Seattle Sounders FC general manager Garth Lagerwey knows how to sustain success.
He’s done it twice now — in his five seasons with the Sounders and the seven years prior, which he spent as the GM who brought Real Salt Lake out of mediocrity.
“In the soccer world, he’s got a really good reputation,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, who has worked alongside Lagerwey since the GM’s arrival in 2015.
How exactly did Lagerwey build it? A former MLS goalkeeper who later transitioned to the front office, the 46-year-old started in Salt Lake late in the 2007 season. RSL, which was founded more than two years before Lagerway’s arrival, was in the midst of its third consecutive losing season.
But, Lagerway had the club in the playoffs the next year — and each of his seven full seasons with RSL resulted in a postseason berth. By 2009, just two full seasons after his arrival, RSL won its first MLS Cup, defeating the Los Angeles Galaxy on penalty kicks in a championship match that was hosted in Seattle.
When he joined the Sounders for the 2015 season, Lagerwey’s model for success was already established, and it has only continued in Seattle. Though Seattle was already an accomplished franchise before him, he’s only elevated the club.
The Sounders — which have never missed the playoffs in their MLS history, dating back to their inaugural season in 2009 — have advanced to at least the quarterfinals every season since Lagerwey’s arrival. They won their first MLS Cup in Toronto under his guidance in 2016, qualified for the championship match again the following year, and have a chance to add a second win to their ledger when they host Toronto FC in the MLS Cup on Sunday at CenturyLink Field in Seattle.
A big key to all of this has been consistency in leadership, Lagerwey said.
“It helps a lot,” he said. “Only two coaches in the history of the franchise. Only two GMs in the history of the franchise. Same owner — I guess technically Joe (Roth) and Adrian (Hanauer) switched positions at some point, but Adrian has been here since Day 1 and well before that, going back to (United Soccer League) days.
“I think we’re a model of stability, and anybody in any sport anywhere will tell you that that helps, because that allows you to set a strategy and stick to it over not just months, but years and seasons, and that’s how you’re able to develop consistency, like in the three MLS Cups in four years.”
There has been player turnover since Seattle’s first season, but little in coaching or management. Schmetzer replaced the club’s first coach, Sigi Schmid, midway through the 2016 run. Lagerway succeeded Hanauer in the GM role. But that’s it.
“I have great bosses,” Schmetzer said. “Garth’s a good boss, Adrian’s a good boss. The whole organization, top to bottom, has done really, really good things since we’ve been around. I remember Adrian back in 2002 taking over the USL team and then growing that. And then Garth coming on in 2015 and growing the club and the academy and all of the success. I’m happy that I get to work with really talented people.”
Lagerwey was instrumental in drafting rising stars like Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan and acquiring players like Joevin Jones, Nico Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz, who have each contributed to this playoff run.
Whether or not he adds a third MLS Cup win to his résumé Sunday afternoon — and second with Seattle — Lagerwey has certainly cemented himself as one of the most successful GMs in the city’s history, regardless of sport.
But, a win over Toronto could elevate the franchise as a whole further in Seattle and MLS history.
“We have to win this game,” Lagerwey said. “It’s a big swing from historical perception if we win this one or we don’t. … We’re going to be prepared for every contingency, and I believe in the players. I think this is the best team we’ve ever had in Seattle. I’ve said that from Day 1 of the season. I still believe it.
“You mix that excellent preparation with excellent talent and excellent character of staff and players, and I think that’s been our formula that’s allowed us to have sustained success. Now, we’ve got to go win this thing.”
TNT’S TOP 5 GENERAL MANAGERS IN SEATTLE HISTORY
1. John Schneider, Seahawks (2010-present)
Since his hiring — which came a week after the Seahawks hired coach Pete Carroll, whom Schneider continues to work closely with — Schneider has completely revamped Seattle’s NFL franchise, including bringing a Super Bowl win back to the city in 2014. All but four of the players on the championship-winning roster — including current quarterback Russell Wilson and former players like Kam Chancellor, Marshawn Lynch, Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas — were brought to Seattle through Schneider and Carroll’s teamwork. The Seahawks returned to the Super Bowl in 2015, though they lost in the closing moments, and have been to the playoffs in all but one season since Schneider arrived. He signed a five-year extension in 2016, keeping him in Seattle at least through 2021.
2. Pat Gillick, Mariners (2000-03)
The Mariners won 116 games under Gillick’s guidance in 2001 — something no other American League team has done in history. They easily won the AL West, reaching the playoffs for consecutive seasons for the first time after earning a Wild Card berth with Gillick in 2000. When Ken Griffey Jr. requested a trade in 2000, Gillick was responsible for bringing over four players — including Griffey’s beloved replacement in center field, Mike Cameron — from the Reds in the exchange. Gillick made several significant free-agent signings that included bringing future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki and longtime ace Felix Hernandez to Seattle. He also drafted Adam Jones in 2003, though the Mariners traded the outfielder after Gillick departed. Gillick had success everywhere he went — with the Blue Jays, Orioles and Phillies — and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2011.
3. Garth Lagerwey, Sounders (2015-present)
Lagerwey played five MLS seasons as a goalkeeper before moving into administrative roles in 2007. He spent seven-plus seasons as the GM of Real Salt Lake, guiding the club to seven consecutive playoff appearances and an MLS Cup win in 2009. His success has only continued since his arrival in Seattle in 2015, when he became the second GM in the club’s history, succeeding current majority owner Adrian Hanauer. The Sounders have never missed the playoffs under Lagerwey, and he’s taken the club’s longstanding success even further, guiding them to three MLS Cup appearances in the past four seasons, and the club’s first championship win against Toronto in 2016. Lagerwey was instrumental in drafting rising stars Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan, and acquiring players like Joevin Jones, Nico Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz.
4. Zollie Volchok, Sonics (1977-1983)
Volchok had never held an administrative role with any major sports franchise until he was named the Sonics’ GM. But, just a few years after his appointment, he brought the city its only NBA championship — and first major championship in any sport — when the Sonics topped the Washington Bullets in five games in 1979. The Sonics also advanced to the finals in 1978, that year losing to the Bullets, but missed the playoffs just once during Volchok’s tenure. He was also key in marketing the team during his relatively short stay, significantly raising average attendance. Volchok was dubbed the NBA Executive of the Year in his final season with the team in 1983 and departed when owner Sam Schulman — who hired him — sold the team.
5. Karen Bryant, Storm (2004-10)
Involved with women’s professional basketball even before Seattle was granted a WNBA franchise in 2000, Bryant is the only executive — so far — to win multiple championships for the city, guiding the Storm to WNBA titles in 2004 and 2010. She was also part of the team brass that brought longtime WNBA stars like Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson to Seattle. Before the Storm, Bryant was the GM for the American Basketball League’s Seattle Reign, and oversaw Seattle’s transition from the ABL to the WNBA, beginning in 1999. She was an instrumental piece of the Storm’s organization from the inaugural season in 2000 until her departure in 2014.
John Best, NASL Sounders (1974-76)
Mike McCormack, Seahawks (1982-88)
Tim Ruskell, Seahawks (2005-09)
Alisha Valavanis, Storm (2015-present)
Bob Whitsitt, Sonics (1986-94)
Woody Woodward, Mariners (1989-99)