A year after his team won the MLS Cup by a penalty kick shootout at Toronto, Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey shared a secret that isn’t much of a secret.
“We were a little bit fortunate,” Lagerwey said Thursday. “Toronto was probably better than we were.”
The thrilling conclusion to a season that defined mediocrity – the 2016 Sounders finished 14-14-6 in the league – didn’t fool Lagerwey. It posed the kind of questions a savvy sports executive begins asking himself a day or two before the championship parade:
“Can we compete a year later? Do we have the talent level Toronto has? Can we be not just a good defensive team but an attacking team as well? We’ll find out,” Lagerwey said over the phone from Toronto, where the Sounders will defend their title on Saturday.
Lagerwey is familiar with the drill. In 1997, he quit his job as a corporate attorney overseeing corporate acquisitions to take on the challenge of overseeing roster acquisitions in a fledgling pro sports league. His law-firm colleagues wished him well with the sweetest terms of endearment: “Seriously, Garth? You’re an idiot.”
During the decade since his bold plunge off the high board, Lagerwey has put together MLS championship clubs in both Salt Lake and Seattle. Should the Sounders prevail over Toronto FC in the Cup rematch, Lagerwey will collect a ring for the third time in four trips to the finals.
John Schneider’s shrewd talent-evaluation skills have been realized in the Seahawks’ five-years-and-counting playoff appearances. Jerry Dipoto’s retooling of the baseball team down the street remains a work in progress, although the effort is evident, if not the results. Looking back, Bob Whitsitt’s many shrewd moves turned the Sonics into a mid-1990s NBA powerhouse, and a substantial case for Pat Gillick’s induction into the Hall of Fame was based on his brilliant stewardship of the Mariners.
But when it comes down to generally managing a Seattle professional sports team, Lagerwey might belong in a class by himself. He’s a visionary whose eyes are on the prize, affable and approachable and yet wary of allowing sentiment to complicate business decisions.
“When we won the title last year, we had 13 guys who were over 30,” he said. “That wasn’t sustainable, and sustainability is a key concept. You’re not going to be able to win a title every year, but you want to put your group in a position to compete all of the time so that it maximizes your chances of winning titles.”
On the day after winning the MLS Cup, the Sounders declined to pick up the option on the contract of defender Tyrone Mears. During the 20-minute coffee break that is known as the pro soccer offseason, striker Nelson Valdez and midfielder Erik Friberg also were informed they no longer were part of the big picture.
“There were tough decisions to make at the end of last year,” said Lagerwey. “We won the championship and parted ways with a number of the veteran players who got us there. Some people were upset about that, and I understand.”
He also understood the benefits young legs can bring to a team that opens the season in early March and extends into mid-December. Take, for example, Nouhou Tolo, a 20-year-old defender from Cameroon. Promoted a few months ago from the Sounders FC 2 team, Nouhou has emerged as a breakout rookie.
“You want to trust the veterans, because they help you win in big games,” said Lagerwey. “But you also want young talent behind them to them and compete. We’ve played for about 10 months now, for the second year in a row. You play that length of a season, you’ve got to have young guys to soak up the minutes.”
A Chicago-area native with a keen interest in all sports, Lagerwey came to admire what the late Jerry Krause accomplished as general manager of six Bulls championship teams tethered to the superstar that was Michael Jordan.
“Those teams were always Jordan-focused and Jordan-centric, but he added guys like Scottie Pippin, Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman to the mix,” said Lagerwey. “There were always two or three horses who would soak up minutes during the regular season.”
Theo Epstein – who assembled the teams that liberated the Red Sox and Cubs from legendary curses – is another front-office executive Lagerwey, a Duke graduate who majored in history, sought to emulate.
“Here’s this Ivy League guy,” Lagerwey said, referring to Epstein’s Yale degree, “coming in and using analytics. I thought: If he can run a baseball team, why can’t I run a soccer team?”
Under Lagerwey, Real Salt Lake won the 2009 MLS championship and advanced to the final in 2013, successes that got him fired up about taking another plunge off the high board.
“People told me I was crazy to go to Seattle after they won the Supporters Shield and Open Cup,” he said. “They asked, ‘What are you going to do with it? Where are you going to take it?’ I wasn’t afraid of that.
“There’s all this talent, all these smart people in the front office, let’s see if we can make it even better. That’s been fun, not just for doing it myself, but as part of a group. I’m not focused on where we’ve been. I’m just really excited about where we can go.”
A no-doubt, 3-0 thumping of Toronto on Saturday would be an ideal scenario, but Lagerwey will be quite content with another intensely suspenseful victory decided on a penalty kick shootout.
There’s always next year.