SEATTLE - Garth Lagerwey hustled.
He hustled for weeks and months, days tumbling into one another as the fish squirmed on the end of a line plunged deep below the darkest spaces of the water.
This was the Lagerwey Way. Without knowing the outcome, just keep the thing on the line. Keep it there. Whatever happens, at least you gave it every chance to surface first.
By the start of the summer, Lagerwey and Nico Lodeiro knew one another. Maybe not as friends bonded by time, but certainly as something more than mere acquaintances. When Lagerwey and Jason Kreis were building Real Salt Lake into a national power in the crook of the Wasatch Range, they had a policy of meeting players face to face before signing them. Lagerwey views this business, quite rightly, as an interpersonal one.
Get the measure of a man and he’ll trust you. Get him to trust you and the ink will dry fast.
So Lagerwey hustled. He built out a double-digit list of desired transfer targets and scribbled in Lodeiro’s name next to the No. 1. His vigilance spilled out into a summer that suddenly featured Lodeiro on the Uruguayan Copa America team. Could he keep the guy on the line as the sharks swirled?
He called Lodeiro in his hotel room as Uruguay settled in for the Copa America, but Lodeiro’s English has never been his strong suit. Frustrated by the tangled lines of communication, Lodeiro handed off his phone to his roommate to act as a mediator. His roommate, he said, had much better English.
His roommate, Lagerwey realized right away, was Luis Suarez. As if it wasn’t already clear enough, the line was trembling under the weight of the prospective catch. This drove it home with clarity.
All this hustling – the calls, the flights to Buenos Aires, the meetings, the strategy sessions and the roster wrangling – led here, to Lodeiro’s signing this week and arrival in Seattle literally the same day Sigi Schmid exited the club after seven-plus years. There is something significant and symbolic about that, that the first true No. 10 in the club’s MLS history walked into the Starfire training complex literally as the coach walked out.
Some say this heralds the coming of the Garth Lagerwey era in Seattle. That would not be accurate. It is not coming, because it is already here. The Lodeiro signing only trumpeted its true beginning. With Lodeiro’s introduction and Schmid’s exit, bittersweet as it was, Lagerwey is left with the crown and the roster decisions and no chains of courtesy to hold him in place.
The relationship between Lagerwey and Schmid was respectful and friendly, Lagerwey said this week, but the GM ultimately deferred to the head coach more than a few times.
“I actually think Sigi and I got along really well,” Lagerwey told reporters on Tuesday at the team’s Starfire Sports complex. “You’d have to ask him, but I don’t recall ever having a conversation with Sigi that wasn’t cordial. If anything, I did my best to be deferential over the past 18 months. He deserved that and he earned that.”
The thing about joining a massively supported club coached by a manager who’s been prowling the sideline for the entirety of its MLS existence is that eggshells for a new personnel captain are everywhere. Schmid and former GM Adrian Hanauer were a formidable pair, but Hanauer made no secret of the fact that he often deferred in matters of transfer to Schmid, who’d been in the game decades longer. Schmid and LA Galaxy boss Bruce Arena are alike in many things, but perhaps nothing so much as this: they, ideally, want to form the team they coach. Or at least have majority input.
Lagerwey is a man of constant motion. It is in part how RSL packaged Fabian Espindola and Javier Morales into one box in the summer of 2007 and laid the brickwork for one of the great improbable MLS dynasties of all time. And Seattle has done precious little in the way of movement this year.
Over the last year you could almost feel Lagerwey bridling at that lack of movement, careful to tread softly on a team Schmid helped construct. These are not the words of a man looking to cautiously tiptoe around his job description anymore. They are heavy footfalls in clean snow.
“Philosophically, this is a new beginning for us,” Lagerwey said. “It’s an opportunity to play with the ball on the ground, be a possession-based team, to be a passing team, to be a creative attacking and entertaining team.
“It’s the style of play fans want to see and I think it’s also the way the modern MLS is, as the league becomes increasingly tactical and continues to add higher numbers of good players.”
You are about to see a man, and a club by proxy, throw the gear-shifter into Maximum Overdrive. And the Sounders are about to bear Lagerwey’s wax seal at almost every position.
The years-long building process under Lagerwey’s direction did not truly begin when he took office before the 2015 season. In effect, it begins now.
Lagerwey and Kreis’s revolution was born out of upheaval. Seattle is in a considerably better position than RSL was in 2007, but consider this: between 2007 and 2008, RSL replaced 20 of its 28 players under previous coach John Ellinger, who was jettisoned partway through the season. They sold Freddy Adu to Benfica. They shipped Jeff Cunningham to Toronto. They traded veteran Chris Klein to LA, even though he was Kreis’ best friend.
When Lagerwey says new beginning, he does not mean a tepid reset of playing style. He does not mean a new lane in the same race. He means an entirely new race.
When pressed about Osvaldo Alonso’s role with the team last winter, for example, Lagerwey's comments raised a few eyebrows, but it now seems apocryphal.
“I would not being doing my job if I didn’t take questions and inquiries about any player on our team,” Lagerwey said. “Our job as general managers is to try to make the group better any way we can. We’d be derelict in our duty if we weren’t having conversations and exploring any way we could to do that.”
What Lagerwey’s Seattle revolution actually looks like in the end is still impossible to see through a half-blocked kaleidoscope, but his time in RSL is instructive. Seattle will seek out a coach with both firm convictions on a forward-thinking playing style that involves a technically able No. 10, while still being pliable enough in matters of personnel to give Lagerwey the space he needs to maintain his furious pace. Schmid brought hard-won pragmatism from the loam of American soccer’s past. Lagerwey’s history suggests idealism pointing toward its future. In personnel terms, the latter wins in the modern MLS.
If Lagerwey’s past is any indication, he will attack Central and South American transfer markets in search of both value buys and DP targets. They may not turn away completely from the European market, but it will be less germane since the premiums are so much higher and the returns more volatile. Sebastian Jaime, Espindola, Morales and Alvaro Saborio were all gathered in this way, and the club’s player value system helped them fleece Toronto FC in a trade for Joao Plata.
TFC got a second-round draft pick that turned into Edwin Rivas, who’s currently without a team. Plata is now an RSL DP and remains one of the most exciting players in the league. Not a bad deal.
Lagerwey was never going to have the freedom he wanted with Schmid on the sideline. The two were amicable partners, and the franchise’s 2015 season with both at the helm was a net positive for both. Lagerwey was the architect of the improbable draft-day trade that brought Cristian Roldan to the Sounders, and that, in addition to a few other shrewd moves, worked well for all parties. But, as former player and Schmid advocate Steve Zakuani said Thursday on the Sound of Soccer podcast, Schmid was too much of a presence in Seattle, too well-liked, too entrenched, had too many players too indebted to his years of service to be worked around.
Now, this is Lagerwey’s team. Make no mistake about this. The future head coach will bear his stamp, the team will be the offshoot of that and the product on the field will be his to live with or die with. That begins, fittingly, with Lodeiro and all those pieces that will trail him.
Whatever they ultimately look like, they will be the king’s men, ushered under the gates that now have a new sigil hanging from their parapets.