Commentary

Pro route was a lot different for MLS original and Sounders technical director Henderson

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

Except for being a head coach, former UCLA All-American and U.S. international Chris Henderson has done about everything on the competitive side of an MLS team.

He started with the league in 1996 as a Rapid, played in two MLS Cup finals with Colorado and Kansas City, endured the 2001 contraction as a member of the Fusion, and retired after the 2006 season as the league’s all-time leader in games played. He worked as an assistant coach for one season in Kansas City, then took the job as Sounders' technical director in 2008, long before it hired head coach Sigi Schmid, who had coached Henderson at UCLA from 1987 to 1990.

“It was a massive job to do starting in 2008,” said Henderson of the work done by general manager Adrian Hanauer, head coach Brian Schmetzer, and other holdovers from the team’s USL days to get ready for its first MLS season. “We hired administrators and staff and trainers and worked on the facilities. We had the Expansion Draft and we hired Sigi after that. We had a year to put it together and there was so much to do and it was so much fun to be a part of something that big.”

The Sounders are a huge success in every regard -- a great training facility, vast resources, huge attendances, ample revenues, numerous trophies -- except the biggest one: winning an MLS Cup. They start their eighth MLS season with seven straight playoff appearances, four U.S. Open Cups, a Supporters’ Shield (in 2014), and that one cloud hanging their offices in Pioneer Square, a short walk from CenturyLink Field. 

On Wednesday, Henderson, 45, and the Sounders staff arrived in Baltimore from Florida, having spent about a week scouting and interviewing players at the Player Combine. This is the second Combine and SuperDraft since Seattle hired away former Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey and installed him as Sounders GM and president of soccer about year ago.

"It’s always good for me to learn and grow and see things in a different light," says Henderson. "Garth has brought that. I enjoyed working with Adrian Hanaeur every day. Every day with him was like business school and he has such a passion for the game. Now to have someone else to work with and bounce things off.

"I think we balance each other pretty well, just with scouting and be able to look at certain players and get a deal to a certain point. Garth, his strength is doing the numbers on the deal and closing it. It’s been good for us."

In November, the team announced that Hanauer -- a minority owner as well as general manager before giving up that role to Lagerwey -- had taken over as majority owner from film and television producer Joe Roth. Henderson had worked closely with Hanauer on many aspects of the competitive side, and the addition of Lagerwey -- a Duke grad who retired as a player in 2000 and finished law school before coming back to soccer in 2007 -- has brought a different perspective that the organization hopes will yield that first league crown.

“Coming from a smaller-market team in Salt Lake, he was able to do a lot of things there with maybe less resources than we have in Seattle,” says Henderson. “I’ve been able to pick up a lot just listening to him talk about what he did in Salt Lake and realize, ‘Huh. We didn’t think about it that way.’

“He gives a different view. He stopped playing really early and went to law school, so he comes at things from a different perspective and analyzes things in a different way and sees different angles.”

As an expansion team in 2009, Seattle held the No. 1 pick, which it used on Steve Zakuani of Akron. Henderson and Hanauer had attended the 2008 SuperDraft as well, to meet people and get the lay of the land, and as the league has expanded rapidly he’s seen just about every incoming team doing advance work.

“I see John Thorrington here from [LAFC] and Manny Lagos from [Minnesota United]; they’re just kind of soaking things up,” says Henderson of representatives of the projected 2017 expansion teams. “Each year we went through the same thing; with Montreal when they came in and Vancouver doing kind of what we did in 2008. Adrian and I were watching everything and kind of learning how things work.

“When we came in as an expansion team as the top pick, when you have a pick that’s in the top four, five or six -- depending on how deep the draft is -- you have a lot more action going on. You’re in a lot more talks with teams. It’s a lot of discussions, a lot of talks of things that never materialize, but it’s good because you learn about your own roster and your needs, and you also learn what other teams’ value and what their needs are.”

Henderson didn’t want to tip off anybody about what the Sounders might do in the SuperDraft. They have a first-round pick (No. 15 overall) but also might or might not have the best player coming out of college: forward Jordan Morris, who has already played and scored for the U.S. senior team and last week headed to Germany to train -- or trial, depending on which angle you prefer -- with Werder Bremen.

The situation is reminiscent of the 2013 SuperDraft and the Galaxy’s successful attempt to sign Gyasi Zardes as a Homegrown Player. Otherwise, the Cal State Bakersfield product would have been the No. 1 pick. Morris is a Seattle native whose dad is the Sounders' team doctor and the Sounders hold his Homegrown rights and Lagerwey, without getting specific, announced the Sounders have offered him the most lucrative Homegrown contract in league history. After Morris led Stanford to the NCAA Division I title last month, he left school to turn pro.

“I talked to Jordan when he was in our academy and his goals, and he’s a great kid from a great family,” says Henderson, who like Morris grew up in the Seattle area. “He’s going to be successful whether he plays soccer or goes into business. It’s nice to see another future star come out of the Northwest.

“He has great character and you can’t say one path is better than the other. That is the path that he chose. If he felt that was the right thing to do to stay the extra year, I’m happy for him. There isn’t one right way and one wrong way.”

The ways are radically different than when Henderson embarked on his pro career. In college, when he played for the USA at the 1989 FIFA U-20 World Cup, a year later he was the youngest player (19) named to a squad for the 1990 World Cup. Rather than take a stab overseas to pursue a few tenuous possibilities, he stayed home to join the residency program started by U.S. Soccer in 1991 to prepare and develop those players without overseas options.

“Some things came but nothing concrete where I just ready to take off and go,” he says of a rather bleak landscape. “When they started residency, there was a chance for me to do the Olympic team and the national team at the same time, so it made sense to be able to get 50 games leading up to ’92.”

He made the 1992 Olympic squad but didn’t play in the competition, and stayed in residency until the 1994 World Cup. He was one of the last players cut from the squad of 22, yet eventually got a call from Wolfgang Kuhlmann, who had engineered Paul Caligiuri’s move to Hamburg in 1987.

The suitor was FSV Frankfurt in Bundesliga 2, the second division of German soccer, and for about 18 months Henderson absorbed the lessons of life in a tough, competitive, sometimes harsh environment. Proving his value as a soccer player wasn’t the hardest adjustment. Once his teammates saw his ability, they accepted him. Just about everything else was a test.

“It was a great experience for me living there and being on my own,” says Henderson of the long-gone days before Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and Face Time. “It’s completely different for players now living in another country. You can connect with the world so easily now.

“I would sit in a pay phone on the corner and call my girlfriend or call home. It was just a completely different world. You were completely immersed in the culture. The experience was great but I was certainly happy to come back home and play in MLS, a league we had only dreamed of in the early '90s. I was really happy to be able to play the majority of my career in MLS and be part of the league all the way through.”

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