When the Sounders FC went to Las Vegas to evaluate players at the club’s annual combine, the whole staff was on hand for a goalkeeper session on the camp’s second day. Several of the coaches even lined up for some of the drills, peppering the prospective professional goalkeepers with shots from all angles.
None, however, was more lethal in the box than Chris Henderson.
He was so impressive, in fact, that head coach Sigi Schmid even asked the 41-year-old Henderson if he wanted to lace up his boots for one of the matches during the three-day combine. The suggestion may have drawn a bit of a laugh, but Henderson isn’t that far removed from his playing days and has remained in remarkable condition.
The Sounders FC technical director makes time in his incredibly congested schedule of scouting, recruiting and signing players from South America to Europe and beyond to jump on the field and provide the staff with an extra body and the players with a bit of extra motivation.
“Those are the days that I love – when they need an extra guy and I can jump in and play with them,” Henderson said.
If nothing else, it provides the persistently busy Henderson an opportunity to unwind from a busy schedule that has him in the office much more often than he’d like to admit and certainly more than he thought as a midfielder who played 11 years in Major League Soccer before he retired after the 2006 season.
A consistent and resilient midfielder that logged 317 games and 51 goals in MLS, Henderson hardly retired to a life of leisure. After playing his last game with the New York Red Bulls in 2006, he signed on as an assistant coach with the Kansas City Wizards, where the long days started for the Everett native.
“It’s a hard transition the year after you’re done playing,” Henderson, noting that the days as a player don’t always go far beyond the day’s training sessions and matches, while the life of a coach fills an entire day.
However, the days found a way to get longer when he was named technical director for the Sounders FC in 2008. Before the club began hiring their technical staff, Henderson was amongst a small group that was charged with preparing the soccer club for the start of their inaugural season in 2009.
That meant everything from scouting players to ordering medical tape. They are days that now draw a laugh from Henderson as he looks at the top flight stable of hard-working and well-qualified staffers that help the Sounders take the field every day for training and matches.
“I felt like I was working six jobs some times, the amount of hours we were putting in during 2008. But it was exciting because we knew how big it was going to be here. You could feel it. And we wanted to do it right from the beginning,” he said. “I remember what a relief it was once we started to hire guys in the technical staff. It just took a huge load off.”
As has been detailed in the past five weeks in stories about the coaching staff, the Sounders brought together a well-constructed group of coaches whose work ethic and resumes are matched by the rest of the staff that man the Sounders offices.
“It really is small details that can put us over the top and that’s where I think our staff has been very good,” Henderson said. “If you get that level high enough, it’s going to translate into that one play in the 89th minute that can make the difference in getting that one or two results that can win the title for you.”
It marks a drastic change from the league that Henderson joined in the inaugural MLS season in 1996.
Then a 25-year-old US National Team veteran, Henderson would play for the Colorado Rapids (twice), Kansas City Wizards, Miami Fusion, Columbus Crew and New York Red Bulls over his 11-year career. But nowhere would he see the type of organization like he would in Seattle.
“We definitely went through some tough years. From about 1999-2002, the league was struggling and we were just happy to make a living in America playing soccer. Looking back now, we were pioneers and there were a lot of great memories,” he said. “You want to tell the young players to be appreciative. The players in Seattle appreciate it because they see what’s going on around the league and what we have here. But they don’t necessarily see where the league was before.”
Along with the improvements in the conditions surrounding each team, several other areas have seen tremendous increases as well. Henderson sited scouting, sports science, player monitoring, coaching staffs and youth development, but the list goes on to media exposure and even the quality of player that is being sought by the league.
That expands the horizons of targets for Henderson and other club’s around the league.
With the Designated Player rule now expanded to include three players on each team whose salaries can extend into the millions without heavily hitting the club’s salary cap budget, teams can reach to much higher realms when searching for players. Additionally, the next tier of players is more apt to join the league as the talent pool has gotten deeper.
With Kasey Keller and Freddie Ljungberg on Seattle’s inaugural roster, the Sounders gained instant credibility around the world. They are just a microcosm of similar stories around the league.
“There are quality players at a good age that are looking to MLS as an option,” Henderson said. “There are players that five years ago never would have looked at MLS and that helps our scouting.”
For Henderson, that has meant trips to faraway lands to scout players. Some have proven fruitful, garnering players like Erik Friberg and Adam Johansson from Sweden and, before that, Fredy Montero and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado from Colombia. And while those instances are examples of success on those trips abroad, not every excursion has had those levels of success.
“We ended up hitting on timing with the right player at the right time and a deal comes together. We get 2-3 Colombians and 2-3 Scandinavians, then I go somewhere like Croatia and there’s nothing. The guy doesn’t fit in our cap or we lose him to another league,” Henderson said. “It’s funny how it works.”
Thus far, most of those scouting trips and the behind-the-scenes work has paid off. Seattle has had three straight seasons in the playoffs, three straight US Open Cup titles, finished second in MLS in 2011 and will open the 2012 calendar in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals and will play in the tournament a third straight time later in the year.
All the while, they were the top scoring team in Major League Soccer in 2011, befitting of the style of play that the club’s stated goal from their first press conference in 2007.
“I’m happy with the style that the team plays. It’s the style that we envisioned in 2008 when we were building the team,” Henderson said. “The core of players has been good and the additions we’ve been able to add each year have made us a better team. We want to be consistent and compete for a title each year and each year we’ve had a chance to do that.”
The Sounders open the Champions League quarterfinals against Santos Laguna on March 7 at CenturyLink Field with the return leg coming in Mexico on March 14. They open the MLS season on March 17 at CenturyLink Field against Toronto FC.