This is the lead feature in Issue 14 of Sounders Monthly. Copies are available for free at The NINETY, GuestLink Services locations, Soccer Celebration and Membership Central. You can also access it on the Sounders Mobile App.
Chris Henderson woke up in a hallway at a hotel in Ghana.
It was 2008, and the Seattle Sounders’ VP of Soccer and Sporting Director was on one of his first scouting trips ahead of the team’s inaugural Major League Soccer season the following year. He was traveling with owner and then-General Manager Adrian Hanauer. The two went out for dinner late into the evening, and Henderson got sick almost immediately.
Around midnight, Henderson stepped out of his room to knock on Hanauer’s next door to tell him that he was probably going to faint, but he never made it that far.
“I ate something bad and within an hour I was passed out in the middle of the hallway in the hotel,” Henderson said.
Henderson walked to the lobby and the hotel employees tried to convince him to go to the hospital. He was adamantly against that proposition, and he kept trying to explain that he just needed to find Hanauer, who stayed with him that night to make sure he was OK.
During that trip, the two were in Accra, the country’s capital of 1.5 million people on the southern coast by the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, looking for any and all possible targets. They went to a match played on a dirt field in the city’s heart. There were no stands. Fans piled six or seven people deep all the way around the field. There was a guard in full military gear with a six-foot pole, and if any of the fans got too close to the pitch, the guard would prod them back. If a player got injured, the fans would drag him off and a sub would run onto the field.
“There were some tackles that I’ve never seen before in my life,” recalled Henderson. “Adrian and I are sitting there at midfield in two pull-out chairs, and it’s like 98 degrees. It was an amazing experience, and there were some good, talented players.”
Chris Henderson meets former Designated Player Obafemi Martins at the airport in 2013 | Corky Trewin
Such is part of the life for Henderson, the 47-year-old Edmonds, Wash., native and arguably the best soccer player the state has ever produced. Henderson graduated from Everett’s Cascade High School and was the 1989 Gatorade National High School Player of the Year. At just 19, he was the youngest player on the United States national team, where he earned 79 caps, and participated in the 1990 World Cup. He spent two years at UCLA, where he led the Bruins to the national title his sophomore season, before turning pro and plying his trade for Germany’s FSV Frankfurt and Norway’s Stabæk. He began his MLS career with the Colorado Rapids in 1996 in the league’s inaugural year and would retire in 2006 as MLS’ all-time leader in games played.
As Sporting Director, Henderson assists the General Manager in all areas of soccer operations, including scouting, player management, coaching decisions and the club’s youth system. Hired in 2008 after one season as an assistant coach for the Kansas City Wizards, Henderson’s travels as a player and scout have taken him to over 150 countries.
There are nuances abound that Henderson has learned to expect and cope with throughout the years. Henderson usually travels alone and must deal with the constant adjustment of schedules with little to no warning and be malleable enough to make decisions on the fly. He’s been on trips where the league changes the night of the match, or the agent he’s working with failed to acquire the tickets to the game he said he would.
“The history of soccer here, the fans, the attendance at every game, the atmosphere at the stadium, the training facility — all the little details sell the club.” — Chris Henderson
“Whenever I go to a stadium, I email the club and I say, ‘Hey, can I get a scouting ticket?’” said Henderson. “There are so many times you go there and the agent says they’re going to take care of everything, you show up and they don’t have tickets for the agent. What are you going to do? You’re at the stadium and maybe the game’s sold out. I’ll say, ‘See you guys, I’m going in.’”
In certain areas of Argentina and Brazil, Henderson often rides with agents in bulletproof cars. He reminds his scouts to be mindful of everything. Even minute details like not wearing the opposing team’s colors by mistake have to be taken into consideration.
“If you’re going to see Boca [Juniors] vs. River [Plate],” he said, “you’re not going to walk into Boca’s Stadium, La Bombonera, wearing a red shirt.”
Not every part of Henderson’s travels is stressful, though. It’s taken him to some of the world’s most beautiful and interesting locales, some he never would have had the chance to experience otherwise. His favorite place he’s been to in his decade-plus of traveling is the Toulon tournament, a youth competition on the southern coast of France.
Chris Henderson speaks at Jordan Morris’ introductory press conference in 2016 | Corky Trewin
“I like going to a new place that I haven’t been before,” said Henderson. “You meet new people, you try new foods, see new cultures, you go to clubs, you go to stadiums. Everything is new. I enjoy that, trying to absorb something to say, ‘What can I bring back to the Sounders? What are they doing that’s different?’ It could be in youth development, it could be in facilities, could be First Team training. There’s always something small that I try and bring back and tell our scouts, tell our coaches that I picked up.”
Henderson usually spends about four-and-a-half months a year on the road. His schedule is heavy from January to early May and then again from late August through early October. Where he goes is largely dependent on where they are in the transfer window and the specific targets the club is after.
When he’s in a given place, Henderson tries to plan so he can get two weekends out of it, and he’ll take in five or six total matches. He’ll watch some on the first weekend he arrives. During the week he has meetings and watches trainings and meets with players, clubs or agents. Then he’ll watch several more the following weekend before either returning to Seattle or venturing off to another location.
“Many times you’re spending months and months of work on certain players and you always have to be pliable, adjustable, change on a moment.” — Chris Henderson
The Sounders have an ongoing depth chart at every position of players the club is following. Every transfer window, new players are added to the list because they’re either coming out of contract, or for some reason or another they’re available. When approaching a new transfer window, Henderson & Co. want to narrow down targets and aim to see every player live and meet with them in person.
In 2008, on the same trip that Henderson and Hanauer took to Ghana, they also went to Colombia where they had been following Deportivo Cali’s Fredy Montero. While Henderson and Hanauer were watching film of Montero every week, he kept scoring. The more interest the Sounders had in him, it seemed, the more incredible goals he continued to score.
“[Montero] had a bicycle kick, a diving header, a bent ball in the upper corner,” said Henderson. “I’m like, ‘OK, stop scoring please.’ His value is going up.”
Things like a player’s market value can fluctuate drastically, even on a week-to-week basis. If a player starts to rack up goals, or a player who hasn’t been playing much suddenly becomes a routine starter, his value increases and he becomes much more expensive.
Henderson, Garth Lagerwey and Brian Schmetzer pose with Designated Player Nicolás Lodeiro in 2016 | Dan Poss
“When we went to see Fredy play, we met with him,” Henderson said. “You see him on the field and then you actually meet with him and you realize that this is a kid. It’s completely different than in the stadium. He’s asking questions that a 20-year-old would ask that are different than someone like [former Sounders goalkeeper] Michael Gspurning, whose been at all these big clubs.”
What wasn’t lost on Henderson was how difficult or tricky it would be to convince a young foreign player to play for a newly created team in a league that was just over a decade old. Nowadays, Henderson explained, where MLS is with the amount of teams and the ownership groups, it’s far easier to lure players to MLS than it ever was 10 years ago.
“It’s important to see the motivation of the player,” Henderson said. “You start to talk to him about it. Does he watch games in MLS? Does he know players on your team? You start to dig in a little bit. You can usually get a feeling if he’s just coming for the money or he really has interest in coming.”
In addition to persuading a player that MLS is the best place for him to continue his career, Henderson then has to sell the Seattle Sounders.
“I enjoy that, trying to absorb something to say, ‘What can I bring back to the Sounders? What are they doing that’s different?’” — Chris Henderson
“The history of soccer here, the fans, the attendance at every game, the atmosphere at the stadium, the training facility — all the little details, how we treat our players,” said Henderson. “All those little things sell the club and they realize, ‘Wow, this is as professional as any club in the world. And I know if I go there I’m going to have a chance to win something, improve, have a great experience and be connected with the people in the community.’”
One distinct advantage that MLS has over some of its foreign counterparts is that so many players, particularly those who grew up in places with less-than-ideal living conditions, want to live in the United States. It’s a massive selling point, one that will only continue to grow as the league does.
“Many people around the world come and vacation in the U.S., they see it, they get a glimpse,” Henderson said. “The players get paid on time. You hear stories around the world of problems that players have and they don’t have those kinds of problems here. When they see that they can continue with their national team when they’re playing here and all those details that we bring into the club and the players, and they see how our league is growing and top players are starting to come, that is a big draw.
“Sometimes it’s about selling Seattle,” he added. “A player will name the five places they visited: New York or Miami or L.A., and it’s about saying, ‘Seattle is a beautiful place and we love the game here.’”
Henderson welcomes latest Designated Player Raúl Ruidíaz to Seattle in June | Charis Wilson
The technical staff’s latest acquisition is one of the club’s biggest yet, as the Sounders signed Peruvian international forward Raúl Ruidíaz to a Designated Player contract on June 29. Seattle had Ruídiaz on its radar for three or four transfer windows, but its interest grew rapidly in the last six months after Jordan Morris went down for the year with a torn ACL.
“Many times you’re spending months and months of work on certain players and you always have to be pliable, adjustable, change on a moment, even if you have your list of guys who you follow,” Henderson said.
The Sounders’ scouting operation looks entirely different in 2018 than it did even three or four years ago, let alone when Henderson started in 2008. There were only two or three total people scouting, Henderson included, but that number has blossomed into five scouts worldwide in addition to numerous other contacts, who Henderson interacts with for opinions and information on certain players.
“I think about my first seven, eight years, it was a pretty thin operation,” Henderson said. “Most of it before was just relationships: people I met through playing and coaching in this job who you trust and rely on, and you’re using those contacts.”
Henderson has been one of MLS’ most successful and revered Sporting Directors in the past 10-plus years. Under his watch, the Sounders have won an MLS Cup, a Supporters’ Shield and four U.S. Open Cup titles. They’ve made the playoffs in each of the club’s first nine years in MLS. He played a massive role in signing Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Djimi Traore and Montero, who won the 2009 MLS Newcomer of the Year.
Success in scouting is so often because of networking and being savvy enough to manage and leverage those connections, and it’s something at which Henderson continues to excel.
“You look at players we have at our club by timing and chance: [Andreas] Ivanschitz, Gonzalo Pineda, Mauro Rosales,” he said. “Those were all about relationships. Those were about people calling us first because of our relationship and saying, ‘Hey, Chris, bring this guy in and take a look at him.’ Those players had enough confidence in their ability to come in and train for a couple days and when it’s a good player, you know in one session if he might be a fit.”