After he departed RSL for Seattle in 2015, the Sounders made it to the quarterfinals in 2016 before they were eliminated by Club America.
All of this is to say, Lagerwey is very familiar with all the variables that make CCL play so challenging, be it the rigorous travel demands, the unpredictable officiating or the famously unforgiving and hostile road environments.
Those are all things that the Sounders will have to contend with once again as they head to El Salvador for the road leg of their CCL Round of 16 series with Santa Tecla on Thursday (10 pm ET; UnivisionDeportes.com). But speaking with reporters at the Sounders’ training session at Starfire Sports Complex on Tuesday, Lagerwey was bullish as ever regarding his long-stated objective of seeing Seattle become the first MLS team to ever win the tournament.
“In general, look, the salary cap has doubled in less than three years. That’s really impressive and [we are] really grateful to the owners for having made that investment. It allows us to compete with Mexican teams,” Lagerwey said. “It’s incumbent on those of us to manage teams to use those resources wisely and to make our teams competitive with Mexican teams. That’s the big challenge. That’s the way forward.”
Lagerwey was quick to stress that his team isn’t looking past its upcoming series with Santa Tecla. But it’s how MLS teams fare against the Liga MX competition that has historically dominated CCL that he maintained will ultimately act as the true measuring stick – not just for the Sounders – but the league as a whole.
Liga MX clubs have combined to win all nine of the CCL titles since the competition started in 2008-09, with seven of those finals an all-Mexican affair. RSL and the Montreal Impact in 2014-15 are the only non-Mexican sides to compete for the regional championship.
“We’re not comparing ourselves to the EPL, the Bundesliga or La Liga,” Lagerwey said. “We have a neighbor with a very, very strong league in Liga MX. It’s a very worthy opponent and it’s a very hard challenge. But it starts with Santa Tecla for us, a good team. We need to be respectful of the entire region, but if ultimately MLS can be one of, if not the best league in the region, that will by definition make us one of the best leagues in the world. So, I think it’s a worthwhile goal to take on Liga MX.”
If the Sounders do advance past Santa Tecla, it will also beg the obvious question of how much weight they choose to put on the subsequent rounds of Champions League compared to their MLS schedule, which kicks off against LAFC on March 4.
Their likely opponent would be Guadalajara, which is a heavy favorite against Cibao from Dominican Republic. The first leg of the quarterfinal round is scheduled to be played March 6-8.
Lagerwey shed some light on that issue on Tuesday, saying that while he’s prepared for the possibility that emphasizing Champions League could result in a slower start in league play, that also doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
“We’re going to prioritize Champions League,” Lagerwey said. “And that means in [MLS] you may start a little slower. You’ve got 34 games and we’re going to look at the big picture and if we need to make some stuff up, we will. It’s literally saying, ‘Champions League is important’ and tell your guys that and picking your teams with that in mind.
“If you do that and you believe it in as an organization, it gives you the best chance to win,” he added. “It doesn’t mean you’re not trying in the MLS games, it means this is a great opportunity for our young players. It’s a big reason we brought back the number of players that we did because we have familiarity with not just 11 guys, but with 18 guys. We’re going to try to win Champions League and try to go deep in it and at the same time try to win our MLS games along the way.”