TUKWILA, Wash. – The Seattle Sounders won their second MLS Cup title in four years, but for general manager Garth Lagerwey, the offseason is already underway, and it’s being tackled with a singular goal in mind.
That would be making a run at winning Concacaf Champions League – something no MLS team has ever accomplished, and a tournament Lagerwey has long said would be massive in establishing the franchise’s presence on a global level.
But it’s not just about making a run at that historic feat. It’s about finding a balance and building enough depth so that the added fixtures and heavy travel demands that come with CCL don’t wind up derailing the club’s league campaign and chances at defending their title.
“We’ve said it publicly, we want to try and win Champions League,” Lagerwey said at Seattle’s end-of-season media availability at Starfire Sports Complex last month. “No one’s ever done that before [from MLS] and it’s going to be really hard and we’re eagerly embracing that challenge. I think overall that might make us a little more conservative in our [roster] decision making, just in terms of guys who have been there and done that for us, I think we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, let’s say.
“But long-term, we have to look at things like we had the oldest roster in the league and we had the fewest minutes played by players under the age of 23,” he added. “So, there has to be balance there as well.”
There is a pair of examples in just the last two seasons of MLS clubs who made lengthy runs in CCL that wound up suffering the consequences in league play: Toronto FC (2018) and Sporting Kansas City (2019), who were each decimated by injuries and wound up missing the playoffs.
It’s a reality the Sounders are aware of, and a fate Lagerwey said they're intent on avoiding.
“It would hubris of us to not learn anything from Toronto’s experience in ’18 or Kansas City’s experience in ’19, where they go on deep Champions League runs and they miss the playoffs,” Lagerwey said. “So, we’re going to need to both, which is to say: Go for it. We shouldn’t be afraid because of [those experiences], but we’re going to need likely more contributions from younger players if we are going to navigate an MLS season while taking that on, knowing how much stress and pressure we’re going to be under starting in a little bit under three months from now.”
In terms of the roster moves that have already taken place, the Sounders exercised 2020 contract options on several players, including Swedish midfielder Gustav Svensson, who made 21 starts in 2019, played a huge role in Seattle’s run in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup playoffs and is exactly the type of experienced and pedigreed player that can come in handy come CCL time.
But there are also potential exits to contend with, notably at center back. Roman Torres had his option declined and Kim Kee-hee is out of contract, although Lagerwey said the Sounders are open to bringing both players back if the sides can agree on a number.
The team is also preparing for the likelihood Spanish winger and MLS Cup MVP Victor Rodriguez could be departing. Rodriguez had his option declined and has been dealing with a personal family matter that Lagerwey said could make him inclined to make a move back to Spain. All of that means while the Sounders roster will have some familiar faces returning for 2020, it also stands to reason Lagerwey is going to have to make at least a few significant additions.
“I can’t possibly say enough good things about him, but we need to be first and foremost focused on what’s good for him and his family,” Lagerwey said of Rodriguez.
On a broader level, Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said his focus will be on managing any potential championship hangover he said he noticed afflicted the team after they stumbled out of the gate in league play following their first MLS Cup title in 2016.
The Sounders finally managed to dispel the ‘slow starters’ narrative that had surrounded the team in recent years after shooting out to a 5-0-1 start in 2019, but coming off this season’s deep playoff run and Champions League on deck, making that happen again in 2020 will be even more of a challenge.
“[In 2017] I felt we started a little bit complacent,” Schmetzer said. “I don’t want that to happen again. I want next year actually, all the departments, ourselves included, drive the level of our organization a little higher. That’s important, that’s something I learned from 2016 to 2017.”