When Seattle Sounders FC owner Adrian Hanauer started wondering if longtime general manager Garth Lagerwey would depart after the 2022 MLS season, he had a natural successor in mind: Craig Waibel.
That exact situation unfolded in recent weeks, with Lagerwey being named Atlanta United’s new CEO and president in late November. So it came as no surprise when Waibel was promoted last week to Seattle’s new general manager and chief soccer officer after previously being their sporting director and senior VP of soccer operations.
It’s a period of change for one of MLS’s most successful clubs, and Waibel put Lagerwey’s legacy in no uncertain terms.
“Just shy of perfect,” Waibel said at his introductory press conference. “They've won every trophy, so the standard is obvious here. That's what we intend to live up to, not only on the field but off the field.”
Seattle experienced highs and lows in 2022, becoming the first modern-era MLS team to win the Concacaf Champions League – booking a FIFA Club World Cup spot and ending Liga MX’s run of dominance in that continental club competition. But their co-league-leading 13-year Audi MLS Cup Playoffs streak also ended, not quite surging up the Western Conference table as they’d hoped as injuries took their toll.
While the Rave Green are experiencing front-office change, Waibel doesn’t plan to reinvent the wheel. The club has helped set the MLS pace since their 2009 expansion season.
“In terms of addressing what we need in the short term, I think we need to believe in what we have,” Waibel said. “This group won the Champions League last year and I think we're a little unfortunate with some injuries throughout the year to some key components of our group.
“But this is a darn good group and it's one that I firmly believe in. And I think in the short run if we can strengthen it without overhauling it, it's probably the best approach.”
Seattle have nearly their entire roster back for the 2023 season, including four players who just represented their nations at the FIFA 2022 World Cup. Their DP trio of Nicolas Lodeiro, Albert Rusnak and Raul Ruidiaz returns, plus midfielder Joao Paulo is coming off a torn ACL he suffered in the CCL Final. The Sounders’ roster is arguably the envy of many MLS clubs.
But tweaks are necessary, too, and Waibel has MLS experience in that regard after being Real Salt Lake’s general manager from 2015-19. He pointed to that background in forecasting key decisions he’ll lead in the months ahead.
“If we can bring in the domestic talent that we've always maintained, as well as add to it, that'll be a great experience for all of us,” Waibel said. “That's where I think my experience will come in handy. I've brought a lot of international players into the league when I was at Salt Lake. I think we were able to focus on young, domestic talent when I was at Salt Lake.
“But here, I think we have a really strong brand and I think our brand speaks for itself. We attract a lot of players and I think not missing on good opportunities is going to be the key in the short run.”
While questions about the Sounders’ future arise without Lagerwey in charge – many consider him the best GM in MLS history, and he brought two MLS Cups (2016, ‘19) to the Pacific Northwest club – continuity is a clear theme.
The club trusts Waibel to lead this new era, even though Lagewery’s now in Atlanta and former executive Chris Henderson is entering his third season with Inter Miami CF.
“The nature of our business is that great people move on,” Hanauer said. “ … But if we do our jobs right as leaders, then the void will be filled by other great people who will carry on the legacy that's existed now for 50-ish years. We're very confident that much success lies in front of us.”
Head coach Brian Schmetzer stressed a similar message as Waibel takes the reins.
“We have had a lot of success at this club,” said Schmetzer, who’s managed Seattle since 2016. “This is another story of how the club is always going to be there, it's always going to survive. Adrian said it, we're all stewards of the club. I've said that before. The club is set up to do well.”