Making sense of Garth Lagerwey’s move from Sounders to Atlanta

For anyone who’s paid close enough attention, it shouldn’t be completely shocking that Garth Lagerwey was leaving the Seattle Sounders to take over as the CEO and President of Atlanta United. Although it only became official on Tuesday, there have been hints that Lagerwey had bigger ambitions than the title of general manager or even “President of Soccer” could fully satisfy.

Those ambitions first came into focus in 2019, shortly after the Sounders won their second MLS Cup under Lagerwey’s leadership. At the time, there were rumors linking Lagerwey to the Chicago Fire where Nelson Rodriguez was in charge. In shooting down those rumours, though, Lagerwey let it be known that the idea of ​​running a whole organization was appealing to him.

Over the years, I’ve asked him about that both on and off the record. Lagerwey never really suggested he was unhappy or unfulfilled here — and would often go to great lengths to praise ownership for the resources he’s afforded and how any profits are always re-invested — but it also became clear that he was sort of topping out at what he could accomplish, professionally.

Yes, he could keep winning trophies and get a more prominent seat at the “great game” of international talent acquisition, but those are only parts of what gets him excited about working in soccer. Fundamentally, I’m not sure there’s much he can do on the sporting side that he wasn’t already doing with the Sounders. But Lagerwey has always been more of a thinker, someone whose ambitions were constantly growing.

Even in his playing days, he would moonlight as a columnist. When he retired from playing, he started doing commentary work while going to law school and then taking a job with Latham and Watkins. He turned that into his first GM job at RSL. You can see the trend…

Still, I think there are a lot of questions people will have about this move. Here’s my attempt to answer some of them:

The title is nice, obviously, and I’m sure it comes with a hefty raise. But I really don’t think this is about money or titles. The Sounders, I’m told, were working on a significant offer that would have been at least competitive in those ways. What they couldn’t offer was the kind of control Lagerwey will presumably get in Atlanta where he’s replacing Darren Eales, who parlayed that job into his current position as CEO of the Premier League’s Newcastle.

Assuming he fills a similar role as Eales, Lagerwey will have broad oversight of both the sporting and business sides of the organization. He might be helping arrange a transfer one day and approving marketing material the next. He’d be free to create partnerships with other clubs, like Atlanta did with Aberdeen of the Scottish Premier League. In other words, it’s a job that’s basically as big and broad as he wants to make it.

Another element that I know Lagerwey was keen on is the ability to take the owner’s seat on the various MLS sub-committees. I don’t know exactly how those are assigned, but it at least gives him a literal seat at the table for determining the broad direction of MLS. While Arthur Blank is still the club’s owner, my understanding is that he effectively sets the budget and then walks away.

I’ve already heard from a few people who suggested the Sounders’ unwillingness to offer a similar package to Lagerwey shows a lack of imagination, but I think it’s a little more complicated than that.

The first thing to understand is that the Sounders are just structured differently right now. The organization is basically split into two branches. Lagerwey was obviously the top soccer person, but Peter Tomozawa was effectively his equivalent on the business side. They both report to majority owner Adrian Hanauer, who is effectively the CEO. Tomozawa is also a minority owner in the team.

I think Hanauer empowers Lagerwey and Tomozawa to mostly do their jobs unimpeded, but he’s definitely involved on a pretty regular basis. He sits in meetings and is consulted on most big initiatives. Hanauer also is the Sounders’ representative on all those MLS-level committees.

I suppose it’s theoretically possible that Hanauer could have offered to step aside and effectively put Lagerwey in his position, but I don’t think anyone was even asking for that. The impression I always got was that Lagerwey was fine with the structure here, and even liked it aside from a few smaller frustrations. Hanauer and Tomozawa are both quite good at their jobs, and Lagerwey would be the first to acknowledge that the results of this more collaborative structure kinda speak for themselves.

Whether or not I thought this news was a possibility, I’ll admit that even I was caught a bit off-guard by the timing. It was less than a week ago, after all, that the Alliance Council announced that Lagerwey had won his GM retention vote with 90% approval. During the Annual Business Meeting, he sounded a lot more like a guy who was preparing to stay, not someone with one foot out the door.

My understanding is that he was speaking honestly, that he was behaving as if he was coming back because he believed that was a distinct possibility. The Atlanta offer came together relatively quickly and only became a real possibility over the weekend, I’m told.

In the release announcing the move, Hanauer said “we’re going to empower and trust” the current front office staff during the transition period. Put another way, I don’t see any reason why Sporting Director Craig Waibel wouldn’t effectively be the interim general manager. It’s entirely possible he ends up with the permanent gig as well (yes, that is almost exactly what happened at Real Salt Lake when Lagerwey took the Sounders job). In that scenario, I imagine a bunch of internal promotions would quickly follow.

This speaks to the structures Lagerwey built, I think. It wasn’t that Lagerwey was so uniquely skilled at talent evaluation or salary cap magic, his superpower was identifying really good people and giving them room to work. As a result, the Sounders front office is stacked with talent.

I suppose that depends on your perspective. From one angle, they have a stable roster with potential difference-makers at almost every position and are fresh off winning CCL. If they don’t make a single addition, but stay healthy, I don’t think it’s entirely possible they’ll be a contender in 2023.

A more pessimistic outlook sees a roster that is weighed down with aging veterans, coming off a playoff-less season and in need of a massive overhaul.

I’m inclined to think this team needs more evolution than revolution in the front office. I think they almost have to reach out to people like Chris Henderson or even Ravi Ramineni, but I don’t think they need to bring someone in who will dramatically change what’s been working for so long.

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