October 4, 2022

TUKWILA — Traditionally, the secondary transfer window is when the Seattle Sounders make their big moves. Beginning with the signing of Uruguay international Alvaro Fernandez in the summer of 2010, this is when the Sounders made headlines by signing names such as Clint Dempsey, Nicolás Lodeiro, Raúl Ruidíaz and, more recently, Léo Chú. Even in years when they didn’t sign a Designated Player, they always found a way to bolster their roster with at least one addition.

This streak came to a halt when the transfer window closed last week.

Despite their best efforts and clearly identifying at least one place in the starting lineup they wanted to improve – defensive midfielder or right winger – a combination of factors kept the front office from moving.

“It was the trickiest window we’ve ever had in terms of threading a needle, and ultimately it was a bit frustrating from a front office perspective,” Sounders GM and Soccer president Garth Lagerwey, his first availability of any kind in about three weeks. “We probably searched for as many or more deals than we have in any other summer window, but we did it with really limited resources.”

Lagerwey effectively pinned the lack of activity on three factors:

1. This is the third year of what was effectively a fixed salary cap resulting from the twice renegotiated collective agreement. In those three seasons, the Sounders have managed to keep the core of their roster virtually intact, while qualifying for three cup finals – MLS Cup in 2020, League Cup in 2021 and Concacaf Champions League in 2022 The Sounders did this while absorbing the increases brought by bonuses and new offers.

Although the salary cap will eventually increase in 2023, the Sounders have effectively structured their salary cap accounting with a “balloon payment” that will come due. In fact, only one player – Jimmy Medranda – will be out of the club’s control at the end of this year. The Sounders have set aside allowance money to achieve this, but any significant additions during this window would have shaken their careful bookkeeping.

During the offseason, the situation was further complicated by the addition of Designated Player Albert Rusnák, but the team has since addressed this with a series of trades that netted them an additional $1.225 million in allowance money. general. The Sounders’ market analysis suggested they would need to spend between $750,000 and $1 million on GAM in order to find a clear upgrade in their starting lineup. This should have been factored into next year’s budget.

“It’s all structured and manipulated, but if you take one of the pieces of Jenga out, it can all fall apart,” Lagerwey said. “The positives are that everyone is signed. … The downside is a salary that makes it very difficult to do anything.

2. As neat and tidy as it was, if it was obviously not working, Lagerwey had the option of making changes. But even though the Sounders have struggled lately — they’re 3-6-0 in their last nine games — Lagerwey struggled to remind everyone that it’s actually about the same roster that became the first MLS team to win CCL just a few months prior.

“These guys had done something historic, they had made an immortal team,” he said. “We believe in them and we should believe in them because they were the best team on the continent three months ago. So breaking up the team made no sense to us.

3. The final complicating factor was that the Sounders were simply not interested in accepting contracts that went beyond this year. Not only are all their starters under contract for 2023, but they will also have João Paulo back, who tore his ACL in the CCL final but should be back in time for the next pre-season.

“We have our team,” Lagerwey said. “We also have good young players there.

“One of the exciting things is that we have opportunities for young players and I hope they prove themselves. a third of the season. It’s a long way to go. Overall, we feel good in the team and in the organization.

As sporting director Craig Waibel said a few weeks ago, the player who met all three criteria was a bit of a “unicorn”.

“It was frustrating in the sense that we want to help,” Lagerwey said. “It’s our job and in the end we couldn’t do it.

“We were trying to stay disciplined. We could have gone out and spent $1 million and got a rookie-level player, but at the expense of our team. This is the decision we made. There were definitely moments of temptation there. “Man, the shiny thing is right over there and I just need to go get it.” But in the end, we stayed disciplined and time will tell if it was the right decision or not.

While Lagerwey isn’t interested in sharing any names the Sounders are looking for, he did give credence to the most notable rumour: Luis Suarez.

Lagerwey said negotiations never reached the point where he actually spoke to the Uruguay international – who eventually signed with his boyhood club Nacional – but he acknowledged efforts had been made.

“I wouldn’t say we held our breath,” Lagerwey said, noting that the Sounders weren’t even able to offer him anything comparable to the roughly $1.5 million LAFC would pay Gareth Bale. “I would have been quite surprised if he had accepted what we had offered.”

Speaking of Bale, Lagerwey tipped the scales towards LAFC’s John Thorrington, who also managed to sign Italian legend Giorgio Chiellini and Designated Player Denis Bouanga. He called the signing “probably the biggest transfer window in league history” and said Thorrington should win MLS Executive of the Year but still managed to deliver a slight knock.

“Congratulations to him and congratulations to LAFC, but so far we’ve done well against them in the playoffs,” Lagerwey said. The Sounders beat LAFC in the 2019 and 2020 playoffs.

The Sounders can’t make any international trades or transfers, but there’s always a chance they could make a signing. Among the eligible players who have not yet been signed are all those who were out of contract before the window closed on August 4, MLS players who are placed on waivers and players who are currently under contract with Tacoma Defiance.

Internally, the most obvious candidate for a potential first-team contract would appear to be Marlon Vargas. Still just 21 but already in his fifth professional season, Vargas was among the best attacking players in the MLS Next Pro. Vargas has 12 goals and six assists, which rank third and second in the league respectively.

Perhaps the most interesting chatter surrounding the Sounders in recent weeks has been the future of Lagerwey himself.

This being Lagerwey’s eighth year with the Sounders, Alliance members will have their second chance to vote on his retention next month. As such, Lagerwey’s contract is due to expire at the end of the year and this has led to speculation he may be looking for a job.

As you’d probably expect, Lagerwey didn’t entirely reject the possibility of leaving, but also left the door wide open for his return.

“When the club is doing well, recognition and rumors will follow,” he said. “The thing that’s special about our club is the GM vote and it’s coming up. We’re the only team in North America to do that and it’s an exciting part of our culture. It’s important for us to respect that and that process.

“Intentional or not, what’s going to come with this is GM speculation – not even specific to me – when you have to vote you’re going to have contracts run out and it’s public. You are going to have speculation. We did well in all aspects of the organization and I hope that’s enough to be retained.

No date or details regarding the next Club World Cup have yet been announced, but the prospect of becoming the first MLS team to take part in this tournament is an additional element that could potentially work in favor of Lagerwey’s retention.

“It’s important,” he admitted. “I said the bitterest defeat of my career was losing the Champions League final in 2011 and having the picture on my fireplace, staring at it for 11 years and being able to take it down and tidy up, it was a big deal. It was really good for me personally, so yeah, it’s something I’d like to be a part of. More importantly, it’s really good for our club, really good for the MLS that our club is part of it and that we present ourselves well.