The Sounders decided to split off operations from the Seahawks in 2014. The transition hasn't always been smooth, as events in recent months have underlined.
Late in the morning of July 26, Nicolas Lodeiro arrived at Starfire Sports to finalize his Designated Player contract with the Sounders.
The Uruguayan playmaker arrived at the team facility bleary-eyed, the result of an overnight flight from Argentina, with a club video crew shadowing his every move. After a meet-and-greet with his soon-to-be new teammates, Lodeiro headed to the upstairs front offices to complete the requisite paperwork.
He sat down with general manager Garth Lagerwey and his staff, most of them basking in the glow of a highly-anticipated signing they’d worked diligently to bring to fruition. And then Lodeiro asked the awkward question.
Is Sigi still here?
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Indeed, just a few hours removed from his unceremonious removal, longtime coach Sigi Schmid was still sitting in his office, waiting for the go-ahead to say his goodbyes to the rest of the staff.
The two men exchanged pleasantries, bonding over the shared connection to Guillermo Barros Schelotto – Lodeiro’s former coach at Boca Juniors, Schmid’s player with the Columbus Crew — seemingly oblivious to the mild horror their chance meeting inspired in other corners of the office.
That the Sounders’ future and past would so clumsily intersect was indicative of a larger, behind-the-scenes trend borne from the team’s 2014 financial split with the Seattle Seahawks. Though most agree the separation was a necessary maturation step, its challenging aftermath has included front-office transitions of power, the departure of loyal employees and continued day-to-day spending repercussions.
As the club prepares to roll out its vision for the next decade and beyond – amid fears that their growth could be leveling off and with a new identity undefined — the culture clashes between the modern eras of the Sounders could hint at where it all could be headed from here.
To start, it’s helpful to outline the forces that made them successful in the first place.
The Most Successful Launch in American Sports History (trademark implied if not official) stepped into a vacuum created by the departure of the SuperSonics, the 0-12 UW football team and down years from the Seahawks and Mariners.
The Sounders also tapped into the deep reservoir that is this city’s underlying soccer culture. Leading up to the club’s inaugural MLS season in 2009, ticket sales reps recall returning to the office on Monday morning to multiple voice mails, potential season-ticket holders having been pitched by friends in soccer bars over the weekend.
“Seattle came in and just exploded through every record we ever had,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a phone interview. “We realized very, very quickly that this team would break the mold.”
The club was lent immediate credibility by its connection with the Seahawks, sharing business operations with a well-established organization and leaning on its experienced staff.
“We weren’t going to be a second-tier sport,” says Gary Wright, the former Seahawks executive often referred to as the Sounders’ patriarch. “We weren’t going to accept that. We had to be seen on the same level as the other professional teams.”
The Sounders also traded on their novelty, on their counter-cultural place in the Seattle sports scene. In some ways, that meant that this era in the club’s modern history always had an end date on the horizon.
At some point, they were going to have to forge their own path – and deal with the identity crisis and growing pains such a sink-or-swim decision could create.
Most in the know will tell you that the split with the Seahawks was inevitable. What’s more contentious is whether it needed to happen precisely when it did, and whether the Sounders were sufficiently prepared for exactly what it would entail.
A mandatory all-staff meeting was called at Seahawks headquarters in late March 2014, with the Sounders just two games into their new MLS campaign.
Conversations about breaking off business operations from the Seahawks had been going on in the background for almost a year up to that point, Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer said. There was also an internal debate about delaying it another year.
The decision to split, announced on March 20, 2014, was abrupt enough that some of the Sounders’ traveling employees, en route to a match at Montreal, didn’t find out about it until their phones were collectively bombarded upon landing.
“The Sounders kind of reminded me of a 21-year-old kid with a car and girlfriend and a job,” says Mike Gastineau, author of Authentic Masterpiece, a chronicle of the club’s first few seasons. “Mom and dad eventually say, ‘Guess what? It’s time to start living on your own.’
“It feels like maybe they took a step back, business-wise. Like a 21-year-old moving out, they didn’t quite realize everything that was going to be on their dime. … It wasn’t quite that naïve, but there were things that came along that they could not have expected because they were sheltered for so long.”
Multiple employees who experienced the transition referred to the shift as going from NFL-lite to MLS-plus.
The move has forced the Sounders to take a harder look at other expenses: Without the Seahawks safety net to fall back upon – though Paul Allen’s Vulcan, Inc., still owns 25 percent of the team – they were forced to occasionally make more difficult choices than they otherwise might have.
“Sometimes you have to make decisions between new carpeting for the office or a technology solution for scouting players,” Hanauer said. “We’re going to err on the side of doing whatever we can to support the team and the team’s success.”
That means still investing $15 million in a difference-making player like Lodeiro, but there are limits.
“(Minority owner) Joe (Roth) and I have basically said from Day 1 that we have no interest in pulling cash out of the operations of the business,” Hanauer said, “but we don’t want to write checks, either. There’s a reality of striking a balance. That’s why we didn’t commit $40 million to a player. There are decisions and trade-offs to be made.”
Since the Seahawks split, a behind-the-scenes roster churn has included the shedding of staffers who were with the club all the way back through the transition from the minor-league USL.
But asked whether, on some level, the Sounders risked losing touch with some of what made them so successful in the first place, Hanauer was unapologetic.
“Great organizations innovate and iterate and don’t look at what make them successful in the past for what’s going to make them successful in the future,” Hanauer said. “I’m more concerned that we have a group here that knows how we’re going to be successful in the future.”
There have been, Hanauer will concede, some missteps. The launch of a mobile ticketing app was met with backlash around the cellphone-service-challenged confines of CenturyLink, and the decision to partner with Delta for a fan-inspired “tifo” also met with the ire of Sounders diehards.
The launch of S2 as a club-affiliated minor-league team has achieved the base goal of getting younger players steady playing time, but attendance and buzz fell off in its second USL season.
“Business has been a huge struggle,” Hanauer said of S2. “I know how difficult it was to sell USL when there wasn’t MLS, so I’m not sure I should be surprised with how difficult it is.”
Perhaps the most public example of recent front office/fan base disconnect happened this past offseason, when the club chose not to extend the contract of popular broadcaster Ross Fletcher after four years – originally, and incorrectly, framing the move as his decision. The departure inspired a pair of fan petitions asking for his reinstatement.
“It’s a subjective business,” Gastineau said. “They can hire whoever they want. But … that’s the kind of thing that never happens if they’re still affiliated with enough sharp people that go, ‘Wait a second …’
“You owe a loyal employee the truth. That was a good example of something they didn’t handle the right way.”
There was a perception among fans at the time that the decision was a cost-cutting move. Hanauer, though, insisted that he has no regrets with the way the situation was dealt with.
“If I have one regret, it’s that we wanted to be good people, so we informed Ross of our decision … well before we needed to, and he used that time as a platform to create a wedge between our fans and the decision,” Hanauer said.
Fletcher has never commented publicly on the situation, and chose to retain his silence on Hanauer’s claims.
“Not to discredit that the fans would have had opinions no matter when, but I thought the right thing to do was to be a really nice person and give four months notice,” Hanauer said. “If I’m honest, I feel like that came back to bite me in the (backside), which made me grumpy.”
The newest Sounders era began to take shape in the hours before Schmid and Lodeiro crossed paths in the Starfire offices. Earlier in the morning of July 26, the club cut loose the coach who led it to seven straight postseasons, four U.S. Open Cups and a regular-season title.
“I think the team was done hearing him,” Hanauer said this week of Schmid. “We have different perspectives on it. He could be right, I could be wrong. But it was my conclusion that the team had – I don’t want to say that the team had given up on him, because the team has pride – but that the messaging was not getting through.”
The transition from Sounders 2.0 to 3.0 is perhaps a subtler demarcation to the one after the Seahawks split, but no less dramatic. This sea change dates to Hanauer’s stepping down as the general manager after the 2014 season, and the arrival of Garth Lagerwey from Real Salt Lake as his replacement.
In the wake of Schmid’s departure, and with the interim tag still hanging around Brian Schmetzer’s neck, this is very much Lagerwey’s team now. Lagerwey is the one driving the full-time coaching search, Hanauer has said, and the GM laid out his vision for the future in detail in the days after Schmid was let go.
The Sounders’ local television ratings are down this season, from an average share of 5.6 to below four, per Nielsen. Attendance has dipped, too, by about 1,000 fans per game. That average attendance line graph has been steadily flattening since the 2014 season after dramatic gains in the early years.
Part of that is undoubtedly the result of the team’s first sustained on-field downturn since it joined MLS. For large chunks of this season, the Sounders looked all but certain to miss the postseason for the first time in their modern era.
Yet there’s also a sense of a plateau, that the club is brushing up against the ceiling of what is possible in the current state of Major League Soccer.
“It’s woken me up every night in the middle of the night every night for the last eight-and-a-half years,” Hanauer said. “I’m paranoid about the ability for us to continue to grow the business and grow the sport. We can’t let that happen.”
So, what now?
The Sounders, not without merit, will point to their late-season surge to the brink of another playoff berth as proof that backroom turmoil hasn’t impacted the on-field product. They’ll counter that staff turnover is just a fact of life for what is essentially a start-up, and anyway, this period of transition is the price they were always going to have to play to realize their ultimate ambitions.
“What MLS wants, and what has been driving our success, is fully committed owners,” Garber said. “… That is not the structure that they originally had in the partnership with the Seahawks.
“The development of their independence is a very positive situation for Major League Soccer. I have no doubt about that.”
In the coming months, Hanauer and company will outline their own blueprint for the coming decade, including the goal of selling out CenturyLink Field by 2026. Their long-term vision, he says, is as ambitious as ever.
Somewhere in the middle of all this is Schmetzer, who is in some ways the perfect embodiment for the current state of his beloved club.
If you want to talk about somebody who was there from the beginning, Schmetzer suited up for the NASL Sounders. He coached Hanauer’s USL version to a league championship. Schmetzer grew up from the grassroots that club espouses but that sometimes feel overlooked as it expands its global reach.
In a very real sense, Schmetzer could be coaching for his job in the next couple of weeks, starting with this weekend’s regular-season finale against Real Salt Lake. Should his team fall short on the final day, suddenly his standing looks very tenuous. Lead the Sounders to their first MLS Cup final, and it’s hard to imagine justifying handing the reins to anybody else.
Should Seattle’s season end anywhere between those two extremes, though, what that means for Schmetzer could speak louder about the future of the Sounders than even these past two-and-a-half years, when the club headed uncertainly into a new era still taking shape.