sand.
Not by size or shininess, this grain needs to mesh with the rest of your sand collection: Filling the hole left behind by the star piece of quartz sand that just left for a big payday in Europe, adding depth behind the bit of white Caribbean sand that’s beginning to lose its vibrancy.
Today’s story is the first installment of our three-part series leading up to Sunday’s season opener vs. New England, on the global influences on MLS. Coming up:
Saturday: The unique paths taken by Sounders players.
Sunday: How Sounders players have broken down the language barrier on and off the field.
Such is life for an international soccer scout.
Sounders season preview:
- For Sounders and other MLS teams, building a global scouting network is a long process
- Osvaldo Alonso's journey from Cuba to Sounders 'a little crazy'
- Seattle players' union rep Brad Evans details successful CBA talks, discusses leaks
- Rounding up MLS season previews: Seattle is Cup favorite
- Sounders unveil new primary, away uniforms, open Pioneer Square clubhouse
- Listen: Sigi Schmid talks the Sounders opener on KJR
“The easiest thing to do is to watch a national team play and go, ‘Oh, that guy’s pretty good,’ ” first-year Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. “Or you watch the World Cup and say, ‘Oh, he had a good World Cup.’
“The art of the job is finding people that are off the beaten track and off the radar and are going to cost less money.”
How can an MLS team – especially one, such as the Sounders, that built its scouting network from scratch less than a decade ago – hope to compete in the global market? Where do you even begin?
Welcome to International Scouting for Dummies.
Get a trusty database
WyScout, one system the Sounders use, is a soccer video-gamer’s dream come to life.
Leagues from the Albanian second division through the Venezuelan Primera, complete with stats and video, are available at a click. A running leaderboard of the world’s top scorers under age 20, calculated by goals-per-game average, bleeds down the right side of the page.
Select the Portuguese flag icon, and the menu spits out options from the top two tiers of the national league through the U-14 academy teams. Each player’s height and weight, date of birth, history of transfers and year-by-year stats are readily available.
Want to watch Fredy Montero’s 30th-minute goal in Sporting Lisbon’s 3-1 victory over Arouca on Feb. 1? One click away. Want more subtlety? Get Montero videos tagged by aerial duels, link-up play and ball control.
“I spend most of the day up there watching players,” Sounders sporting director Chris Henderson said. “You can get every touch of the ball.”
Build your network
As nifty of a tool such as WyScout and similar programs are, they do little to help us out with the original problem: breaking down these massive chunks of information into usable bits.
That’s where your personal connections come in — tips from agents, nudges in the arm from scouts.
“I played in Germany,” said Henderson, a former member of the U.S. men’s national team. “I lived there. A lot of my teammates, on the World Cup team and Olympic team, those guys end up coaching in different places. And then it was just going out there and scouting and building those relationships — relationships with clubs, relationships with agents.
“You never feel like that it’s enough, because there are a million clubs out there. But you get people that you trust.”
Henderson played alongside Lyle Yorks during the 1989 Youth World Cup in Saudi Arabia, where the U.S. knocked off East Germany en route to a record fourth-place finish.
Yorks, handily, now is an agent for both Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin, an invaluable connection and conduit as Seattle signed the former from Tottenham Hotspur, then sent the latter the other way.
Be on the lookout for a bargain
Lagerwey relays a simple rule of thumb. It’s not hard and fast, he cautions, but it’s a good guiding principle.
“What I always tell fans is that the easiest way to tell where we’re going to sign players is look at the GDP reports put out by the U.N.,” Lagerwey said. “If they’re a country with a smaller Gross National Product, it’s probably going to be a soccer league that pays a little less than we do and going to have guys that are hungry to come to America and start a better life.”
That means look south, to the Caribbean and Central and South America, instead of East, to the more-developed European leagues (with some exceptions).
When Lagerwey was with Real Salt Lake — where penny-pinching was even more of a priority — the club’s scouting efforts bounced from Argentina to Brazil to Colombia to Ecuador.
“It’s literally just staying ahead of the economics,” Lagerwey said. “As prices go up, you move onto the next country.
“Economics dictate this stuff. It’s honestly not even a preference for Latin players over Serbian players over African players — it’s economics. Where can you find the best deal?”
Enroll in a frequent-flier program
Both Henderson and scout Kurt Schmid estimated that they spend more than three months of every year on the road scouting. Though the borders aren’t rigid, Henderson covers most of South America and Europe, and Schmid gets the youth national teams and the bulk of Central America.
When the Sounders were in negotiations with Spanish club Levante for forward Obafemi Martins, Henderson flew round trip to Valencia three times in one month.
“I was getting a little claustrophobic on airplanes,” Henderson admits.
Because despite the technological advances — the hours upon endless hours of video, the advanced statistical databases — are all well and good, there’s no true substitute for watching a player compete live.
“Are they clean technically?” Schmid asks himself when he gets his first look at a player. “Tactically, are they aware?”
The subtle cues, those on-the-fly adjustments, don’t always come through on screen.
Always be ready
Schmid first spotted recent Sounders signing Andres Correa at the 2013 U-20 World Cup in Turkey, where the left back was playing for the Colombian national team.
The gap between when a player initially draws the team’s attention and a possible signing varies widely. More than three years passed, for example, from when Schmid first scouted former Sounder Mario Martinez and when the team finally nabbed him in 2012.
Schmid liked Correa’s awareness and his speed, but the player was on contract with Independiente Medillin. So the young defender’s info went into Henderson’s spread sheet, the one broken down by rank and filed by position. And there Correa’s file sat until the end of last year.
With Correa nearing the end of his contract, his agent reached out. Soon Correa attended the Sounders’ Las Vegas Combine “to confirm everything we had seen before,” Schmid said.
In the span of a few weeks, Correa went from the Colombian first division into the MLS preseason, charting a path from a youth tournament in Turkey through an intermediary by way of a “just in case” file on a computer in Tukwila.
Consider this rule No. 1, per Schmid: “You’ve always got to be ready to move when the right situation comes along.”
Don’t fall in love
This, Lagerwey says, is a bedrock principle. In the single-entity, salary-capped world of MLS, it’s all about cutting costs and squeezing every bit of bang out of each buck.
“You’re constantly trying to get 80 percent at a cost of 20 or 30 percent,” Lagerwey said.
Love can blind, clouding judgment and rushing teams into cost-inefficient deals. Fall back on your second choice if he comes with significant savings.
“Don’t get me wrong — you need special players, the difference-makers for your team in the big game,” Lagerwey said. “You have to have both guys. The guys that you invest a lot in and the value guys. It all fits together. It’s all a big puzzle.”
There are some benefits to fishing in a limitless pond.
“Never fall in love with just one player,” Lagerwey said.
“There’s always another one.”