For anyone who has been paying enough attention, it shouldn’t come as a complete shock that Garth Lagerwey left the Seattle Sounders to take over as CEO and President of Atlanta United. Although it only became official on Tuesday, there are signs that Lagerwey had bigger goals than the title of general manager or even “President of Football” to fully satisfy.
Those ambitions first came into focus in 2019, shortly after the Sounders won their second MLS Cup under Lagerwey. At the time, there were rumors linking Lagerwey to the Chicago Fire where Nelson Rodriguez was in charge. In dispelling these rumours, however, Lagerwey revealed that the idea of running an entire organization appealed to him.
Over the years, I’ve asked him about it both on and off the record. Lagerwey never really said that he was unhappy or perfect here – and often went on to praise the owner for the resources he receives and how they are always reinvested – but also clear that was what it was all about. he could perform professionally.
Yes, he could continue to win trophies and gain a more prominent place in the “big game” of international talent acquisition, but those are the only parts that make him passionate about working in football. Basically, I’m not sure there’s much on the athletic side that he wasn’t already doing with the Sounders. But Lagerwey was always more of a thinker, someone whose ambitions were always growing.
Even in his playing days, he would shine as a columnist. When he retired from the game, he began commenting while attending law school and later worked with Latham and Watkins. He turned it into his first GM job at RSL. You can see the trend…
Still, I think there are a lot of questions that people will have about this move. Here is my attempt to answer some of them:
The title is cool, obviously, and I’m sure it comes with a heavy lift. But I really don’t think this is about money or titles. I’m told the Sounders are working on a substantial offer that would at least be competitive in those ways. What they couldn’t offer was the kind of control Lagerwey will take in Atlanta where he replaces Darren Eales, who shared the job in his current position as CEO of Premier League side Newcastle.
Assuming he takes on a similar role as Eales, Lagerwey will have extensive oversight of both the athletic and business aspects of the organization. It might be helping with conversions one day and approving marketing material the next. He will be free to form partnerships with other clubs, as Atlanta did with Aberdeen of the Scottish Premier League. In other words, it’s a job that’s basically as big and wide as it wants to be.
Another element that I know Lagerwey was passionate about is taking an ownership seat on many MLS sub-committees. I don’t know exactly how they are appointed, but it at least gives him a fair seat at the table to determine an MLS-wide direction. While Arthur Blank still owns the club, my understanding is that he effectively sets the budget and then runs.
I’ve already heard from a few people that the Sounders’ reluctance to offer Lagerwey such a package shows a lack of imagination, but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The first thing to realize is that the Sounders are now set up differently. The organization is basically divided into two branches. Lagerwey was clearly the top football player, but Peter Tomozawa was effectively his equal on the business side. They both report to majority owner Adrian Hanauer, who is effectively the CEO. Tomozawa is also a minority in the team.
I think Hanauer empowers Lagerwey and Tomozawa to do their jobs mostly unhindered, but he certainly gets involved on a very regular basis. He sits in on meetings and is consulted on most major initiatives. Hanauer also represents the Sounders on all of those MLS-level committees.
I suppose it’s theoretically possible that Hanauer could have stepped aside and effectively put Lagerwey in his position, but I don’t think anyone wanted that either. The impression I always got was that Lagerwey was well structured here, and even liked a few minor upsets. Hanauer and Tomozawa are both very good at their jobs, and Lagerwey would be the first to admit that the results of this more collaborative structure speak for themselves.
Whether I thought this news was a possibility or not, I’ll admit that I was also caught a bit off guard by the timing. This was less than a week after the Alliance Council announced that Lagerwey had won his vote to protect GM with 90% approval. At the Annual Business Meeting, he sounded a lot more like a man preparing to stay than someone getting one foot out the door.
My understanding is that he was being honest, that he was acting like he was coming back because he believed it was a different possibility. I’m told the Atlanta offer came together relatively quickly and only became a real possibility over the weekend.
In a release announcing the move, Hanauer said “we will strengthen and trust” the current front office staff during the transition period. Put another way, I see no reason why Athletic Director Craig Waibel should not be effectively the interim general manager. It’s entirely possible that he ends up playing consistently (yes, that’s pretty much what happened at Real Salt Lake when Lagerwey took the Sounders job). In that scenario, I imagine a bunch of internal developments to follow quickly.
This speaks to the structure that Lagerwey built, I think. It wasn’t that Lagerwey was so good at talent evaluation or salary cap magic, his superpower was getting to know people really well and giving them a place to work. As a result, the Sounders front office is loaded with talent.
I think it depends on your point of view. On the one hand, they have a stable roster with potential difference-makers at almost every position and have won the CCL again. If they don’t make any additions, but stay healthy, I don’t think it’s entirely possible they’ll be contenders in 2023.
A more pessimistic view sees a roster weighted with aging veterans coming off a playoff-less season in need of a massive overhaul.
I’m inclined to think this team needs more development than the revolution in the lineup. I think they almost have to reach out to the likes of Chris Henderson or Ravi Ramineni, but I don’t think they need to bring in someone who will dramatically change what has worked for a long time.