In the first move of what could be a busy and formative offseason for the club, Sounders FC on Wednesday opted out of renewing existing contracts for nine players, including four who played crucial minutes for the club each of the past two seasons.
But Sounders General Manager and President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey insisted that while some big names were on the club’s list of cuts – defenders Zach Scott and Leo Gonzalez and midfielders Marco Pappa and Gonzalo Pineda most notably – it doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t return in a less expensive capacity in 2016.
Each of the nine players who had their contracts declined Wednesday will now enter Major League Soccer’s unique system of offseason player movement, beginning with Stage 1 of the Re-Entry Draft next week. While any of those players could be picked up by another MLS club at their existing contract, Lagerwey said the Sounders will continue to negotiate with any players who wish to return to Seattle on different financial terms.
“This is the first round of tough decisions on whether these guys are worth the number in their contract,” Lagerwey said. “And if they are, what are the knockdown effects of that? If they’re not, how do you replace those people, or can you bring them back at a lower number?
“These aren’t black and white decisions. It’s not like the door is closed and none of the guys we declined aren’t coming back. It just means we have some more work to do to figure some things out.”
Scott and Gonzalez were the two longest-tenured players on the list of nine, and it’s unclear what the future now holds for each. Scott first joined the Sounders during their USL days in 2002 and has appeared in more than 100 MLS regular season games since 2009, while Gonzalez joined midway through the 2009 season and has been a regular in the lineup throughout seven seasons in Seattle.
Both players had been rumored to be considering retirement – Scott is 35 years old, Gonzalez is 33 – and Lagerwey said each player has some “personal decisions” to make about their future either with Seattle or with another MLS club.
“They’ve obviously been important Sounders for a long time,” Lagerwey said. “They’ve been great on and off the field and they’re great people. They have some personal decisions to make about where they want to take their career and what they want to do now. But could some of the guys whose options we declined come back? Yeah. Our door is open.”
Pappa, meanwhile, has only played two seasons with the club but showed moments of offensive brilliance, scoring nine goals and adding 11 assists in 49 games. Lagerwey said he was fond of what Pappa has accomplished in Seattle, but that the decision to decline his option was made with the team’s finances clearly in mind.
“This is a judgement that we weren’t able to afford the option in his contract,” Lagerwey said. “He’s a guy who we have ongoing conversations with, and hopefully we figure something out. If we can’t, we hope he does well wherever he ends up.”
Lagerwey said he was also fond of the contributions and character of Pineda, the 33-year-old Mexican international who appeared in 28 regular season games each of his two years with the club. Lagerwey said he’s still in conversations with Pineda about his future with the club.
The club opted to exercise the contract on 11 players, including midfielder and Federal Way native Lamar Neagle, who earlier this week was linked to a potential trade to D.C. United once the league’s trade window opens next week. Lagerwey declined to address the rumor directly and insisted that no transactions have been completed, but said that “there will be a number of transactions that have happened informally over the last few months that will get announced next week” across the league.
Neagle, 28, enjoyed a career year in 2014 with nine goals and nine assists in 32 appearances, but he saw his minutes drop during the second half of last season after the club’s acquisition of Austrian international Andreas Ivanschitz in August.
“Lamar has been a player who I think has been really important to who we are as the Sounders,” Lagerwey said. “He’s a local kid who’s done well and worked really hard under some fairly adverse circumstances during the season this year. We are really appreciative of what Lamar’s given to the organization.”
The club has also extended offers to midfielder Andy Rose and forward Andy Craven, who are both out of contract. Lagerwey said that Rose, the 25 year-old England native who picked up valuable minutes in the postseason after a groin injury knocked Alonso out of the lineup, is currenty on trail with English League One side Coventry City.
Ten players were already under contract for 2016: Defenders Brad Evans and Roman Torres, midfielders Osvaldo Alonso, Erik Friberg, Ivanschitz and Cristian Roldan and forwards Clint Dempsey, Darwin Jones, Obafemi Martins and Nelson Valdez.
Lagerwey said one of the club’s biggest concerns this season was the toll of injuries to valuable starters and a lack of depth that led to a run of just one win in 10 games during the summer across all competitions. He's hopeful to address those concerns during the offseason, beginning with the first moves made on Wednesday.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of the playoff starters back in 2016, and I think you’re going to see some change in the middle class of our team,” Lagerwey said. “We’re going to make the group probably a bit younger, but also try to have a succession plan in place for all positions so we don’t wind up in a world where we have to replace seven starters at one time.”