There are few people who have seen the sport of soccer from as many angles as Garth Lagerwey. The new general manager and President of Soccer of Seattle Sounders FC, who joined the club just last month, brings the perspective of a player (a star youth goalkeeper from Chicago, Lagerwey played four years at Duke University and spent five seasons in Major League Soccer, from 1996-2000), a media member (after retiring, he covered the league for Sports Illustrated and in broadcast media) and a club administrator, having helped build Real Salt Lake into a perennial MLS Cup contender during his seven seasons with the club.
Recently, PlayOn! caught up with Lagerwey during a preseason training session to pick his brain about the 2015 Seattle Sounders FC, the Sounders Academy and new S2 program, and the state of youth soccer in the state of Washington. And as you'd expect of a man who left a successful position to start anew on the West Coast, he's decidedly bullish on all fronts.
PlayOn: Before coming to Seattle, what were your impressions of the Sounders franchise?
Garth Lagerwey: "I thought it was one of the best franchises in the league. I was always really impressed with the staff and the ownership. And I was pretty interested in what appears to be a unique connection with the fan base. Over the course of the process, getting to know the 40 years of history of the Sounders franchise, it really made it seem like something I wanted to be a part of."
PO: Has there been anything that's surprised you about the job over the last month?
GL: "The main differences are stylistic, not substantive. If I were going to leave Salt Lake, I knew I had to make a choice — I could rebuild something, or build from scratch...but I felt like I had already done that before with RSL. In 2007, it was a last-place franchise and we kind of built it from nothing up to what it became, so I was kind of excited at the opportunity to work for a bigger club, one that has done a lot of winning, but just hasn't quite won the whole thing yet. And when I saw Seattle, I thought that could be a really good fit."
PO: What unique challenges are there in essentially working for the man, former GM/owner Adrian Hanauer, you're replacing?
GL: "I was very grateful, honored and humbled that he thought I could come in and help the franchise. He's done a tremendous job and I have a ton of respect for him. The way I look at it is that we're partners now; I'm not necessarily replacing him. If I can do as good a job as he did in this position, I think there will be a lot of things going right."
PO: What similarities do you see between Sounders FC and RSL that have contributed to both franchises' success?
GL: "They're both well-run, business-wise and sporting-wise. Both franchises use their resources wisely, and have been committed to building teams with depth and consistency. Both have built cores of players to build around, while developing young players all the time. That's a very good model. You don't come to Seattle thinking you need to reinvent the wheel. There are some concepts I think I can bring from RSL, but the whole point of coming here was that there are a ton of smart people here, and a ton of talent. It's a management challenge -- how do you manage everybody to get the best out of them and the best out of those resources, and continue to make them one or two percent better? And likewise, hopefully learn from them and make myself one or two-percent better as well? And then hopefully, through that partnership, push each other over the top to win an MLS Cup and compete for a Champions League title as well."
PO: What do you think is your greatest asset as a general manager?
GL: "I think I'm pretty good with people. Identifying talent is challenging, so to come to a place where there is a ton of talent already, that's a good thing. Using that strength then to effectively and efficiently manage that talent is a fun challenge. Secondly, I've seen this business from every angle, except maybe ownership, and I think that gives me a unique ability to see things from multiple perspectives, because I've lived it."
PO: What do the Sounders need to do to take the next step?
GL: "On the field, it's maybe just about adding one more player, to score the big goal or keep the goal out. Over time, the Academy needs to improve. At RSL, we developed arguably the best Academy in the country. One of the hardest things about leaving RSL was that that was just starting to bear fruit; we had signed three top-flight Academy players in the last year at RSL and those kids are likely to contribute this season. We need to get to that stage with Seattle. Now, obviously, Seattle has already discovered and developed DeAndre Yedlin, so they clearly are off to a great start, but I think we have to increase the numbers of players. If we can make those improvements to the Academy system, then that will hopefully help us to launch S2, and formalize the player development system all the way from the U14 level to the first team. That's the model for a successful franchise going forward."
PO: What, if anything, did you know about Washington Youth Soccer before coming to Seattle?
GL: "Just its historical reputation as a pretty good producer of talent. We had Collen Warner at Real Salt Lake, and a couple of other Washington guys, but he was probably the most prominent. I was a goalkeeper myself, so of course I was familiar with Tom Dutra, Kasey Keller, Marcus Hahnemann and just a ton of good goalkeepers that came out of Washington state. Chris Henderson, too, was a great player. There are just a ton of guys that have come out of Washington. I have high hopes for what we can make it."
PO: How important to the Sounders is the relationship between Washington Youth Soccer and Sounders FC?
GL: "It's critical. On the business side, you want kids to grow up and want to be Sounders. Over the next couple of years, I think you're going to start to notice a big difference between franchises that have good executives and those that don't. I don't think the coach-driven model is viable anymore on any meaningful scale. You're going to have to professionalize the structure and look at it as a business. It's not as simple as picking a kid at a weekend tryout. You have to formalize the tactics across all age levels. You have to formalize the styles of play. And you need to have a unity from 14 years old at the minimum, all the way up through the first team, such that when you develop young players, when they come up to the first team, they can contribute right away. That's going to separate some of the best teams from the middle- and lower-tier teams. Even if you don't produce a ton of top-flight players that way, even if you're just producing middle-flight players, it's still going to be a lot more efficient to produce those players yourself, from a salary-cap perspective, than it is to have to constantly go out and find those players and hope that they can fit into your city (or in some cases, country), culture and style of play. We have the ability to control all of those things if we can build the Academy and S2."
PO: Your most recent Homegrown Player is Darwin Jones, from Des Moines and the UW. What do you hope to see from Darwin, both this year and down the road?
GL: "Darwin is one of those good young kids from the Academy. Honestly, I've only had the chance to see him play for about a week. That's one thing that I'm doing right now, is familiarizing myself from top to bottom with our Academy. Darwin is really motivated, he's athletically gifted, and he's had a good preseason so far. As far as where he winds up, he's playing a wing position most likely as a pro, where he's going to have some stiff competition. So I think we need to be patient with him. As with the great majority of Academy players, I think he is going to benefit from S2. The normal progression for players that age is not to go straight to the first team, but to go to a minor-league team -- that's true in hockey, it's true in baseball, it's true in soccer around the world. So I think that developing this pipeline is really the way to go — you'll graduate from the Academy to the second team, hopefully prove yourself there, and be ready to make an immediate impact when you hopefully get promoted to the first team."
PO: What advice would you give to a young player aspiring to a soccer career? What should they work on?
GL: "The technical skill that is most efficient in the United States is ball-striking; that is, striking a ball cleanly over distance. That said, anybody who has observed the RSL teams would say that you have to have a good technical base. Certainly, there are teams you can play for in MLS without a good technical base, but no team that I'll manage. And I think that's the way the league is going. With as many players as we're getting from Central and South America, plus the growing population of Americans from that part of the world, I think you're going to get a very technical league over time. If we can combine the natural athleticism of the United States with the better technical ability, we can start to produce some special players."