Soccer newsletter: Seattle proves you don’t have to spend the most to win big in MLS
Hello and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and we start today with the MLS playoffs, a competition Seattle Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey never misses.
In six seasons as senior vice-president and general manager at Real Salt Lake, he took a team that never had made the playoffs to seven postseason appearances in as many seasons. It reached the MLS Cup finals twice and won once. He then moved to Seattle where, as president and general manager, he’s led the team to seven consecutive playoff appearances, four MLS Cup finals and two titles.
That’s an unparalleled run of success in a league founded on the concept of parity, one with salary and roster rules intended not to create dynasties but to prevent them.
And Lagerwey may have done some of his best work this season.
Seattle, which opens the playoffs Tuesday by hosting Lagerwey’s former team, RSL, never has had the desire to spend like the Galaxy or Toronto FC. It has forced Lagerwey to invest wisely, and this season just six MLS teams got more for their money than the Sounders, who earned 60 points with a payroll of just under $13.6 million.
That comes out to $226,000 per point; Cincinnati and Toronto spent nearly three times as much while the Galaxy and Inter Miami spent almost twice as much per point.
“When you come from a small club like Salt Lake, it’s kind of in your DNA. You get used to doing things a certain way,” Lagerwey said.
That’s why he reached back to Salt Lake twice this season. He brought in Craig Waibel as Seattle’s sporting director in April and Freddy Juarez as an assistant coach in September.
“It is something that resonates with us, that a lot of times you can shop efficiently,” he added.
Which isn’t to say the Sounders don’t spend. With four players earning more than $1 million and six others making as least $500,000, they do. Yet even smart spending can’t prevent the kind of injuries that limited two of Seattle’s millionaires — Nicolás Lodeiro and Jordan Morris — to a combined 11 appearances and two starts in the regular season.
Seattle filled in those minutes by dipping into its academy, where it got 62 appearances and 31 starts combined from a half-dozen teenagers.
“We’ve been working on this for five years. We’ve been spending money for five years,” said Lagerwey, who went out of his way to acknowledge the contributions of his staff. “When we could have had that down year, when we have this rash of injuries at the beginning, we had these kids that were ready to step in.
“If you have a well-run organization with good processes, you’re building in backups and you’re building in fail-safes. And so, if you can keep the floor to a certain level, then even when you have problems with the ceiling you have mechanisms in place to bail you out.
“One of the kind of truisms that I operate by,” he continued, “is I’m as good as my ownership allows me to be. And ownership here has been incredible about taking all the resources we have and putting it back into the team.”
In the last 11 months, for example, the Sounders have signed Joao Paulo Mior, picked up the 2022 option on Raúl Ruidíaz and extended Lodeiro’s contract. Before that, they re-signed Morris to the most lucrative contract for a homegrown player in MLS history, a five-year deal worth approximately $5 million.
With the exception of Morris, who was a youth star in Seattle, few Sounders fans had heard of any of those players before they came to town. Yet they’ve all gone on to become popular MLS all-stars, with the jerseys of Ruidíaz and Lodeiro ranking among the five best-sellers in the league.
“Maybe this is a luxury of being in Seattle, but we always try to pick the best player,” Lagerwey said. “When you’re in L.A. or New York, sometimes there’s pressure to pick the famous player or the player you think is marketable.
“Because we have such deep and broad support, when we sign the best player we found consistently our fan base will adopt that player. Oftentimes they’re made famous while they’re here. That’s been a really successful strategy for us.”
Another successful strategy has been creating an enjoyable, successful atmosphere players want to be a part of. Fredy Montero, who made $1.25 million with Vancouver last season, accepted a minimum-wage offer of just more than $81,000 to return to a club that averaged 42,797 fans a game before the pandemic. It was the second-highest attendance figure among soccer teams in the Americas and trailed only Atlanta United.
Montero finished second on the team in goals with seven and tied for fourth in appearances with 29 this season.
“There aren’t that many teams in the world that draw 40,000 fans a game. And when we’re able to do that, that’s really fun to play in front of,” Lagerwey said. “The other thing is our because our team has been successful, that results in lots of bonuses for our players. And so if you have that consistent performance, 13 playoffs in a row, if you’re going to try to win tournaments, if you’ve been in MLS Cups, part of the player calculation is, ‘Sure, I might take a little bit less upfront, but I get an opportunity to make even more by sticking around here’.”
Speaking of sticking around, the 13 postseason appearances in a row is not only an MLS record, it’s also the second-longest active streak in U.S. and Canadian professional sports. It trails only the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have made 15 consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup playoffs. But the Penguins haven’t made it past the second round of the playoffs since 2017; this fall the Sounders are chasing their fifth MLS Cup final in six years.
For Lagerwey, Seattle’s success isn’t so much the result of something new but rather a commitment to age-old principles such as hard work, investing in both people and planning, confidence in those people and plans and no small amount of good fortune to bring it all together.
“I don’t think there’s a magic sauce,” he said. “You’ve got to spend on unsexy things like infrastructure. You’ve got to have five- and seven-year plans because if you want to do development, that’s how long it takes. You have to have a staff in place and a philosophy and a curriculum and you’ve got to stick to it.
“You’re going to have to tweak it constantly, but you’ve got to believe in it. And then if you have all of your departments structured across the whole organization, so you don’t just have a first-team performance coach, you have a performance department. And you don’t have a medical staff, you have a medical department, meaning that those philosophies are common to the academy and the USL team and the first team.
“It’s a good mix of ingredients. And I’m not saying it’s easy, but I do think it’s replicable.”
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Colorado, first-round bye
Sporting Kansas City 3, Vancouver 1
Portland 3, Minnesota United 1
Seattle vs. Real Salt Lake, Tuesday
New England Revolution, first-round bye
Philadelphia 1, Red Bulls 0
New York City 2, Atlanta 0,
Nashville vs. Orlando City, Tuesday
Longest active postseason streaks in U.S. and Canada
Seasons Team League Start
15 Pittsburgh Penguins NHL 2007
13 Seattle Sounders MLS 2009
11 NY Red Bulls MLS 2010
11 Minnesota Lynx WNBA 2011
9 Dodgers MLB 2013
8 Portland Trailblazers NBA 2014
Bob Bradley: An appreciation
Bob the Builder took the team to the playoffs in its first season, broke the regular-season record for points en route to a Supporters’ Shield the next year and last season reached the CONCACAF Champions League final. He became the only MLS coach to beat three Liga MX opponents in a single tournament.
For most of his tenure at LAFC, the team played a dynamic and attractive style that produced goals — and wins — in bunches. It was a style other teams tried and failed to imitate, one that helped produce a club culture that engaged fans, with LAFC announcing sellouts for all 65 MLS games, including playoffs, the team played at Banc of California Stadium.
Through its first three seasons, no team in MLS had more regular-season wins, points or goals than LAFC. The legacy Bradley leaves will be tough to match.
“When you look at the full four years, I think we have achieved much of what we set out to achieve,” said John Thorrington, LAFC’s general manager and co-president. “Myself and the club, we’re grateful for everything Bob brought, accomplished and helped build in those four years.”
But all that success produced just one playoff win. This season LAFC, riddled by injuries to key players and inconsistent performances from others, finished 12-13-9, missed the postseason and finished ninth in the 13-team Western Conference.
“Such an improbable year,” said Bradley, whose teams went 37-13-18 in his first two seasons, averaging 2.25 goals and outscoring opponents by 64, then 21-21-14 in the last two, when it scored half a goal fewer per game with a modest +10 differential.
The difference was Bradley was abandoned at times in the last two seasons by the players he relied on the first two years. Carlos Vela, the MVP in 2019 when he broke the single-season scoring record, played less than LAFC’s games in the last two years. Diego Rossi, the Golden Boot winner in 2020, left for Turkish side Fenerbahçe on loan in September and Brian Rodríguez didn’t make his first appearance this season until mid-July following a winter loan to Almería of the Spanish second division.
As a result, Bradley got less than 45% of the possible minutes from his three designated players in 2021. Defender Eddie Segura had season-ending knee surgery in early August and midfielder Eduard Atuesta missed 10 games.
“It’s hard to compete every single game when you miss most of your important players,” said Vela, whose future with LAFC is undetermined. “I [wasn’t] with them most of the games when they needed me, something that makes me feel bad, because I feel I’m an important player in this club.
“It’s not the season we expected.”
But it follows a pattern for Bradley, 63, whose longest stint with a professional team was the five seasons he spent with the Chicago Fire in his managerial debut. As with LAFC, he started quickly with the Fire and won the MLS Cup in the team’s inaugural season. But he finished with a losing record in his last year, just as he did with LAFC.
The three-time MLS coach of the year and third-winningest coach in league history can dominate a team and a locker room through his fiery personality and conviction. That intensity can wear thin over time, though.
Thorrington didn’t think that was an issue at LAFC.
“I don’t see it necessarily that way,” he said. “What I would say is four years is a long time. When I look back on this year, I didn’t get the sense that players gave up or weren’t listening or anything.”
However, with Thorrington looking forward to a winter of transition — “This will be a busier offseason in terms of turnover,” he said — it was time to start over with a new manager.
“Thanks to Bob, we’ve laid this foundation and set a trajectory of what standards we have here at LAFC and what type of soccer we’re going to play and what types of players we will have,” Thorrington said. “We’ve got a lot of those pieces in place. Does it need some refreshing? For sure.
“We are not talking about a full reboot, but rather a refreshing of a group that we think does have a lot of promise within.”
It’s been a year of growing pains and gains for the USMNT
The U.S. finished the 2021 portion of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying second in the eight-team table, a point behind unbeaten Canada and a point ahead of third-place Mexico. It also tied a calendar-year record with 16 wins — a record it can break next month when it plays Bosnia-Herzegovina in a friendly at Dignity Health Sports Park — beat Mexico three times and won trophies in the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup.
Yet there’s ample reason to believe the best is yet to come.
The roster coach Gregg Berhalter used through the first eight games of qualifying was the youngest for that tournament in national team history and it has grown since September, with 34 players seeing action, 30 getting starts and 26 making their qualifying debuts. That depth was important since captain Christian Pulisic started just two of the eight games and Gio Reyna made just one appearance.
With midfielder Weston McKennie and defender Sergiño Dest also missing four starts each, the U.S. never had its first-choice lineup on the field in qualifying. So it’s no wonder the team frequently lacked chemistry and cohesion; many of the players never had played with one another.
They have now.
“We’ve grown in the experiences and playing together and getting the time, getting the games,” goalkeeper Zack Steffen said. “I’m really proud of the group’s effort. Our depth has shown and we just got to continue to strive for bigger goals.”
If the U.S. was brutal in its loss to Panama, it was brilliant in the second halves of wins over Honduras, Mexico and Jamaica. And if it can get its top players on the field together consistently in the final six qualifiers, there’s no reason to think they can’t be brilliant again.
“We’re on the right track,” Berhalter said. “We’re basically having to get the guys experience on the fly. It’s really learning as you go.”
In the absence of Pulisic and Reyna, teenager Ricardo Pepi got a chance to play and responded with a team-high three goals and two assists. Tim Weah contributed a game-winning goal against Costa Rica and a game-winning assist against Mexico.
Walker Zimmerman, the only field player who didn’t see the field in the first three games, was left off the original roster for the October window. But when Tim Ream had to pull out for family reasons, Zimmerman was called up and he, too, made the most of the opportunity with solid games against Mexico and Jamaica.
“We’re growing,” Weah said, repeating a theme heard often in the locker room. “Each camp that we come in, the games that we play, we grow. “Consistency will come. We’re all super young so it’s a solid learning experience.
“I’m happy with where we’re at right now.”
CONCACAF World Cup qualifying table
Pts. W L T GF GA GD
Canada 16 4 0 4 13 6 8
U.S. 15 4 1 3 12 5 7
Mexico 14 4 2 2 11 7 4 Panama 14 4 2 2 11 9 2
Costa Rica 9 2 3 3 6 7 -2
Jamaica 7 1 3 4 6 10 -4
El Salvador 6 1 4 3 4 10 -6
Honduras 3 0 3 5 5 15 -10
U.S. vs. El Salvador
Costa Rica vs. Panama
Jamaica vs. Mexico
Honduras vs. Canada
U.S. at Canada
Mexico vs. Costa Rica
Honduras vs. El Salvador
Panama vs. Jamaica
U.S. vs. Honduras
Jamaica vs. Costa Rica
Mexico vs. Panama
El Salvador vs. Canada
Top-seeded Cal State L.A. and No. 7 Cal Poly Pomona could meet Saturday in the quarterfinals of the men’s NCAA Division II tournament with wins Thursday. Pomona (14-4-3) will play West Texas A&M while Cal State L.A. (15-2-2) will meet Colorado Mesa. Both games will be played at Cal State L.A.
In the Division I tournament UCLA, playing a man down after the 34th minute, couldn’t protect a 1-0 lead and lost its second-round game to Duke, 2-1, on goals scored less than 40 seconds apart in the final three minutes of regulation. The Bruins finished 11-7-1, their most single-season wins since 2015.
On the women’s side, Pepperdine’s run in the Division I tournament ended Sunday with a 1-0 loss to top-ranked Florida State. The third-round appearance matched the best postseason performance ever for the Waves (17-4-1).
Meanwhile USC (14-3-3) was eliminated last Friday on penalty kicks following a 2-2 draw with Penn State in a second-round game. In the women’s Division III tournament, Pomona-Pitzer (16-1-3) fell to Trinity of Texas on penalty kicks in the second round.
And finally there’s this …
The Orange County Soccer Club will travel to Florida to face the Tampa Bay Rowdies in Sunday’s USL Championship final on ESPN and ESPN Deportes … Denmark’s players will wear messages supporting human rights on their training kits during next year’s World Cup in Qatar. Amnesty International has raised concerns over abusive and exploitative labor practices while other human-rights groups have criticized Qatar over laws outlawing homosexuality and discriminating against women. Many other national team programs quietly are discussing measures they, too, can take to acknowledge Qatar’s repressive government without disrupting the tournament.
“Congratulations to the Washington Spirit on winning your first-ever NWSL championship. Despite a year with no shortage of challenges, you’ve made the district and your country proud.
President and soccer fan Joe Biden after the Spirit’s 2-1 win over the Chicago Red Stars in the 2021 NWSL final