Chris Henderson on scouting abroad for the Sounders, how his job has changed and why he loves it

The Seattle Sounders are in El Salvador this week to play Santa Tecla in the Concacaf Champions League, but sporting director and vice-president of soccer Chris Henderson will instead be in Costa Rica to scout three other CCL games.

The former U.S. international was hired by the Sounders in 2008 as technical director prior to their MLS launch the following year. Henderson, 48, played for UCLA, German club FSV Frankfurt and Norway's Stabaek as well as several MLS teams. He scored three goals in 79 appearances for the U.S. national team and ended his playing career after the 2006 season.

Seattle has been at the forefront of league teams in such areas as scouting, sports science, performance analysis and player development. Henderson dabbles in all these departments, and others as well He came to Seattle, near where he grew up, after working as an assistant coach with Sporting Kansas City.

At UCLA, he played for ex-Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid and was retained when the team replaced Schmid with former assistant Brian Schmetzer midway through the 2016 season.

SOCCER AMERICA: You’ll be in a different part of Central America this week. What will you be looking for?

CHRIS HENDERSON: I’ll catch Saprissa-America, Herediano-Tigres, and Olimpia-Red Bulls. We’ve been looking at a couple guys in Mexico, one at Tigres and one at America, so it will be good to see them live again.

SA: And their names?

CHRIS HENDERSON: Ha ha. No comment.

SA: Are you looking to making a move during the current window?

CHRIS HENDERSON: Possibly. We still have a DP spot and a TAM spot available.

SA: The role of sporting director seems much more varied than that of a technical director. You have many areas of responsibility.

CHRIS HENDERSON: My job, I’m sure, is completely different than it is for Padraig [Smith] in Colorado, than what [Jovan] Kirovski does in L.A. At every team, the role is different but depending on the year, I’m on the road four and half months out of the year. One year I went to Spain three or four times in two months when we were trying to get Oba [Obafemi Martins].

It was nuts. By the time I got back from the last trip, I was telling myself, ‘I cannot get on an airplane for at least a couple of weeks.’ I was claustrophobic. It’s a lot of travel.

SA: Seattle is a wonderful city but it’s not ideal for work travel to places like Europe and South America.

CHRIS HENDERSON: And it isn’t like we’re going to South America from L.A. or Dallas. You’ve got three or four hours to get down to Dallas and it’s a 12-hour trip to South America. A lot of those trips to Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay are longer than flying to Germany, Spain or Italy.

When you go to scout, you’re usually trying to hit, minimum, two weekends, so you’re there Friday through the following Monday and you catch meetings during the week. You watch training sessions. You watch Libertadores [Cup] games, or Champions League or Europa League, and midweek games, as well as the whole next weekend. You see guys multiple times and you can meet with them and watch them train.

Photo courtesy of Sounders FC

SA: Has the job changed with MLS teams starting their academy programs as well as putting more emphasis on scouting and targeting higher-end players? We know president Adrian Hanauer, who was general manager of the team when you were hired, and former majority owner Joe Roth wanted the team to be competitive from day one.

CHRIS HENDERSON: No, really from the start, Adrian was on-board from the beginning in 2008. When I came the year before MLS started, we were going all over -- to South America a few times and over to Europe – trying to build the roster. I got used to it right away.

There’s travel as a player and you start early in the year with preseason but this is a completely different kind of travel. It’s not as physically fatiguing as when you’re training and playing games, but it’s a lot of time changes and you’re in meetings and trying to negotiate deals and get them to a certain point, or gathering as much information as you can.

It’s about what I thought it would be when I came into this job. And I love my job. I love scouting players. I feel that’s my biggest strength as a sporting director is being able to identify players and see how they would translate into MLS. Forecasting is something I enjoy doing.

SA: What factors in your playing career laid the groundwork for his position in the pro game?

CHRIS HENDERSON As far as preparing for this job, it’s been having coaches like Bora [Milutinovic] and Bob Gansler and guys who really stressed to me, ‘How are you watching games? What are you watching for? Are you looking at the guy who plays your position?’ All of that prep helped me in my job today.

I loved coaching, too. I really enjoyed it. One year I was assistant coach with [Curt] Onalfo and Peter Vermes. I coached my kids and when I was a player I was a volunteer coach with local clubs. I’ve always felt like I studied the game, especially while I was a player. I would have loved to have all the video systems we have now, with Match Analysis and Y-Scout and Scout Seven, just because I just love watching games.

That part of it has been a pretty easy transition. The biggest thing for a sporting director is the relationship with the head coach. Both Sigi and Brian have trust in my ability to analyze a player and know whether he’s going to fit with the Sounders. If a coach is sold on a player there’s a good chance it’s going to work out well.

SA: Have the dynamics changed since Garth Lagerwey came aboard as general manager and Hanauer took over business operations with CEO Bart Wiley?

CHRIS HENDERSON: It’s similar. I will go out and look at the player and if we’re interested and he’s interested I’ll take it to a certain point, and then Garth will take over final negotiations. We’re still doing things as a committee when we make decisions to make sure everybody’s on board. Now, there’s more analytics and data and more resources that we didn’t have when I came on in 2008.

But I don’t think my role has changed that much since Garth came on. The size of the club now, with so many more teams, there’s more players and more contracts and more meetings and more discussions and more to evaluate.
I had that experience with Vermes in Kansas City when I was an assistant coach. He might have been the first technical director in the league. I was able to watch what he had done and obviously the league is different than it was back then, but my first title is vice-president of soccer. I was technical director and then it became sporting director, so it’s all just titles but in my job description is dealing with the development of players through our club, scouting players, being involved with acquisitions and signings.

SA: Finding a player you want to sign is one thing. Seattle has a good reputation of not only attracting talented players but giving them support on and off the field.

CHRIS HENDERSON: We all have our titles but we’re more of a team working together. Sometimes I have a better connection to make something happen. Other times maybe Brian does, maybe Garth does, or somebody else does. A big part of my job is the on-boarding process; if I feel that a player wants to come to Seattle, I can sit down with him and convince him to come because I feel we run things as well as many clubs around the world.

We try and give them as much information as we can before they come here so they aren’t surprised. But if anything they’re surprised with how professional it is when they arrive. It’s great to hear that feedback from a player like Magnus Eikrem, who calls his agent and his agent tells us, ‘It’s so professional at your club, you guys do a great job.’

That kind of stuff I love to hear, because we take a lot of pride and getting a player settled in the market, all the things that nobody helped me with when I went to Frankfurt in 1994. You’re playing soccer every day but who’s going to help you open a bank account and get car insurance and health insurance and find the right place to live. There’s lot the club can do to help with that transition.

Photo courtesy of Sounders FC

SA: What’s the most important aspect of your background in doing this job?

CHRIS HENDERSON: For me, the biggest strength is 30 years of relationships. My best friend, [ex-Kansas City Wizard] Miklos Molnar, lives in Copenhagen. I’ve developed a lot of contacts through him and former players I played with or knew in Europe; they work as scouts so I can call them up and say, ‘Hey what you think of this player?’

With the coaches and directors of clubs around the world you build this little network of people you trust, and eventually it will be the other way. They’ll be coming for players in our league. The world is changing quickly and the value of MLS players will increase.

SA: You grew up a fan of the Sounders in the old North American Soccer League. Is that history an advantage when you are talking to players from foreign countries?

CHRIS HENDERSON: One of the things I love about the Sounders is that we have a culture here. The club has been around so long and there’s so many fans here from different generations. That part’s easy when you get a guy into the community. I’m working for the Sounders now but the club will always be here. We’re just doing the best we can to keep the traditions going, and have competitive teams that have a chance to win every year that the fans can be proud of.

We have all those things that I grew up in Seattle seeing and wanting to be a Sounder when I was 12 years old. I want the kids to feel that growing up in Seattle.

SA: One of the Sounders you wanted to emulate was Schmetzer.

CHRIS HENDERSON: Brian was a Seattle kid. So I grew up watching him and thinking, ‘Why can’t I do it?’ Players like him made a big impression even though the league folded [in 1984]. In my family, we all played pro soccer in one form or another and it was because of those Sounders years in the 1970s and early '80s. They were all our heroes.

SA: A lot of teams are beefing up their coaching staffs. This year the club added one of the league’s all-time greats, Preki, who was also Coach of the Year with Sacramento in the USL. Are guys practicing his famous cutback move?

CHRIS HENDERSON: I wish. I’d love to see Jordan Morris do a few of those. Preki was so good at that cutback. Even when you knew it was coming, he could still get you.

He has that coaching experience but he also has that playing experience so that’s an easy sell for guys at training. When he’s telling them something, there’s that respect there. I was roommates with Preki on two different teams, Brian and Garth were teammates. So he knows us well. And, of course, he played in Tacoma and his wife’s from Federal Way, so it’s coming back home for him a little bit.

Photo courtesy of Sounders FC

SA: The top teams in MLS are putting a lot more money and resources into the business of winning. What’s a good example of an innovation you might not have dreamed of five or 10 years ago?

CHRIS HENDERSON: We have a good coaching staff and they definitely put in the work that needs to be done. We have meetings and have preparation before the training session and then afterwards the coaches will break into groups with players to go over video. We film every training with a drone and I think that has been really useful for us.

SA: There’s a drone at every practice?

CHRIS HENDERSON: It’s really cool. Now we have the personnel to not only film it but help the coaches analyze it and put it to use. You need luck with injuries and keeping everybody on the field and guys performing but all the peripheral stuff has to be taken care of.

We have a really hard-working staff and if you want to be playing on the last day in the MLS Cup [final], those are the extra things you have to do if you want to get there.

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