SEATTLE – Garth Lagerwey has his four more years.
Now, the Seattle Sounders’ general manager has his sights set on the future – and that starts with bucking a narrative.
The freshly re-elected Lagerwey gave a blunt assessment when he was asked at Seattle’s Alliance Annual Business meeting for season ticket holders in downtown Seattle on Tuesday about his thoughts on his team’s 2018 season, which ended last week in excruciating fashion as the Sounders bowed out of the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs on penalty kicks to their arch-rivals, the Portland Timbers.
“You can't lose to Portland and call the season a success,” Lagerwey said. “You can't be the only favorite to be knocked out and call it a success. Performance in the playoffs matters.”
But to hear Lagerwey tell it, Seattle’s early exit from this year’s postseason does come with at least one silver lining: This year, the Sounders finally get some rest.
After playing in two straight MLS Cup finals and having gone at least as far as the Western Conference Championship in three of the last four years, Lagerwey said on Tuesday that more than a few of his players at Seattle’s end-of-season exit interviews said they felt fatigued.
Now, with a longer offseason to recalibrate, the GM says his hope is that Seattle will finally be able to hit the ground running next season and avoid the slow starts that have come to plague the club and rile up the fan base over the past three years.
“I think the biggest thing for us this offseason is we get some rest,” Lagerwey said. “We’ve played three years, basically, with more or less two months off. It’s just not sustainable on some level. I know people don’t like that answer but there’s just a physical limit to which we can push our guys.”
“But I do feel good about next year,” he added. “I do feel good about getting to compete on all fronts. But a lot of that’s just practical. We’re getting some time off, we’ll get some guys rested, we’ll get everybody healthy. We don’t have to play [Concacaf] Champions League. Now, I don’t want our club policy be to lose in the first round of the playoffs so we start the next season well. That’s completely the wrong message. But I think for our third year in a row, that’s the silver lining in this cycle.”
Lagerwey said there will inevitably be at least some turnover with the first team roster in the offseason. But he added that in terms of next season, much of Seattle’s core should be in place, citing the return of forward Jordan Morris as one variable he expects will give the Sounders a boost out of the gate.
Morris missed the entire 2018 MLS season after tearing his ACL in a Concacaf Champions League match in February.
“I think we were a title contender [this season],” Lagerwey said. “To say the season was a failure is probably harsh, but do I think we reached the potential with this team? I don’t. I think we were very good. I don’t think there are very many teams who could have lost Chad Marshall and Cristian Roldan [to injury] and stuck in [Harry] Shipp and [Roman] Torres and won the next game in the playoffs. And that’s not even talking about Jordan Morris, who we’re going to get back. This group healthy, I feel really good about it.”
The other big test of Lagerwey’s next term? The continued development of the youth.
Lagerwey has made something of a pet project of developing the club’s Academy and USL teams since his arrival in 2015, with the goal to eventually stack Seattle’s first team with Homegrown talent.
He’s seemingly off to a good start, with Seattle’s U-17 academy team coming off a dominant national title-winning season and a handful of players from that team subsequently signing with the club’s USL affiliate S2. But the fruits of that labor won’t truly be known until those players start to break into the first team, something Lagerwey says he’s hoping to see happen in the near future.
“These kids are all going to get an opportunity,” Lagerwey said. “The ones who are signed with us, they’re going to get an opportunity with the Sounders and if they take that, they’re going to come in and play.
“Handwalla Bwana is the tip of the spear here. This is a kid who steps up in playoff game, comes in and is dangerous has a shot on goal and converts a penalty. If we get more production like that, if we get one of those every year, we’re going to pretty happy in terms of what the class is doing going forward.”