For anyone who’s been paying enough attention, it shouldn’t come as a complete shock that Garth Lagerwey has left the Seattle Sounders to take over as CEO and President of Atlanta United. Although it only became official on Tuesday, there were hints that Lagerwey had higher ambitions than the title of general manager or even “President of Soccer” could fully satisfy.
Those aspirations 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. Dispelling those rumors, however, Lagerwey let it be known 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 said he was unhappy or unfulfilled here — and often went out of his way to praise the property for the resources it provided him and how the profits were always reinvested — but it also became clear that he was somehow going beyond what he could do professionally .
Yes, he could go on to win trophies and take a more prominent place in the “big game” of acquiring international talent, but those are just parts of what excites him about working in football. Basically, I’m not sure he can do much in the sporting field that he didn’t already do with the Sounders. But Lagerwey was always more of a thinker, someone whose ambitions were constantly rising.
Even in his acting days, he would moonlight as a columnist. When he retired from the game, he began doing commentary while attending law school and then took a job with Latham and Watkins. He turned it into his first GM job at RSL. You can see the trend…
However, 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 nice, obviously, and I’m sure it comes with a big raise. But I really don’t think it’s about money or titles. The Sounders, I’m told, were working on a major bid that would at least be competitive that way. What they were unable to offer was the kind of control Lagerwey is likely to get in Atlanta, where he will replace Darren Eales, who passed on that job in his current role as CEO of Premier League side Newcastle.
Assuming he takes on a similar role to Eales, Lagerwey will have broad oversight of both the athletic and business side of the organization. It can be helping arrange a transfer one day and approving marketing materials the next. He would be free to form partnerships with other clubs, as Atlanta did with Scottish Premier League side Aberdeen. In other words, it’s a job that’s basically as big and broad as it wants to make it.
Another thing I know Lagerwey is very interested in is the ability to take the owner’s seat on the various MLS subcommittees. I don’t know exactly how those are distributed, but at least it gives him a literal seat at the table to set the broad direction of MLS. While Arthur Blank is still the owner of the club, I understand that he basically sets the budget and then leaves.
I’ve already heard from a few people who suggested the Sounders’ reluctance to offer Lagerwey a similar package shows a lack of imagination, but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.
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 leading figure in football, but Peter Tomozawa was effectively his counterpart on the business side. Both report to majority owner Adrian Hanauer, who is effectively the CEO. Tomozawa is also a minority owner in the team.
I think Hanauer enables Lagerwey and Tomozawa to do their jobs unhindered, but he’s certainly involved on a fairly regular basis. He sits in on meetings and is consulted on most major initiatives. Hanauer is also the Sounders’ representative on all of these MLS-level committees.
I suppose it’s theoretically possible that Hanauer could have offered to step aside and effectively put Lagerwey in his place, but I don’t think anyone was even asking 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 pretty 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 this news was possible or not, I’ll admit that even I was a little caught off guard by the timing. Less than a week ago, after all, the Alliance Council announced that Lagerwey won the GM retention vote with 90% approval. During the Annual Business Meeting, he sounded much more like a guy who was getting ready to stay, not someone with one foot out the door.
I understand that he was being honest, that he was acting like he was coming back because he thought it was a distinct possibility. Atlanta’s offer came together relatively quickly and only became a real possibility over the weekend, I’m told.
In the release announcing the move, Hanauer said “we will empower and trust” the current front office staff during the transition period. In other words, I see no reason why athletic director Craig Waibel wouldn’t effectively be the interim general manager. It’s entirely possible he’ll end up in the permanent gig as well (yes, that’s exactly what happened at Real Salt Lake when Lagerwey took the Sounders job). In that scenario, I imagine a bunch of internal promotions would quickly follow.
That speaks to the structures Lagerwey built, I think. It wasn’t that Lagerwey was so uniquely skilled at talent evaluation or salary cap magic, his superpower was spotting really good people and giving them room to work. As a result, the Sounders front office is loaded with talent.
I guess it depends on your perspective. From one perspective, they have a solid roster with potential difference makers at almost every position and are fresh off winning the CCL. If they don’t make a single addition, but stay healthy, I don’t think it’s entirely possible they’ll be contenders in 2023.
A more pessimistic outlook sees a roster heavy with aging veterans, coming off a non-playoff season and in need of a massive overhaul.
I’m inclined to think that this team needs more development than revolution in the front office. I think they almost need to reach out to the likes of Chris Henderson or even Ravi Ramineni, but I don’t think they need to bring in someone who will dramatically change what has been working for so long.