Making sense of Garth Lagerwey’s move from Sounders to Atlanta

For anyone paying close enough attention, it shouldn’t be entirely shocking that Garth Lagerwey is leaving the Seattle Sounders to take over as the CEO and President of Atlanta United. Although it only became official on Tuesday, there were hints that Lagerwey had bigger ambitions than the title of general manager or even “president of soccer” could fully satisfy.

Those ambitions first came into focus in 2019, shortly after the Sounders won their second MLS Cup under Lagerwey’s leadership. At the time, there were rumors linking Lagerwey to the Chicago Fire where Nelson Rodriguez was in charge. In shooting down the rumors, however, Lagerwey let it be known that the idea of ​​leading an entire organization is appealing to him.

Over the years, I’ve asked him about it, both on and off the record. Lagerwey never really suggested that he was unhappy or unfulfilled here – and would often go to great lengths to praise ownership for the resources he was afforded and how any profits were always re-invested – but it also became clear that he was sort of Tapping into what he can accomplish, professionally.

Yes, he can keep winning trophies and getting a more prominent seat in the “big game” of international talent acquisition, but those are only part of what makes him excited about working in soccer. Basically, I’m not sure there’s much he can do on the sporting side that he’s not already doing with the Sounders. But Lagerwey was always more of a thinker, someone whose ambitions were constantly growing.

Even in his playing days, he would moonlight as a columnist. When he retired from playing, he started doing commentary work while going to law school and then took a job with Latham and Watkins. He turned that into his first GM job at RSL. You can see the trend…

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Still, I think there are a lot of questions people will have about this move. Here is my attempt to answer some of them:

The title is obviously beautiful, and I’m sure it comes with a hefty catch. But I really don’t think it’s about money or titles. The Sounders, I’m told, are working on a significant offer that would have been at least competitive in those ways. What they can’t offer is the kind of control Lagerwey is likely to get in Atlanta, where he replaces Darren Eales, who lost the job in his current position as CEO of Premier League side Newcastle.

Assuming he fills a similar role to Eales, Lagerwey will have broad oversight of both the sporting and business sides of the organisation. He could be helping to arrange a transfer one day and approving marketing material the next. He would be free to form partnerships with other clubs, such as Atlanta with Aberdeen of the Scottish Premier League. In other words, it’s a job that’s basically as big and broad as he wants to make it.

Another element I know Lagerwey likes is the ability to take the owner’s seat on the various MLS sub-committees. I don’t know exactly how those are assigned, but it at least gives him a literal seat at the table to decide the broad direction of MLS. Although Arthur Blank is still the owner of the club, my understanding is that he effectively sets the budget and then walks away.

I’ve heard from several people who have suggested the reluctance of the Sounders to offer a similar package to Lagerwey shows a lack of imagination, but I think it’s a little more complicated than that.

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The first thing to understand is that the sounders are just structured differently right now. The organization is basically divided into two branches. Lagerwey was obviously the best soccer man, but Peter Tomozawa was effectively his equivalent on the business side. They both report to majority owner Adrian Hanauer, who is effectively the CEO. Tomozawa is also a minority owner in the team.

I think Hanauer empowers Lagerwey and Tomozawa to mostly do their jobs unimpeded, but he’s definitely involved on a pretty regular basis. He sits in meetings and is consulted on most major initiatives. Hanauer is also the Sounders’ representative on all MLS-level committees.

I suppose it’s theoretically possible that Hanauer could have offered to step aside and effectively put Lagerwey in his position, but I don’t think anyone even asked for that. The impression I always got was that Lagerwey was fine with the structure here, and even liked it apart from a few minor frustrations. Hanauer and Tomozawa are both quite good at their jobs, and Lagerwey would be the first to acknowledge that the results of this more collaborative structure speak for themselves.

Whether I thought the news was a possibility or not, I will admit that even I was a little caught off guard by the times. It was less than a week ago, after all, that the Alliance Council announced that Lagerwey had won his GM retention vote with 90% approval. During the annual business meeting, he sounded much more like a guy who was preparing to stay, not someone with one foot out the door.

My understanding is that he spoke honestly, that he acted as if he would come back because he believed that this was a distinct possibility. The Atlanta offer came together relatively quickly and only became a real possibility over the weekend, I’m told.

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In the release announcing the move, Hanauer said “we will empower and trust” the current front office staff during the transition period. On another note, I don’t see any reason why sporting director Craig Waibel wouldn’t effectively be the interim general manager. It’s entirely possible he ends up with the permanent gig, too (yes, that’s almost exactly what happened at Real Salt Lake when Lagerwey took the Sounders job). In this scenario, I imagine a bunch of internal promotions would quickly follow.

That speaks to the structures that Lagerwey built, I think. It wasn’t that Lagerwey was uniquely skilled at talent evaluation or salary cap magic, his superpower was identifying really good people and giving them room to work. As a result, the Sounders front office is stacked with talent.

I guess that depends on your perspective. From one angle, they have a stable roster with potential difference-makers at almost every position and are fresh off winning CCL. If they don’t make a single addition, but stay healthy, I don’t think it’s entirely possible they’ll be a contender in 2023.

A more pessimistic outlook sees a roster weighed down with aging veterans, coming off a playoff-less season and in need of a massive overhaul.

I’m inclined to think that this team needs more evolution than revolution in the front office. I think they almost have to count on people like Chris Henderson or even Ravi Romineni, but I don’t think they have to bring in someone who will dramatically change what has been working for so long.

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