Editor’s Note: SoundersFC.com’s Nick Firchau recently sat down with GM and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey to discuss a number of topics as the club continues into the second official week of the MLS offseason. The following is the transcript of that interview.
SoundersFC.com: Let’s start with some of the most recent news in MLS. How do you think the league’s announcement of increased allocation money and Targeted Allocation Money (TAM) will affect the Sounders and other teams in the league?
Lagerwey: League-wide, it’s a lot of money to spend on players. It’s going to make the league better and I think you’re going to see, potentially, more players come in. As for how it happens and when it happens, my sincere answer is that I hope it happens 20 different ways, meaning that you have 20 different teams interpreting it differently. There’s no limit to how many guys you can bring in, so some teams might choose to use the money on eight different players, and one team might choose to use $800,000 on one player.
From a Sounders perspective, it’s pretty straight forward: The money’s already spent. When the league allocated $500,000 in money last year, there were a couple teams who used that, the most prominent being us and the LA Galaxy. But to state the obvious, very rarely does a player sign a six-month contract. So when we made Ozzie [Alonso] a TAM player, he had a much longer contract than a six-month contract. When we signed Roman Torres, he had a much longer contract than a six-month contract. When Omar Gonzalez was made a TAM player for LA, he had a much longer contract that a six-month contract. It put us in a world where we were hopeful that more TAM would be approved, and we’re fortunate that it was, but that money is effectively already spoken for.
The reason why is because a half year of TAM for Ozzie is less than a full year of TAM for Ozzie, right? The league said at the time that it’s a dollar for dollar spend, so $500,000 in the summer was equivalent to a $1M for a full season. So we’ve gotten roughly the same amount of TAM if you look at $800,000 over a year as opposed to $500,000 over six months, it’s a lot of money, but it’s actually slightly less from a salary cap perspective. For us, all it does is serve to do what we did before, which allows us to continue to look at Alonso and Torres as our TAM guys.
SoundersFC.com: You were looking for some financial relief ahead of 2016 when you made the deal to trade Marco Pappa to the Colorado Rapids for allocation money in return. How does that move encapsulate what you’re trying to do this offseason?
Lagerwey: Let me back up and talk about why we need financial relief. I was on the record before we signed the guys in the summer, saying that I don’t love summer signings, I don’t think they always work out. And then we did them, and the fact is, I felt we were forced to. Our hand was forced because we had a catastrophe in the summer, and it wasn’t clear we were going to be able to pull out of it. So we signed those four guys – Friberg, Torres, Ivanschitz, Valdez - and they came in on a reduced cost for that fraction of a season. We now unfold them for a whole season and we gave their whole cost that now hits our budget.
That puts us a starting point where we need to lose a number of players to get back to retaining the team that we had last year. Yes, we need financial relief. With respect to Marco, I think he’s a wonderful player. He set up what could have been a historical goal against Dallas for us, but it didn’t work out that way. He’s been a good player for us. Unfortunately, his cap number was significantly higher for next year and we have to get value for every player. Every player has a number at which they’re valuable and then another at which we feel it exceeds their value. With Marco, we were able to do a deal. Good players tend to have good trade markets, and he’s a good player. We got a decent offer for him, so we moved him. We felt like that was for the good of the group.
SoundersFC.com: The league is now allocating more money for the development of Homegrown Players, and you’ve talked a lot about the Sounders’ Academy system since you arrived. How does this money strengthen your efforts to land the next, great Homegrown Player?
Lagerwey: It’s already been pledged to Jordan Morris. If we get Jordan Morris, it’ll work out great. If we don’t, it won’t look quite so good.
It’s a great thing, and specifically it’s an incentive to invest in your Academy, to invest in S2 and to develop more Jordan Morrises. Whether we wind up signing Jordan or not, this gives us more flexibility as to who we can sign coming forward, which makes it incumbent upon us to churn out a greater number of players and also a greater number of very good players.
SoundersFC.com: The Portland Timbers team that won the MLS Cup last weekend had some similarities to the 2009 Real Salt Lake team that won the MLS Cup with you, and not just Nat Borchers and Will Johnson. What did you think when Portland won the title?
Lagerwey: I texted with Will and with Nat before the game and after the game. They’re both really good people. I’m really happy for them and I’m really proud of them. I told them they did awesome. And I understand that may not be popular coming from Seattle, but I knew those guys for a long time, and those guys won a lot of games for me and won a lot of games for Salt Lake. We went through a lot of wars together. I’ll always be grateful for what they did for me and happy for their success, no matter the forum.
SoundersFC.com: Does the Timbers’ success with a less expensive roster put extra pressure on you and how the Sounders’ roster is built?
Lagerwey: Publicly, sure, that’s true. From an expansion perspective, Portland started two years after us and won a title before we did, so, sure. But I also think that we put plenty of pressure on ourselves. I didn’t come here for any reason other than to try and win an MLS Cup.
That was the goal this year, and that’s why we took a risk and signed four big guys in the summer. Unfortunately, Roman Torres got hurt and we had some other knocks in the playoffs that didn’t work out for us, but we’re going to keep going for it. We’re going to keep trying to win a title, and winning an MLS Cup is the No. 1 goal of the organization. And we’re not going to rest until we get one, irrespective of what Portland or anyone else does.
SoundersFC.com: This year a number of MLS teams had great success with players who don’t feature prominently for their national teams and didn’t experience the wear and tear of an international workload: Benny Feilhaber, Dax McCarty, Ethan Finlay, Diego Valeri, Mauro Diaz. Is there an effort to look at those kinds of players as key figures on the team?
Lagerwey: I’ve heard this argument in a couple of different iterations. I understand the merits of it, but here’s where you lose me: If you develop good, young talent over time, that talent will be picked up by national teams. So if you truly believe that you should invest mostly in Argentines and Brazilians, and maybe to a lesser degree Colombians, you’re going to run afoul of virtually anything.
You could use your argument to say, ‘Well, you shouldn’t take any good, young Americans,’ because now they’re in jeopardy of being called in for the Under-17 team, and the Under-20 team and the Under-23 team, and the full team. But you can’t build a team without Americans. I get your point, it’s a really nice intellectual argument. But at some point you can’t worry about it. Do you want 11 guys who get called up? Ideally, no. But you know what? If you have 11 guys who are playing for the national team, chances are you have a pretty decent team.
So, could we be wracked by Copa Centenario call-ups? We could. But might we be in first place at that time because we have six Copa Centenario players on our roster? You gotta live with the pros and the cons. And by having a plan and having structure and role players in place to replace those guys maybe not at the same level to but to understand their function within the system, that’s how you fight through the stuff and mitigate it. And that’s how you plan long-term.
SoundersFC.com: Looking back at Clint Dempsey's year, he battled an injury sustained while he was with the US national team and he had some other injuries that cost him some minutes. How healthy was he last season?
Lagerwey: Only Clint could really tell you that. He didn’t feel completely healthy until close to the end of the season. I thought he played really well in the Gold Cup for the United States, and I thought he played well for us in the beginning of the season. I mean, it’s not like he played poorly at any point. But was he 100 percent the whole time? Probably not.
And the answer to that going forward is, is there a way to change our preparation, is there a way to rotate our forwards in a manner that allows him a little more rest even when he’s with us? That’s all stuff he and Sigi will work out. But Clint knows his body as well or better than anybody, and he’s a pretty good communicator. He will help us understand the best way to utilize him.
SoundersFC.com: He was left out of the most recent round of World Cup Qualifiers. Would the Sounders almost rather Clint didn’t play in as many US games in 2016 so that he’s fresh for the Sounders, much like Landon Donovan with the LA Galaxy at the end of 2014?
Lagerwey: This national team thing is just kind of a philosophy. You gotta understand that there are going to be some trips that are going to hurt you and some trips that are going to help you. If you believe in sending your guys to the national team, then your argument is, ‘Long-term, we’re better off. They’re going to get experiences and they’re going to grow as players that they couldn’t get just by playing in MLS.’
Is there a point in a player’s career where you might flip that and say the wear and tear argues against it? Sure, but you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t say, ‘I’m supportive of the national teams and I want my guys on the national teams all the way up, but when it’s not good for me, then I’m going to change my view.’
Look, I’m American. I want the United States to play well. And if Jurgen Klinsmann picks Clint and Clint wants to go, then that’s between them. It’s an honor to play for your country, and I think it has been to a lot of our guys, and I think it will continue to be.
To some degree, is it a mixed blessing sometimes? Yeah. But I think you really gotta look at the long-term. And say, ‘Yeah, maybe it hurts this trip, but maybe it’s incumbent upon us as an organization to make it work as well.'
SoundersFC.com: You’ve said you’ve taken some calls about a potential trade for Osvaldo Alonso, but any team that makes that deal will have to take on a salary that’s nearly at DP level. How do you feel about those negotiations and the interest for Ozzie, and where do think it will end up?
Lagerwey: We get calls about lots of players a lot of the time, and our good players we get more calls about. Ozzie’s a good player, and to whether he’s here or somewhere else, that will depend on what the market tells us. And it will depend on whether or not it makes our team better. And if it does, we’ll move him. And if it makes us better to keep him, we’ll do that too.
I kind of chuckled when the story came out about this in the fall. The league is evolving. Just three to five years ago, the Sounders were one team. They had an Academy that was just getting going and getting started, but we’re not a team anymore. We’re an organization. And if you’re running an organization, it’s an executive skill set. It’s not a coach skill set. It’s not emotional or technical preparation. You’re running the Sounders, S2 and four teams on the Academy level. You have to have a strategic progression for all these kids from a player-development perspective. You have to have a 40-man roster strategy in terms of who’s going up and who’s going down, and what the next three years are going to look like.
And part of that is, you have to constantly evaluate your entire organization. So this idea that it’s somehow controversial for a general manager to talk about the players on his team? We gotta move on here. We gotta grow up a little bit and say, ‘Yes, just like in the NFL and the NBA and Major League Baseball. Yes, we get calls about players. And by the way, that’s a good thing.’ And the fact that people are writing about it and talking about it? That’s an even better thing. Because that means people actually care about this stuff.
So, to the Ozzie question – I don’t know if he’s going to stay with us or if he’s going to go somewhere else. The market will determine that. We will determine that as to what’s best for our team. And by the way, that’s true not just of Ozzie, but of every player on our team.
SoundersFC.com: The MLS SuperDraft is roughly a month away, and the Sounders have not traditionally drafted well in their history, in part because they’ve typically had picks during the second half of the first round. You had some pretty good success in the draft at RSL – is the key to the SuperDraft spotting talent or developing it?
Lagerwey: It’s both. And it’s luck and circumstance and things like that too. Kurt Schmid is our head scout and he runs our stuff, and he did a heck of a job last year. We got Charlie Lyon, Tyler Miller, Oniel Fisher, Andy Craven and Christian Roldan. We signed five guys out of the college draft. We went five for five. I personally have never gone five for five in anything in life, let alone a draft. I think it’s unreasonable to think we’re going to do that well again.
But is identifying players? Yes. Is it having a system whereby players can succeed in certain roles? Yes. Is it about helping the kids when they get here and not saying after a day or a week, ‘Oh man, I’m not sure he’s ready yet.’ Because every college kid is not ready yet, with very, very few exceptions. How can we make him ready? Have we coach him up and how can we work with him? How can we show him a bit of belief so that he comes along over the course of a year? With young players, your mentality and your approach is what’s most important. Identifying the talent is one piece, but you gotta have a lot of other things come together.
SoundersFC.com: The Sounders hold the No. 15 pick right now. Do you entertain the idea of trading up or do you get what you get and hope you can develop him?
Lagerwey: It’s sort of nuanced answer. The fact is, with the Homegrown Players getting pulled out of the draft in larger and larger numbers due to the advancement of the Academies, which is a good thing, the colleges have evolved their recruiting. And they have begun recruiting more foreign players. So, foreign spots are at a premium in our league, as they are even on the minor league teams. The minor league teams in the USL only have seven foreign spots, where as the MLS teams have eight. So the number of Homegrown Players that you have, even at the USL level, likely influences your ability to pick foreign players from college. So if you have a lower number of USL domestic players, that’s going to increase your reliance on foreign players there, which Is going to put a little more pressure on your first team.
It’s a complex problem that you have to solve over years by developing Homegrown talent and domestic talent as that college pool evolves. You have to look at not just who the best player is, but who the best domestic players are. And part of that is cultural too. I’m not a believer that you can field a team of 15 guys from 15 different countries. We play in America, we live in America. This is an American league. You want American players at the core of your team. Does that mean they have to be at every position? No. But if you want to have a belief and a foundation and a common purpose and some link to the city of Seattle and all these great fans we have, having Seattle players is the best, but having American players is still a big deal.
I think you might see us put some emphasis on that in the draft. But I say that, and I’m reminded you’re almost always going to take the best player available. So you kind of have the philosophy and you layer the specific circumstances over it, and you do the best that you can.
SoundersFC.com: Despite the moves that you’ve already made this offseason and the moves the club will make in the coming weeks, the core of the team will return next year one year older. Even if this team stays healthy, are they still as strong as they were in 2014?
Lagerwey: If I’m going to compare it to a team, I’m going to say 2013 RSL. It’s a team where some of the guys – not the absolute best players, some of the middle-class players – were taken out, and you’re seeing bench players and reserve players taken out of this team. We’re injecting young players with more upside and maybe a little more pace in some cases and more technique in others, and I think we have to accept this idea that we’re going to be a little bit worse probably at first. I think Valdez, Ivanschitz and Friberg with a full preseason are gonne be better, but I think some of the young guys are going to be inconsistent, as opposed to the veteran guys who were more reliable.
But the whole point of having young guys is that they’re going to have potential. And they’re going to grow and get better. And if we handle them in the right way and if we’re patient, we believe in them and we teach, I do think we’re going to be a better team at the end of the year than we are at the beginning of the year.
At the beginning of the year we’re going to go for it, playing Club America, arguably the best team in the Western Hemisphere, and I think we have to come out aggressively in the first leg and try to get a lead and hope for the best. But we are going to make decisions that are good for the long-term of the club. We didn’t make our off-season decisions with what’s best for beating Club America in February in mind. We made them based on we win an MLS Cup, and how we compete for an MLS Cup not just this year, but over the coming years.