In the space of just a few weeks, one of the most stable and consistent clubs of this era in MLS have found themselves in the midst of a bit of a transformative offseason.
Coming off their fourth MLS Cup appearance in five years, the Seattle Sounders have seen two vital cogs of their recent run of Western Conference dominance depart: Star homegrown winger Jordan Morris is making the move overseas to Swansea City, and longtime sporting director Chris Henderson has joined Inter Miami CF after a 13-year run in Seattle.
Speaking with reporters on a Friday video call, Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey spoke on both of those departures, saying that while they undeniably make things more complicated for the club in the short-term, he doesn't see this offseason as a full-on rebuild scenario.
"We're not rebuilding anything," Lagerwey said. "We are re-tooling around our core. This is not a rebuild. We're going to be contenders this year."
That core Lagerwey alluded to is still certainly a strong one, with players like Nicolas Lodeiro, Raul Ruidiaz, Cristian Roldan, Joao Paulo and Yeimar Gomez Andrade all returning in 2021. But as he looks to a future without Henderson, one of the most highly-regarded talent evaluators in MLS, Lagerwey said his hope is that this will be the season that some of the club's young homegrown talent make their names as consistent first-team contributors.
Academy products Danny Leyva, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez and Ethan Dobbelaere could all stand to see more minutes this season, and Lagerwey said that a focus on player development is something he believes will be emphasized when it comes to finding Henderson's eventual replacement.
"I think we need to change our focus now in the salary cap cycle we are," Lagerwey said. "We're going to still compete for championships every year but we do now need to focus a little bit more on the player development and overcome that last hurdle. We've had the players, we have them signed to the first team, we haven't gotten them into the first team yet.
"We've seen other teams, Kansas City, Philadelphia, the teams that won the West and won the East, playing a number of good young players on both of those teams. So we know it's possible to both compete and to use young players and I think that's going to be part of our challenge that may inform what we look at in [Henderson's] role going forward."
Scouting and roster-building have become complicated for every team due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Lagerwey also indicated that recent developments have given him a degree more flexibility than he had previously. Morris' move to Swansea is one factor that provides some salary cap relief, but there's also the transfer of former Sounders homegrown Henry Wingo, who was moved from Norwegian side Molde to Hungarian club Ferencvaros TC on a transfer reportedly valued at more than $900,000.
"We were out of money before this," Lagerwey said. "But the two things that have happened this week, and this is the world we're in, just this week my plan that I had talked about the last two months, it all changed, because now Jordan's going on loan to Swansea and they're going to cover his salary, that represents a significant salary cap savings to us, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth. So, we have that, and Henry Wingo got sold to a Champions League club in Hungary.
"We get a sell-on figure from that, so two leprechauns landed from a salary cap perspective this week and I got two bags of gold. So we have to sort through exactly how much that's going to be and some of the details there but we do have some capacity now to do things."
A new challenge awaits. 🦢 pic.twitter.com/k3urv6nAoA— Seattle Sounders FC (@SoundersFC) January 22, 2021
As for the thinking behind the Morris move, Lagerwey said it was something that was ultimately player-driven. The 26-year-old has developed into one of the league's most dangerous attackers in Seattle, winning two MLS Cups and making the league's Best XI last season, and has long been the subject of speculation regarding an overseas move.
It was Morris who decided now was the time to test himself, Lagerwey said, and that the Sounders will be supporting him as he looks to help Swansea earn promotion from the Championship to the Premier League.
"At the end of the day, this was up to Jordan," he said. "This is what he wanted. Are we hopeful, are we optimistic that Swansea's currently in second and they have a good team and they're going to go up to the Premier League? Sure, that's what everybody hopes. But it will be up to Jordan and it'll be up to that team as to how they play and we know the coach is really excited to have him. Their version of a sporting director is really excited to have him. So I think it's a place that the soccer folks on that side want him, the business folks on that side want him and we feel like it's a good environment in which to send him.
"So hopefully all the elements of the recipe are there and it'll come down to what does Jordan want. Look, it could be that Jordan goes there and tears it up and decides at the end of the day that he wants to come home. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it, we're excited for Jordan and we hope to see him succeed all the way."