By Ridge Mahoney
One of most intriguing questions that circulated a year and a half ago when Seattle hired Garth Lagerwey as president of soccer and general manager was how he and head coach Sigi Schmid would interact and how long the relationship would last
The full story has yet to be written but in discussing the severing of that association on Tuesday, Lagerwey expressed respect and appreciation for Schmid’s work over even and a half seasons, yet he also made it clear that a poor 6-12-2 record was a major factor but not the sole rationale for change.
“We have a lot of good players here,” said Lagerwey, who has finalized a deal to acquire Argentine midfielder Nicolas Lodiero as a Designated Player and could be welcoming another new player as soon as Thursday. “I don’t think we have last-place talent. I think we have some pieces we can build around.”
Which pieces Lagerwey and interim head coach Brian Schmetzer, who was retained as an assistant coach under Schmid after leading the team in its USL days, will choose to keep and which will be discarded could drastically change the team’s persona. Lagerwey dropped a few clues while rebutting perceptions that Seattle is a “young team.”
It does have rookie Jordan Morris (21) as well as Cristian Roldan (21), Aaron Kovar (22) and Joevin Jones (24) in the starting rotation, but as Lagerwey said, “In our best XI we start usually two players under the age of 30. At most three. That’s been a narrative with which I disagree.
“This team doesn’t play like any team I’ve ever built before. I’m looking forward to a new beginning where we have some ability to work on that and build that. This team can succeed. It has good players, it has talent, but we’re going to continue to look at the long term and how we want to play and how that shapes our player decisions going forward.”
In his comments, Lagerwey mentioned defender Roman Torres, who has missed the entire season recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered playing against San Jose last September. He had started in all four of his appearances as the heir-apparent partner for centeback Chad Marshall. Apparently, once healthy Torres is in the mix.
Seattle stumbled after striker Obafemi Martins suddenly departed for Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua in January, and without his athletic, freewheeling run-and-gun relationship with Clint Dempsey, the Sounders floundered. Rookie Jordan Morris stepped into the breach and has done well enough to net seven goals, but Paraguayan striker Nelson Valdez has managed just one goal in 19 games the past two seasons while struggling with injuries and the performances of Andreas Ivanschitz and Erik Friberg have seldom been up to par.
The first year of Schmid and Lagerwey working in tandem was historic in one sense and typically disappointing in others. A fourth-place finish with a 15-13-6 record paired Seattle against its nemesis, the L.A. Galaxy, in the Knockout Round, and for the first time in four playoff meetings, the Sounders prevailed.
A 3-2 win propelled them into the Western Conference semifinals against FC Dallas and they led the series until a late FCD goal forced overtime and then a penalty-kick shootout that eliminated the Sounders. Thus did the team’s seventh MLS season end as had all of the previous campaigns: short of the MLS Cup final.
Hired by former majority owner Joe Roth fresh off winning a second MLS Cup title with Columbus in 2008, Schmid personified the new team’s ambitions. The brash, confident Roth didn’t want his expansion team to scuffle and struggle as is typical. He projected confidence that much sooner rather than later the Sounders would climb into the league’s elite tier.
With Schmid in charge, they did just that, winning the Open Cup in their first three seasons (2009-11) and regularly qualifying for the MLS playoffs. Every year the Sounders broke their own attendance record at Qwest Field (now CenturyLink Field) and it seemed inevitable that astounding success on and off the field would claim an MLS Cup title.
Yet not until 2014 did Seattle win the Supporters’ Shield and in the postseason it lost to the Galaxy in the conference finals on away goals, the third time in three playoff meetings it had failed to beat L.A. and the second time, along with 2012, the Galaxy advanced to the MLS Cup final at Seattle’s expense. Winning a fourth Open Cup title that year by beating Philadelphia in the final, 3-1, became a mocking rebuke of its quest to capture the biggest prize.
Getting past L.A. last year was supposed to break that hex but instead another agonizing defeat left Seattle sprawled at the final hurdle instead of racing towards the finish line. On at least two previous occasions, Schmid had kept his job by outlining plans of improvement to Roth during post-season evaluations, and the team stuck with him again after last season’s stumble. But changes in the team's ownership dynamics coupled with a terrible record triggered his departure.
This season, had Seattle been closer to .500 and not well below the playoff tier, perhaps Lagerwey and majority owner Adrian Hanauer -- who bought out Roth’s interest in the club last November after serving as GM for more than a decade, since its USL days -- would have given Schmid the time to coach up Lodeiro and any other new signings for another postseason appearance.
Yet the division between Lagerwey’s ideas and those of Schmid seems too wide to close simply by adding players. In his years at Real Salt Lake, Lagerwey helped former head coach Jason Kreis instill a skilled, possession style in which “the team is the star.” That is antithesis of Seattle’s approach since it joined MLS: not better or worse, just different.
At Roth’s insistence, Seattle signed some of the biggest names to play in MLS -- Freddie Ljunberg, Fredy Montero, Osvaldo Alonso, Eddie Johnson, Kasey Keller, Martins, Dempsey -- and for the most part, Schmid managed those talents and personalities very well. Star power also brought success, to a point.
But he couldn’t reach the biggest stage in any of his seven full seasons and the eighth started so wretchedly on paper the pressure increased each week. In many games this season decent performances were betrayed by poor finishing and the occasional defensive breakdown, but a miserable 3-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City Sunday suggested the bleeding could not be staunched.
The long-term fates of staff members such as technical director Chris Henderson, who played for Schmid at UCLA, and S2 head coach Ezra Henderickson, a Galaxy player during Schmid’s tenure in L.A. (1999-2004), won’t be known for a while. Assistant coach Ante Razov is another former Bruin. Lagerwey’s extensive contacts within MLS and knowledge of overseas resources could prompt a complete house-cleaning during the offseason.
In plotting a path forward, Lagerwey insisted that no longer could the organization do without a master plan regarding its ideas and concepts. It has grown to accommodate academy teams and the Sounders 2 USL team and the staff and its expertise must grow as well. At RSL, Lagerwey oversaw one of the league’s most acclaimed development programs and envisions a broader program in Seattle with greater resources to utilize.
“When you move from having one soccer team a couple years ago to seven soccer teams now, stuff like philosophy matters,” he said. “As the league evolves and the Sounders evolve, those kind of things are going to be critically important.
“We’re trying to replace a legend here and that’s not going to be done easily. And it’s not going to be done quickly. With every crisis comes opportunity, an opportunity to turn the page and hopefully get better. That’s what we’re focusing on.”
In Seattle, the new way is Lagerwey's.