This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Life in Seattle has begun for Garth Lagerwey signaling the official, but already expected end to his seven-plus years at Real Salt Lake. And gone now in back-to-back years from the club are Jason Kreis and Lagerwey, off to larger markets with clubs with deeper pockets at New York City FC and Seattle.
Which means the foundation cultivated during their time together will now be thoroughly tested to see just how sturdy it is. Which also again raises the question of how owner Dell Loy Hansen handled negotiations with the former stalwarts. The Sounders officially named Lagerwey as their general manager and president of soccer Tuesday afternoon, putting an end to the year-long discussion of whether Lagerwey's soon-to-be expiring contract situation would follow the narrative similar to that of Kreis.
Turns out, it did. Now Seattle, coming off a Supporters' Shield and U.S. Open Cup season in 2014, is undoubtedly better-equipped than it was before. In a release from the club announcing the move, owner Adrian Hanauer said if the best general manager was available, he'd hire that person to replace himself as the guy calling the shots.
"I believe that Garth is that man," Hanauer said.
The process of packing up life in Salt Lake City and moving to the northwest in underway. Lagerwey said he was in Seattle over the weekend, found a place and was able to put an offer down on a house for himself, his wife and their two young children. On Sunday night he signed his contract with the Sounders and for the first time was able to sit down with coach Sigi Schmid to map out respective visions.
The news isn't necessarily shocking. ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman broke the news on Dec. 15 that Lagerwey would end up as part of the Seattle front office. That set off a chain reaction of announcements, including the appointment of technical director Craig Waibel as Lagerwey's successor. All the while, Lagerwey waited for his four-year contract extension to expire on Dec. 31 and negotiate his next stop.
Losing Lagerwey, no matter how dissected, is undeniably tough for RSL (to a fellow Western Conference powerhouse, no less). RSL made the postseason for seven consecutive seasons from 2008 to 2014 where the club went 101-68-63 during his time in Utah.
Below is a transcript of my interview with Lagerwey from earlier today. We touch on his new gig in Seattle, why he knew he had to leave and closing the door on this chapter of his career and life.
Transcript of 30-minute interview with former RSL GM and new Sounder GM Garth Lagerwey
Can you tell me what your title is going to be officially at your new club?
Lagerwey: "General manager and president of soccer."
And what does that mean?
Lagerwey: "At RSL the full title is RSL GM and VP of soccer operations. We drop two words. Drop the vice and drop operations. It's a very similar role to what it was at RSL. I would say the distinction is that I'm reporting directly to ownership. I'm the final say on soccer decisions there. Bill [Manning] was always my boss and he was an awesome boss and a wonderful boss. I wouldn't say that I'm in Bill's role, because I'm not, Bill had a lot of business responsibilities, too. It's a soccer-side position where I'm running all aspects of their soccer team: The academy, S2, first team, salaries, signings, recruiting, yada yada.
"The GM title in Seattle means a little something different opposed to [at RSL] in the sense that they have what they call Democracy for Sport. The fans, they have a covenant with the fans and the fans vote periodically on the GM role. It is a position that's responsive to the fan base that I need to be mindful of. It's sort of a public trust, that aspect of the job."
Why was Seattle the place you decided to go?
Lagerwey: "I was looking to move forward in my career, I knew that it was very likely that it wasn't going to happen at RSL. Bill Manning is a good boss and a friend of mine and has been a good leader for the organization. He's won an Executive of the Year award, rumor is he may be up for another one this year, so he wasn't going anywhere. That was cool. I knew that five years ago when I signed a contract. It was the kind of thing where I was pretty happy in general with RSL and the transition with Jeff [Cassar] had gone really well, I really enjoyed the new staff, but I got an opportunity that I felt like was a bigger opportunity and a way forward."
I think a portion of the RSL fan base was upset because you were going to Seattle and assuming the same role and it was mentioned that it was a lateral move. Do you feel like it's a lateral move?
Lagerwey: "It is and it's not. It's not a president job. I'm not running the whole club. I'm running the soccer side, so it's somewhere between a promotion and a lateral [move]. To be fair, I think it's more a lateral move than a promotion … trust me I understand [the RSL fans] aren't going to want to hear that, but I would say it's a club that has a few more resources, but I would also say that it's a club in Seattle that's run the same way RSL is. It's run from a fiscally-responsible position, they only spend what they make and they've just been successful in making a little more money than RSL was. That's not a knock on RSL, that just has to do with market size and having, in their case, having almost a 40-year history dating back to 1974. Honestly, Seattle is where RSL will be in 10-to-20 years once a generation of fan assumes into their DNA. A lot of people have already. It was a step forward for me, I felt. It'll be a little bit bigger stage, little bit bigger platform. I was really excited about the challenge of trying to replicate what we did at RSL on a grander scale."
When did Seattle come into the picture? I know you and Adrian are close and that was always kind of a logical spot for you if you decided to leave.
Lagerwey: "Officially I got permission from Dell Loy to interview with other teams the day before Thanksgiving. It was the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving. Spoke with Adrian shortly thereafter, met Joe Roth maybe two weeks after that. It got the ball rolling and to state the obvious that between Thanksgiving and Sunday there's five or six weeks or whatever. Definitely had a long way to go and had to talk through what the position was and what it wasn't, talking about working together and how to build the thing, so we did all that. Both sides got comfortable. We went forward."
Did your relationship with Adrian play a factor in this decision?
Lagerwey: "Huge, huge role. I really wanted to work for somebody that I liked and trusted. And Adrian is that. I'm really excited to work for him. I think he's a really smart guy. I think he has a lot of great ideas, not just on the team level, but on the league level. I'm really pumped for the opportunity."
Was it tough to slam the door shut at RSL and know you were going to move on from something that you helped build from the ground up?
Lagerwey: "It was really, really hard. The fans here are incredible. The number of people that asked about my situation over the last couple of months or even over the last year that cared and were invested in the club … as I told all you guys in the post-season scrum, this is a place that I personally launched my career and launched my life. I got married and bought a house and had two kids. Those are experiences you'll simply never have again. They're not replicable. This is just an incredibly happy place for me. Been here seven years and made good friends on and off the pitch. It's a special place. I love Salt Lake. It is, on some level, heartbreaking to leave it. At the same time I felt like I had to leave. That was really, really hard. It honestly took the better part of the last year to reconcile myself to the fact that I've really got to do this. There were days when I really didn't want to, but I really struggled with it. The last year's been really difficult for me. Ultimately, I figured out I had to do it. I had to leave and I didn't have a choice. That's what it came down to. I probably took a little bit less money to go to Seattle. It was just where I thought was a better situation for me and time will tell if that decision was correct or not. But certainly I felt like I was giving up a lot in Salt Lake and leaving a lot behind. Just the personal relationships with Bill [Manning], Trey [Fitz-Gerald], Jeff Cassar and to the guys that started this year, Daryl Shore, Craig Waibel, you can always leave somebody out. Elliot Fall, those guys are dear friends of mine. It's really hard to leave them and it's really hard to leave something that we built. I think it's important that 'we,' Dave Checketts and Jason Kreis and me and Bill and Dell Loy [Hansen] and Jeff and all the folks, we all did this together. The one hope I have is when I've talked to the Seattle guys over the last couple of weeks, I think they also believe in this league, we can do things together, we can do things collectively. That was really what put us over the top at RSL. I would say we, in terms of our players. We were a very player-centric organization. I think we got the best out of them. Again, those are values that I think are present in Seattle. Time will tell. It's a big leap, but it's a new adventure and I'm really excited about it. I think I'll always be sad to leave Salt Lake, that at the end of the day, there wasn't another path."
You never really envisioned a return to RSL after a certain point?
Lagerwey: "I think it's fair to say that over the last year and a half or so, I weighed the career-type stuff. In particular over the last year, I thought long and hard about what was the best way forward and again ultimately concluded that there was not a path for me at RSL."
So what happens now when you're in your office in Seattle and you get the urge to call up Craig Waibel or Elliot Fall?
Lagerwey: "It's going to be weird, right?"… Regarding Waibel and Elliot, I just hope they take my call. I've been through a little bit of it with Jason gone last year. You figure it out. You have to build a relationship again, although it's a little bit of different parameters. I tried my best to support and in a limited amount of time, I mentored Waibel and Elliot. Certainly Elliot over the last couple of years. And certainly Waibel in the last month or so during the transition. If anything goes wrong, it'll be because I steered them in the wrong direction, so I hope everybody gives him a chance to figure out who he is as a GM because he's going to be really good. I hope I stay friends with those guys. That's my first desire. The hardest people to leave was the coaching staff because you're in the trenches with them every day, and in Jeff's case, in the trenches with for eight years. That's a long time."
At Seattle, I think you could say they're in an MLS Cup all-or-nothing situation with the money spent and the expectations they have up there. Does this job bring more pressure?
Lagerwey: "I think there's more pressure in Seattle. I think that's definitely true. I think that's part of the challenge … At the same time, I have to go prove it. I think there is a lot of pressure. You do have to win in order to be validated, because the fact is, they won everything except MLS Cup and Champions League without me. If I join them and we don't win anything, it's going to be pretty obvious where the finger gets pointed. I think it's a lot of pressure, it's a big goal as when I took the RSL job and left my safe law firm job when most of my friends thought I was nuts. There's some validity to that. Maybe I'll be grinding soup in two years."
Will you find it difficult to build a rapport with coaches and players you don't know too well? At RSL, you turned this club around with guys you brought in the first few years.
Lagerwey: "For sure, for sure. There were going to be a few challenges and possibilities: Do you want to take something and build it from scratch? Similar to what Jason's done in New York? Honestly, that opportunity didn't really present itself. The other challenge was, do you want to take a group that was really talented and try to make them one percent better? That's a management challenge. I think my title is general manager and if you look at that literally, it is to generally manage. I think that is a strength of mine is managing people. And I would certainly rather start with a group of immensely-talented folks and big personalities and manage those types of people than to manage people who aren't capable, who aren't going to be able to get over the top. In no way am I implying that RSL doesn't have a better staff than Seattle, that's not true. Again, it is a bigger organization, there's more people, it's a little more complex structure, they're taking on more things strategically, I think that's part of the management challenge that I mean where, yes I have to build relationships with all these people, but to be fair, this is going to be my third coaching staff in three years and one of the great things about working with Jeff, Andy, Craig, Daryl, Ted and Paul was I had to do all of this last year. We had to build new relationships within a structure that we had created here. For sure, there was a comfort level because to some extent, those guys were acclimating to our culture. Now it's going to be me acclimating to the Sounders' culture. It will be a different challenge and it will be a challenge, for sure, but I think at least you're starting from strength in terms of having talent and ability similar to what you have at RSL. Hopefully get the best out of everybody and hopefully give the Sounders the best chance to win. For the last seven years, we thought we gave RSL the best chance to win."