Inside how the Seattle Sounders transitioned through Chad Marshall's retirement

SEATTLE – Garth Lagerwey was sitting in his office this spring, near the end of the Primary Transfer Window. He assumed the Seattle Sounders’ player transaction work was done.

The club got off to a scorching start with their core already in place. For a team that earned a reputation for starting slow and finishing strong, this was a welcomed change of pace. Lagerway's current to-do list revolved around planning for the Secondary Transfer Window.

The plan in the summer was to add a central defender, with stalwart Chad Marshall advancing in age. Father Time, as the over-used aphorism goes, is undefeated. Lagerwey and his staff had a few targets teed up, but nothing imminent. Seattle didn’t need reinforcements at the moment, Marshall was still the same old dependable Marshall. They were looking to be proactive.

But then Lagerwey’s phone rang, the black mirror illuminating to show Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer phoning his general manager.

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“Brian called me and was like ‘look, you need to do this now, because I don’t know if he’s going to make it,’” Lagerwey told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. Schmetzer was referring to Marshall’s knee.

Lagerwey began to expedite plans to sign a central defender. One of the names on the list was Xavier Arreaga and, thankfully, he was able to agree to a deal in principal before long. The club grew confident a deal would comfortably get over the line before the window closed on May 7. Paperwork was still to be signed, but Arreaga would soon be debuting for the Sounders.

The next day, Lagerwey had a visitor to his office. Perhaps this was more pressing than Schmetzer’s phone call that set this whole process in motion.

“Literally 24 hours later, (team doctor Michael) Morris came to my office: ‘Chad’s got to retire,’’ Lagerwey recounted. “What do you mean? Chad has to say that.”

‘No,’ Dr. Morris explained to the GM, ‘medically he can’t continue.’

Marshall soon confirmed that diagnosis. Knee injuries had taken its toll on perhaps the league’s best ever central defender, one that was still very much a key player for the 2019 Sounders. He started eight of the team's first 10 games. His on/off splits showed that he was just about the club’s most irreplaceable player at that point.

On May 4, Marshall made his final professional appearance. On May 7, deadline day of the Primary Transfer Window, the Sounders announced they acquired Arreaga from Barcelona SC. On May 22, Marshall officially announced his retirement.

The same way the club lost Clint Dempsey midseason to retirement in 2018, and original Sounder Ozzie Alonso to free agency this winter, Seattle had to find a way to move forward.

“It was tough in that moment,” Lagerwey admitted. “It was like, oh my gosh.”

But that didn’t derail the season. Seattle dipped in form over the summer, in no small part due to all of their international players missing time for various summer tournaments including the Gold Cup and Copa America, but when the team returned to full strength, even without Marshall, they hit their stride once more.

On Sunday, as the Sounders host Toronto FC for MLS Cup (3 pm ET | ABC, Univision, TUDN in US; TSN, TVAS in Canada), Marshall is back in Seattle to support the club he was a key part of mere months ago. He and his family have since welcomed their second child since he left

“I couldn’t be more excited to see Chad and everyone again,” Lagerwey said. “They were our neighbors where we live. Just a great guy, a genuine guy. He lifts everyone’s spirit when he’s around and obviously one of the best defenders of all time. It’s going to be awesome to have him back.”

Instead of Marshall anchoring the club’s backline as he had from 2014 until May of this season, he’ll just another spectator among the many thousands. Despite losing that presence, as well as Dempsey and Alonso before him, the Sounders’ stability kept them strong and kept them firing.

And it might lead them to a second MLS Cup.

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