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

To anyone who’s been paying enough attention, it shouldn’t come as a complete shock that Garth Lagerwey was leaving the Seattle Sounders to take over as CEO and President of Atlanta United. Although it only became official on Tuesday, there have been hints that Lagerwey had bigger ambitions than the title of general manager or even “President of Football” could 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, with Nelson Rodriguez in charge. However, in quashing these rumours, Lagerwey revealed that the idea of ​​running an entire organization was appealing to him.

Over the years, I’ve asked him about it both on and off the record. Lagerwey never suggested that he was unhappy or unfulfilled here – and would often go to great lengths to praise ownership for the resources it provided and how any profits were always reinvested – but it also became clear that he was somehow achieving what he could achieve, professionally.

Yes, he can continue to win trophies and take a more prominent place in the “big game” of buying international talent, but these are only parts of what excites him about working in football. Basically, I’m not sure there’s much he can do on the sports side that he wasn’t already doing with the Sounders. But Lagerwey has always been 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 the game, he started doing commentary while going to 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…

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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 beautiful, obviously, and I’m sure it comes with a significant increase. But I really don’t think it’s about the money or the titles. The Sounders, I’m told, were working on a significant bid that would have been at least competitive in those ways. What they could not offer was the kind of control Lagerwey is likely to take in Atlanta, where he will replace Darren Eales, who moved on from that role to his current position as CEO of Premier League side Newcastle.

Assuming he fills a similar role to Eales, Lagerwey will have extensive oversight of both the sporting and business sides of the organisation. He can help arrange a transfer one day and approve marketing material the next. He would 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 essentially as big and wide as he wants to make it.

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

I’ve already heard from a few people who suggested the Sounders’ unwillingness to offer a similar package for Lagerwey shows a lack of imagination, but I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.

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The first thing to understand is that the Sounders are structured differently now. The organization is basically divided into two branches. Lagerwey was undoubtedly the better football person, 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 without getting in the way, but he’s definitely involved on a fairly regular basis. He sits in on meetings and consults on most major initiatives. Hanauer is also the Sounders’ representative on all of those MLS-level committees.

I suppose it’s theoretically possible that Hanauer could have offered to step down and effectively put Lagerwey in his position, but I don’t think anyone 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 admit that the results of this more collaborative structure speak for themselves.

Whether or not I thought this news was a possibility, I’ll admit that I was also caught a bit off guard by the timing. After all, less than a week ago, the Alliance Council announced that Lagerwey had won his GM retention vote with 90% approval. During the Annual Business Meeting, he looked a lot more like a guy getting ready to stay, not someone with one foot out the door.

My understanding is that he was speaking honestly, that he was acting like he was coming back because he believed this was a special opportunity. 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. Put another way, I don’t see any reason why athletic 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 pretty much exactly what happened at Real Salt Lake when Lagerwey took the Sounders job). In that scenario, I imagine a slew of internal promotions would quickly follow.

That speaks to the structures that Lagerwey built, I think. It wasn’t that Lagerwey was so uniquely adept at talent evaluation or salary wizardry, his superpower was identifying 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 of 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 a contender in 2023.

A more pessimistic view sees a roster that is heavy with aging veterans, coming off a non-playoff season and in need of a massive overhaul.

I’m inclined to think this team needs more evolution than revolution in the front office. I think they should almost contact 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 worked for so long.

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