It would probably be an understatement to say that Craig Waibel has some big shoes to fill.
After a process that was described by all parties involved as lengthy and arduous, it was Waibel who emerged as the new hire as sporting director for the Seattle Sounders. That title would bring enough pressure on its own as Waibel becomes one of the key front office figures for one of the most successful clubs in MLS.
But all of that is arguably even more accentuated when considering who Waibel is replacing: Chris Henderson, one of the league's most respected and accomplished talent evaluators, whose offseason departure to Inter Miami CF opened the position for Waibel to be hired.
"Chris was there before the beginning. I mean, he's been there forever. He's the Seattle legend," Waibel told reporters on his introductory video call on Friday. "And thankfully I have a friendship with the Henderson family that dates back a while as well. But he's one of the names that in Seattle, there's several, but his name goes into legendary status.
"To come in and replace him — look I find it really hard to use a phrase like 'replace' because everyone has strengths, everyone has weaknesses, and everyone quite frankly presents something a little bit differently. But the challenge is what excites me. The challenge of following arguably the best talent evaluator in the league in Seattle. That's an exciting challenge and get to continue to build off of what Chris did. It's a high bar. But that's an exciting challenge for a guy like me."
Like Henderson, Waibel is a local product, having played his college soccer at the University of Washington and starting his professional career with a 54-match stint with the USL iteration of the Sounders in 1999-2000.
Since retiring from playing in 2010, Waibel first dabbled in coaching, working as an assistant on the staff at his alma mater, as well as the University of Michigan and Real Salt Lake. It was at RSL where Waibel built his own reputation as a talent evaluator, moving from his role as an assistant to the club's technical director before taking over as general manager from 2015-2019.
That experience was one of the differentiating factors when assessing who to hire, according to Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey, who said on Friday's call that he believes holding that post provides invaluable experience. Lagerwey also served as RSL's GM for seven seasons before leaving to join Seattle in 2015.
"Craig's arguably over-qualified for this job. He's already been a No. 1, he's been a GM," Lagerwey said. "And the thing you get at a place like Salt Lake where you have dramatically fewer staff, is you have to do everything. You have to be competent in absolutely everything. It's a great training tool, it's a great training environment. I certainly think it helped me and I would anticipate it's going to help Craig in the same way."
Waibel said he's already begun the task of familiarizing himself with the rest of the staff and all levels of the roster from the first team, to USL Championship affiliate Tacoma Defiance, to the club's youth academy.
The question of youth development is likely to be a prevalent one early in Waibel's tenure, as the club looks to further enhance the pipeline between the academy and first team that Henderson and Lagerwey have spent much of the last five years developing. Waibel echoed Lagerwey's assessment that he doesn't necessarily need to come in and "reinvent the wheel" with the strong foundation that's already been laid at the club.
Still, Waibel said he's looking forward to seeing where he can offer "a new set of eyes" to try and get the club's academy to the place where Lagerwey has said he ultimately envisions it, as a consistent source of players that can have an impact at the first-team level.
"I think first and foremost, the foundation, a lot of the hard work has been done," Waibel said. "There's been plenty of attention given to the growth since Garth has gotten there and the focus that's been put into the youth.
"These are all guys that are wonderful at what they do. I'm looking forward to getting in and getting to know some of these young guys. I know our first-team staff is excited about several of them. I don't want to speak out of turn but when your first conversation with the staff, when they're naming specifically calling out a couple of young guys that have potential, that's an exciting moment for me, knowing that the door is open and the shift of attention is we all understand the potential here, and now it's just a matter of refining that process. Again, it's not something I'm coming in looking to make a grand gesture or a grand change to. The foundations are already there."