Anonymously and from afar is how one of the more decorated soccer players from Washington described his experience with the Sounders FC.
Craig Waibel was introduced to media Friday as the club’s new senior vice president of soccer operations and sporting director. Born in Portland, raised in Spokane and playing for the University of Washington and USL Sounders, Waibel, 45, said it wasn’t until his stint as a men’s assistant coach at UW in 2013 when he truly became a fan of the Sounders.
“My family enjoyed games very anonymously in the crowd,” Waibel said during the conference call Friday. “Having a little bit of a feel for the community helps.”
Waibel not only has deep roots in the area but also played for Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer and was hired by Garth Lagerwey, the club’s president of soccer and general manager, at Real Salt Lake in 2014. Waibel succeeded Lagerwey, and the pair grew a friendship that helped in being considered for the Sounders position.
The ties and fact that Waibel won four MLS Cup championships as a defender during an 11-year career in the league made him a prized candidate. Waibel replaces Chris Henderson, who left in January for a similar position with Inter Miami CF. Henderson, a Cascade High alum, was hired by the Sounders in 2008 and led the club to four U.S. Open Cups, four Cascadia Cups, two MLS Cups and a Supporters’ Shield.
“It’s a masochistic thing,” Waibel said of succeeding Henderson. “I’ve always enjoyed the hardest challenge that I can find. This fits into that mold.”
Waibel has not been part of an MLS organization since September 2019 when he parted ways with RSL due, in part, to a bad work environment. He’s spent the past 18 months regaining his passion for soccer, keeping his family safe amid the coronavirus pandemic and mastering fly-fishing and consulting.
During his four-year RSL tenure, Waibel was able to build rosters that advanced to the postseason three times, form a strong USL Championship team and cultivate an academy program that placed five players on the recent U.S. U23 team.
“He was always a little bit handcuffed. That’s the reality of being a smaller market team and not having the pockets and aspirations that the Sounders do,” UW men’s soccer coach Jamie Clark said of Waibel, who remains a close friend. “It’s nice when someone kind of stands their ground, even when they, in the short term, lose. In the long term, it’s valued for and respected for what they thought was right.”
The Sounders have long campaigned for equality and in tandem with 2020s racial uprising, the club publicized its intention to “recruit, hire, train and develop diverse talent, representative of our community.”
Waibel is a white man, but Lagerwey stated Friday two of the three finalist were men of color and the 32 initial candidates varied in gender and ethnicity.
“I always feel like having a diverse staff is really helpful because you always get different viewpoints,” Lagerwey said. “One of the dangers of having sustained success is you don’t evolve, you’re not willing to evolve. You’re not willing to have somebody else come in and say, ‘Yeah, you’ve got a bunch of stuff that’s good but what about this? Or could we get even better doing that?’ So, diversity is critically important to that process and something I’ve sought throughout my career.”
Evaluating the Sounders’ roster was part of what was described as an “arduous” interviewing process that included majority owner Adrian Hanauer and Schmetzer. And Waibel wasn’t shy in sharing his views.
Waibel emphasized he wouldn’t meddle in Schmetzer’s decisions regarding a player’s playing time, position or starting lineup. There are also younger players Waibel couldn’t fully evaluate because there wasn’t enough video footage.
“I have been filed with Craig’s constructive criticisms on our roster,” Lagerwey said.
Waibel added: “Yes, through many conversations already, we’ve come to identify a couple of places we feel we can help our coaching staff.”
That process begins Monday when Waibel said he’ll arrive in Seattle. His wife, whose parents still live in her Bellevue childhood home, and daughter will follow.
“We are back often. We’ve just always been able to come back without a news conference,” Waibel said.
The Mariners had a thrilling opening-day win Thursday before 8,174 fans at T-Mobile Park. Lagerwey said the Sounders and King County officials are keeping a close eye on how the COVID-19 safety protocols worked for the M’s and whether there are any outbreaks of the virus to finalize any plans for the Sounders to host fans at Lumen Field.
Gov. Jay Inslee lifted the yearlong ban on having people in attendance and the Sounders previously stated they were exploring ways to do so for their MLS home opener April 16. But the club likely won’t near the 9,000 cap and season-ticket holders — which there are more than 30,000 — have first dibs on purchasing seats.
“That was an awesome game,” Lagerwey said of watching the M’s comeback on television. “We’re certainly really happy that everyone was there and enjoying themselves. Hopefully that will prove to have been a good and safe experience. If the Mariners do well, then hopefully we’ll have an opportunity to do something similar, but we’ll wait and see.”
Sounders striker Raul Ruidiaz received the final approval for his green card and arrived in Washington on Friday. Lagerwey expects Ruidiaz to join training early next week, assuming he passes COVID-19 safety protocols.