Now that the 2011 MLS season is officially over, we took the opportunity to sit down with Sounders FC owner/general manager Adrian Hanauer to discuss the success of 2011, the offseason plans, the Hawks Nest, Cascadia and more in a candid Q&A.
Q: First of all, what were your impressions of how the 2011 season unfolded?
A: I thought the season was good. It’s hard to argue that it wasn’t a very successful season. Obviously we had a very disappointing playoff series that ended our season, so consequently we’re left feeling a little bit empty at the end of the season, but I think you have to look at the full body of work. Faced with a little bit of adversity, the team performed extremely well. We were as good as anyone through the final 31 games of the year. We won a US Open Cup. We qualified for quarterfinals of Champions League. We qualified again for next year’s Champions League tournament. We were second in the league in points. Leading the league in goals. I think we played some very entertaining soccer and gave our fans some memorable moments. So all-in-all a very good season, but not quite as good as we would have liked it to be.
Q: Was there ever a point where you thought, after the first four games, that you needed to make changes or were you confident all along that this group would be able to straighten itself out?
A: I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit conflicted after the first few games. But when I went back and watched the games again and talked to a broad group of people that I go to for advice and whose opinions I value, it became clear to me that it was too early to push the panic button. Sigi was extremely confident that it was going to turn around. He never doubted for a second that we had a team that could challenge for the Supporters’ Shield. And he was right. It’s just a reality of a long professional sports season that you’re likely to have speed bumps. Sometimes they come at the beginning of the season, sometimes at the middle, sometimes at the end. It’s important to know when to push the panic button and when to relax a little bit and observe a little bit more.
Q: After the seventh game, you lost Steve Zakuani and O’Brian White. This is kind of the same question, but did you feel like you needed to change anything?
Q: What did it tell you about the team and the individuals within the team that you still had so much success despite two major losses?
A: It was impressive to me how the team came together as individuals and as a group and was able to persevere. I think it showed that our team has been growing up over the last few years. I think that in the first year, I’m not sure we would have mentally been able to handle it quite as well. But with players like Fredy Montero and Brad Evans and Osvaldo Alonso and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado now three years older and with a lot of experience, we were able to come together and rally, to some degree, around Steve and O’Brian and succeed for ourselves, but also for them.
Q: Two of the last three years, Sounders players have won the Newcomer of the Year award. What does that say about the group you have scouting and maybe even just the luck to have those players work out?
A: I do think that we have as good and as robust a scouting network as anyone in the league. Chris, Kurt and I spend a lot of time overseas and we’ve built a really good network of agents and scouts. It’s somewhat beneficial that we have such an amazing fanbase and we have amazing facilities and infrastructure and a great organization. Agents and scouts want their players to be happy. Players want to play in front of big crowds and have a lot of success and work for good organizations. Nothing against any of our peers, because there are a lot of great organizations in MLS, but globally there are a few in MLS where players get directed to more often than not.
Q: This team has had a lot of success with international players. Does that help in bringing in other players from abroad?
A: I don’t know how much that helps. All I know is that it’s really important to us. We want to do as much up-front due diligence to make sure that we’re giving ourselves as good a chance as possible when bringing a foreign player it. Then we want to do as much as possibly internally once the player arrives to make sure that they adjust to the environment quickly and that they’re happy and comfortable. Happy and comfortable employees and spouses of employees make for more productive employees. I also think that Sigi and the coaching staff … and the medical staff and the sports staff … do a tremendous job when those players come in. I know sometimes it’s frustrating to fans and owners when a player comes in and trains for a few weeks and is slowly integrated into the team, but it almost invariably works better than throwing a guy in the day after he steps off an airplane and setting him up for failure. I think we do a great job of assessing a player’s medical situation and fitness and fitting them into the team and their teammates, thereby putting them into a position to succeed instead of fail.
Q: What can fans expect out of this off-season?
A: Just as every off-season, we’re going to try to get better in every line on the field. Sometimes we’re more successful than others in accomplishing that, but we’re always looking to get better. Obviously with Kasey retiring, we have our three young goalkeepers, but it’s no secret that we’ve been out looking. I think it’s highly likely that goalkeeper is a position that gets shored up. We’ll also look to get stronger defensively. We gave up a few goals that we weren’t happy about. We’re always looking for depth in the midfield. At forward, we want to make sure that we continue to score goals. We’d love to lead the league in goal-scoring next year. And all of that will also be affected by the expansion draft. We are going to lose someone, most likely, and we have to make sure we are ready for that potential loss.
Q: Obviously it’s a mechanism in the league that the Sounders benefitted from in the first year, but how difficult is it to build a team – a family of players – knowing that you’ll probably lose one in the expansion draft?
A: It’s very difficult. We do feel like a family and when we lose a family member it’s always a little sad. At least this year the potential is to lose only one, where last year we lost two. It’s also a mixed emotion because in a lot of cases it can be a great opportunity for that player. I’m very happy for Sebastien and all the success he’s been able to have. Nathan had a bit of a tough year in Toronto, but Sanna did very well in Colorado. It’s sad, but then you hope that it’s a good situation for the player.
Q: How difficult is it to put that list together, balancing the best 11 against the players you stand a chance to lose?
A: It’s tough. Usually there are six, seven, eight or nine that you’re pretty set on, then there’s a long list, maybe ten more, of which you can only protect two or three. That’s where it gets really difficult. It’s sort of a calculation of who’s best for your team vs. who you think an expansion team might take or another team might try to trade for through the expansion draft. There are salary cap implications. There are contract status issues that potentially affect your decision making. Team chemistry, leadership – there’s a plethora of factors that go into it and it’s always difficult. The coaches and Joe and I and everybody will weigh in and there’s usually a consensus on 6-9 players. Then beyond that there are discussions that go into who those last two or three players are.
Q: Looking at some of the off-the-field issues, what were some of the hurdles in opening up the Hawks Nest and what led you to the final decision to open it up in 2012?
A: First and foremost, we wanted to make sure that we could sell out every game again next year and we wanted to make sure that the demand was there for those season tickets. We’re highly confident that we’ll get there again. Secondly, we have an unbelievably strong partnership with Microsoft and Xbox and we wanted to make sure they were comfortable losing that valuable asset, which was the signage. We worked with them to make sure they were happy with the end result. They were extremely supportive of us growing as a brand and as a fanbase. That was a box that we had to check off. We love that section, from an experience standpoint for the fans. So we’re very excited for fans to fill that section. It’s loud and it’s a great perspective on the game.
Q: I know the fans are curious about the Vancouver and Portland ticket allocations. It sounds like there might be more games between the Cascadia teams on the schedule. Is there anything changing in the way those tickets are allocated?
Q: What do you look forward to most about 2012?
A: It’s really pretty chronological for me. I’ve done this enough years now that there isn’t one specific thing I’m looking forward to. I love the first few days of training camp. The energy around the preseason – I think this year more than ever the intensity around preseason will be higher because we have incredibly important games right off the bat with the Champions League quarterfinals. We need to be more game-fit earlier, which is probably going to lead to a more intensive preseason.