MLS Insider: Tom Bogert

Garth Lagerwey: Atlanta United have "limitless potential"

Garth Lagerwey

From the day Atlanta United began their search for a new president and CEO, Garth Lagerwey’s name came up.

In fact, it kept coming up.

After a long process, which was ignited by club president Darren Eales leaving for English Premier League side Newcastle United this summer and included candidates from numerous continents, Lagerwey’s name was the last one left at the end.

The longtime general manager and architect of numerous title-winning teams, at both Real Salt Lake and Seattle Sounders FC, was named president and CEO of the Five Stripes last week.

“Garth’s name came up immediately, from probably half a dozen directions,” Steve Cannon, AMB Sports and Entertainment CEO, told media on Tuesday. Cannon was leading the search. “From Darren Eales, from people in the league, from multiple other sources. But we wanted to let the process run its course. … [Lagerwey] went through that process and it was a unanimous decision for us.”

“This opportunity has limitless potential. I can’t wait to get started,” Lagerwey added.

Lagerwey is viewed as perhaps the best sporting director in MLS history. The executive was the chief architect behind Seattle becoming the first MLS team to win the modern-era Concacaf Champions League in 2022, and he's won MLS Cup three times (and made another three MLS Cup Finals) during his career.

“Garth brings an unbelievable track record across multiple years and multiple clubs,” Cannon said. “He is a winner. He’s won MLS championships for two different teams. He won the first-ever Concacaf Champions League victory for an MLS club. What he brings in terms of soccer credentials is really unrivaled; we’re thrilled about that expertise. But we’re more thrilled about who he is. You’ve got to be good at your job, but you have to be a good human being.”

Now, it’s Lagerwey’s job to return Atlanta to those heights.

Garth's evaluation

Atlanta United debuted in 2017, taking the league by storm with high-priced stars, sell-out crowds and skipping the typical expansion growing pains by making the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs easily. In their second season, they won MLS Cup. In 2019, they won the US Open Cup and Campeones Cup.

Though Atlanta United have missed the playoffs in two of the last three seasons and are on their third permanent head coach (now Gonzalo Pineda) after Tata Martino’s initial success, there are aspects of the sporting department to like.

League-record signing Thiago Almada had a great debut season and is at the World Cup with Argentina. US men's national team defender Miles Robinson will be back from an Achilles injury, as will starting goalkeeper Brad Guzan (Achilles) and experienced midfielder Ozzie Alonso (ACL).

There will indeed be plenty of change, in due time.

“There are a ton of positives here, look at the talent on and off the field,” Lagerwey said. “There’s so much to be excited about. … My job is to come in and be thorough. Go slow to move fast. Come in and do an analysis, do a deep dive to understand the business and soccer aspects, then once we’re prepared, to go forward and make decisions.”

Lagerwey pointed specifically to the analytics department, which is currently run by one person. He deferred other questions until he had a better chance to work with the staff, including technical director Carlos Bocanegra.

“To be clear, I’m not coming here to be the GM,” Lagerwey said. “I’m coming here to be the CEO and run the organization. … I’m supposed to make everybody better.”

DP coming?

Building a successful MLS roster requires numerous ingredients, but a key one is success at the top of the roster, namely the three Designated Player spots. Lagerwey’s Sounders teams routinely had that right, led by Nicolas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz, then João Paulo and Albert Rusnak in recent years.

Atlanta are likely to have one DP spot open this winter if and when Josef Martinez leaves, as is reported. They have traditionally trended younger when signing DPs (like Ezequiel Barco and Almada), while the four Sounders players mentioned were firmly in their prime.

“You’ve got to be careful painting with a broad brush, whether they have to be young or old,” Lagerwey said. “You have to get a good player. Throughout my career, I’ve always been permitted by ownership to go sign the best player. I haven’t been asked to sign a star with marketing capabilities.

"That’s a benefit to having a rabid fanbase. when you have the fan support you have here, it allows you to go sign the best player.”

Lagerwey also pointed out Lodeiro and Ruidiaz were signed in the summer, the typical offseason for leagues around the globe, but midseason in MLS. He didn’t necessarily rule out a DP signing for the winter, but continued to point to signing “the best player." The best player may not be available until the summer.

As Lagerwey goes through his initial analysis for the club he’s now tasked with bringing back to the top, expectations are high. Atlanta are responsible for the three most expensive incoming transfers in MLS history and money has never been an issue.

“How do you take a superclub like Atlanta United and position it for future success? That’s what we feel like we’ve done through the process and naming Garth,” Cannon said.

Why Garth Lagerwey is a home-run signing for Atlanta