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Seattle Sounders name Waibel general manager & chief soccer officer

Seattle Sounders FC have turned within to replace Garth Lagerwey, announcing Wednesday they’ve appointed Craig Waibel as their new general manager and chief soccer officer. Waibel’s promotion arrives after Garth Lagerwey departed last week to become Atlanta United’s president and CEO. From April 2021 until this change, Waibel was Seattle’s sporting director and senior VP of soccer operations. He now oversees all areas of the club’s soccer operations, encompassing the first team, Tacoma Defiance (MLS NEXT Pro) and Sounders FC Academy. Waibel served as GM at Real Salt Lake from 2015-19.

Atlanta United sign forward Etienne Jr. in free agency

Atlanta United have signed winger Derrick Etienne Jr. in free agency. Formerly with the Columbus Crew, the player has signed through 2025 with options for 2026 and 2027. The 26-year-old Haitian international is entering his eighth MLS season. He’s produced 17 goals and 17 assists across 148 MLS games, also playing for the New York Red Bulls and FC Cincinnati. He’s coming off a career year in which he scored nine times and delivered six assists.

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Small-sided: The ghosts of roster building past, present and future

A few things to get to today as the wheels continue to turn from Garth Lagerwey’s relocation to Atlanta. Today we’ve got Lagerwey’s introduction, the first signing of his tenure and what’s next in Seattle.

  1. The free agent signings (and Lagerwey’s tenure) are off to a solid start

Derrick Etienne Jr. is officially a member of Atlanta United. Seems like it’s been a while since Tommy Scoops first reported they were working on a deal, but it also seems like Atlanta suddenly had to deal with getting a new president sorted out before they could officially announce the deal. Feels likely that once Lagerwey got installed he could just sign off on the move and everything would be good to go.

That means the credit here goes to Atlanta United technical director Carlos Bocanegra and his staff. It just so happens they made a move that feels exactly like the kind of deal Lagerwey would make anyway. In signing Etienne as a free agent, they were able to secure a (mostly) proven MLS player using the roster mechanisms available to them while filling a clear need in the team. It’s not quite on the same level as giving Albert Rusnak a DP contract out of free agency, but there does seem to be something decidedly Soundersy about it.

Atlanta United never truly found a winger to pair opposite of DP winger Luiz Araujo last year. In fact, by the end of the season they had uninverted Araujo and placed him on the left while moving fullback Brooks Lennon to the right wing. And while that may have been the best move considering the personnel, the balance felt off. You just ended up with Lennon playing crosses across the field toward Atlanta’s underperforming strikers or Araujo, whose lack of off-ball movement is well-documented at this point.

With Etienne, Atlanta now has a player willing to make smart, dynamic runs in behind, pull apart defenses and create space for his teammates. It’s the exact kind of player the Five Stripes have been lacking on a team cluttered with players who need to get on the ball and dribble like a fish needs water. The fact that they seem to have found that player without taking a major cap hit is one of the offseason’s first on-paper success stories.

  1. Lagerwey will hit the gas when he’s good and ready

After the Etienne signing, Atlanta United fans (and the rest of the league) are assuredly wondering what’s next for Lagerwey and company. There’s still plenty of work to do this offseason for Atlanta United to clear bad contracts, shore up weaknesses and get back to a place with the roster where you can reasonably suggest they should be a contender for reasons beyond three seasons from the last decade.

I wouldn’t hold my breath. At Lagerwey’s introductory press conference, he suggested multiple times that it will take time for him to get acclimated to the club and time for the proper decisions to be made. The catchphrase of the day was “go slow to go fast.” He’s taken a similar approach in each of his other jobs within the league and, well, we saw how those turned out. Some patience will be required in Atlanta. Which makes what’s happening in Seattle now so interesting…

  1. Waibel takes over

This won’t be the last time we talk about Lagerwey this off-season. And we’ve already talked about him a good bit. But that’s because this is a seismic shift for two of the league’s biggest clubs. Lagerwey oversaw two MLS Cup wins and a CCL title in Seattle. Now, Craig Waibel will be tasked with taking his place.

When Lagerwey first took on the Atlanta job, it wasn’t far-fetched to wonder if Seattle might look outside the organization for a replacement. However, there’s something that just makes sense about the Sounders staying in-house for a move like this. A massive part of their continued success is the infrastructure they’ve been able to put together in their front office. Why go too far away from what works to try and tweak something that isn’t broken?

Waibel has spent the last two years with Seattle as sporting director after Chris Henderson left the position to run Inter Miami. As Lagerwey’s second-in-command during that time, he undoubtedly has a good sense of the process that put Seattle on one of the most successful runs in league history.

Now that he’s in charge, it will be interesting to see what kind of adjustments he makes and how major those adjustments actually are. Because Seattle is facing some challenges heading into this offseason. Despite their CCL success, they missed the playoffs for the first time in club history in 2022. The roster is aging in key positions and players with proven success at the club will undoubtedly be looking for contracts representative of that success. In a salary cap league, that can lead to some tough decisions.

Waibel, like Lagerwey, will have work to do this offseason to get one of the league’s most intensely-scrutinized clubs up to standards. And even if that particular plot is one of the slowest-developing of the offseason, it’s hard to think of one more intriguing.

Other Things

Mexico coach Martino departs after early World Cup exit: Tata Martino is no longer Mexico’s head coach, according to the manager himself. Martino, speaking after Mexico’s dramatic elimination from the 2022 FIFA World Cup on Wednesday, said his contract is over after El Tri failed to advance into the Round of 16.

Degenek and Australia march into World Cup Round of 16: Australia and Columbus Crew defender Degenek are through. The Socceroos beat Denmark 1-0 on Wednesday at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, finishing second in Group D. Now they’ll play Group C winners Argentina in a Round of 16 match on Dec. 3.

Orlando City re-sign goalkeeper Grinwis: Adam Grinwis will return to Orlando City SC for the 2023 MLS season. The 30-year-old goalkeeper has signed a one-year deal with the Lions.

Rosales returns to Minnesota from Panama's CA Independiente: Minnesota United FC have brought back midfielder Joseph Rosales, signing him from Panama’s CA Independiente. He’s joined through the 2023 MLS season with club options for 2024 and 2025. Rosales, a 22-year-old Honduran international, initially joined Minnesota in August 2021 on loan from CA Independiente. He’s provided two assists across 30 games (eight starts) for the Loons.

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