SEATTLE — As the ink was drying on his contract after being named general manager of Real Salt Lake in 2007, Garth Lagerwey was given career advice he'd keep with him.
Sitting across from then team owner Dave Checketts, about to embark on his journey building an MLS roster after leaving his gig as a corporate lawyer at the Washington D.C. firm Latham & Watkins, his new boss didn't mince words.
“Look," Lagerwey recounted Checketts telling him with a finger pointed in his face, "don’t pretend you know what you’re doing.”
“I thought: Shoot, did I screw up already?" Lagerwey continued. "But it was the most empowering thing ever. What he meant by it was: you don’t know anything. You’re a young GM with no experience. But you can ask tons of questions. You’re not going to be threatening to anyone, because everyone assumes you have no idea what you’re doing. So as long that you know you have no idea what you’re doing, then you can get all of this information and benefit from everyone else’s experience."
Whatever questions he has been asking were the right ones. Lagerwey guided RSL to the playoffs each of his seven full seasons on the job. They won MLS Cup in 2007, they were runners up in 2013. From 2010-14, the club strung together five consecutive top-three finishes in the Western Conference and RSL became the first MLS team to reach the Concacaf Champions League final. After his departure, the club missed the playoffs in two of the next four years and finished no better than 6th in the West.
Lagerwey went from strength-to-strength in Seattle. With a bigger staff — he fondly described his time at RSL as being in a rowboat with his team that grew no larger than 11, compared to the 35-40 in the Pacific Northwest — Lagerwey has more bandwidth to empower those around him. He continued the expectation of success with the Sounders, who have made the playoffs in each of their 11 MLS seasons, and helped delivered them their first MLS Cup in 2016.
The Sounders made the final once more in 2017 and are back this year, hosting MLS Cup 2019 on Sunday (3 pm ET | ABC, Univision, TUDN, TSN, TVAS) against Toronto FC. It's been one great ride for Lagerwey as a GM.
Lagerwey's been a GM in MLS for 12 straight seasons. He's never not been involved in a postseason. The job of the GM is to put the right players in the hands of the right coach. By that metric, he's far and away the best GM in MLS history. Far and away.— Will Parchman (@WillParchman) October 30, 2019
What's Lagerwey's method behind his success?
“People ask me what I do and I tell them I go to work, answer e-mails and I’m on the phone a lot," Lagerwey said with a chuckle. "Beyond that, I generally manage. I’m a mile wide and an inch deep. I try to find experts in every area, turn them loose and really empower them. I may not know what the end product is, but I want your big brain to go to work on it. Here’s what I’ll hold you accountable for, but I want to get out of your way. Then I’ll take your piece, his piece and her piece and put it together, then we’ll make some hard decisions.”
Oddly enough, one of the league's most accomplished general managers didn't find his way to the job easily. After all, no matter how much the league expands, these jobs are scarce.
“I dreamed about it, but I don’t know you can think you’re going to do this, that’s not real rational," Lagerwey, who enjoyed a professional soccer career, said before catching the irony. "I suppose it’s not real rational to think you’re going to be a professional athlete, either.”
His start in this side of soccer came through his work at Latham & Watkins. The firm were working on a complex deal in the world of sports one year and Lagerwey, with his family still living in Chicago while he was in D.C., was asked to stick around and work through Christmas.
“Yes sir, you know, of course, why would I want to see my family on such an insignificant holiday?” Lagerwey deadpanned. “So I stayed and worked for Christmas.”
The deal happened to connect him with his future boss at RSL. Checketts was selling a stake of his ownership in the St. Louis Blues of the National Hockey League. A client of Lagerwey's firm wanted to buy that. Over the course of the deal, he got to know Checketts well.
“That’s how I got my chance, just trying to say yes to a bunch of things and being ready once I got the opportunity," Lagerwey said.
Twelve years later, suffice to say he was ready.
"I have a job that few people have done, but everyone assumes they can do better than me, right?" Lagerwey said with a smile.
As long as he doesn't pretend he knows what he's doing, it should work out just fine.