The Sounders create a challenge
By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (May 4, 2018) US Soccer Players – If there are any cardinal sins for MLS general managers, the list has to begin with the one Seattle Sounders architect Garth Lagerwey committed. Speaking to Andrew Wiebe of MLSSoccer.com for a video under the Extra Time Live banner, Lagerwey candidly expressed the reality that the Sounders could no longer compete to be the league’s biggest spenders on players.
Pointing to the sizable Seattle fan base, Lagerwey painted a picture of a club whose saving grace is the ample revenue generated by those fans. While the general manager offered circumspect commentary on the new economics of MLS, he did not sound like some expressing frustration.
“For us, we’ve got to be efficient. I think the days of Seattle being the biggest spender in the league are probably behind us,” he said. “Seattle, honestly, we’re allowed to punch above our weight because of our fanbase. Our fans are incredible, have been from day one, and they kind of launched the franchise out of a cannon and gave them a good running start. Look, the landscape is shifting, it’s changing, and it forces us to be more efficient with some of our decisions, a little bit more strategic, and again, that’s a good thing, that’s what makes my job fun.”
What Lagerwey framed as a challenge for him as roster builder the fan base of Seattle took as an admission by the club that the Sounders are content with falling behind. Lagerwey name-checked Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, and Toronto as places MLS should want to be “big in”, a tacit admission that the success of teams in those markets is a good thing for MLS. Whether intentional or not, Lagerwey positioned Seattle as a weak sister, failed to push his own club as a leader in the league, and set himself up for a backlash from the Sounders faithful.
That backlash happened swiftly. Despite the Sounders on-field success in recent seasons, the club’s poor start to 2018 and a sense that it is unwilling or unable to fill gaps in the roster is generating discontent in Seattle. For fans anxious to see their team utilize a vacant Designated Player slot and engage more fully in the international transfer market that has brought a wave of talented young players to the league, Lagerwey’s comments were maddening.
It’s not just that Lagerwey admitted what many around MLS have been talking about for a number of months. It’s that his candor runs directly counter to the club’s established position that it intends to be one of the biggest clubs in North America. Since joining the league, the Sounders have made clear their intention to be a heavyweight in not just the United States, but throughout the region.
It seems unlikely that Lagerwey’s comments would have any real effect on the club’s ability to sell tickets or gear, but the backlash came fiercely enough that the Sounders acted swiftly to quell the fire. On Wednesday, Lagerwey did everything he could to distance himself from his own words of just a few days prior. Pointing to “frustration” over repeated questions about spending and claiming that he “screwed up” with his statements, the Sounders GM declared the clubs intention to compete on every front available and to spend significant money on a DP signing this summer.
Though perhaps true, Lagerwey’s mention of a plan to bring in new big-money talent sounds like an obvious attempt to mollify angry fans. The Sounders have to strike a balance between stated ambition and the specific mechanisms by which they’ll meet it and holding on to as much leverage as possible as they search for expensive players.
The Sounders are momentarily drowning due to an identity crisis of their own making and without an obvious lifeline. In what constitutes a blink-of-an-eye in professional sports terms, Seattle has gone from Major League Soccer’s leading light to a club scrambling to keep pace with the league’s wealthiest teams. As MLS stretches out through salary budget mechanisms designed to increase the quality of play quickly and new ownership directs enthusiastically deployed largesse into the sport, MLS is changing at a dizzying pace.
We can even tie all of the big spending in places like Toronto, Atlanta, and Los Angeles to the Sounders. Without Seattle establishing a new bar for success and moving aggressively to sign players like Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, and Nicolas Lodeiro, there would be no Atlanta United project or enough belief in Toronto to spawn the great team that won three trophies last season. The Sounders served as the model.
Selling soccer in America is difficult. Seattle’s impressive attendance and the success of Atlanta United belies the challenge clubs face to get fans to buy into what is still a product that pales in comparison to what is available on American television every weekend. No fan of sports, much less soccer, wants to hear that their team isn’t striving for championships every season and do everything it takes to attain them. Seattle established it ambition from the moment it entered MLS and is now grappling with the task of maintaining that standard.
For long-standing teams both in other Americans sports and in the established leagues abroad, generational loyalty smooths over periods when clubs are unable to compete. No MLS club, even those with histories going back to the first season of the league, can count on that type of baked-in support.
Lagerwey already unfurled the Sounders’ strategy for clawing back whatever trust the club lost because of his comments on Monday. Seattle still has a choice it must make, especially if there truly are fiscal reasons why the club won’t be spending with the league’s richest outfits moving forward. The Sounders can either maintain the notion that they are just as ambitious as anyone else, even as the payroll shows otherwise, or attempt to recalibrate their identity. That recalibration means selling fans on the idea that championships are still possible, but only through spending smarter, not bigger, than everyone else.
The degree of difficulty for that is immense. As Garth Lagerwey can surely tell you after the events of the past week, soccer fans don’t exactly get excited about efficiency.
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(Photo by David Bernal – ISIPhotos.com)