Deep into Major League Soccer’s playoffs, we’re quickly approaching a point of reckoning for a number of franchises – a time when presidents and ownership groups will have to stick with general managers or cash in their chips ahead of a hectic offseason. Once those decisions are made, the league may be faced with a new reality, one that becomes even more important in a winter of protection, expansion, a new collective bargaining agreement (hopefully), and conference shakeups: Current Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey, now in the last months of his contract, could be the most valuable asset on the Major League Soccer market.
That’s because MLS success is defined by two main categories: trophies, and box office receipts. Ultimate glory is given to the franchise that can pack the house for nine months and raise a few pieces of silverware in the process, even if a salary-capped league makes that success very difficult for some to achieve. Unlike the majority of leagues, it isn’t purely a matter of the deepest pockets winning. Ownership groups are forced to be more clever about how how they spend their money.
That’s what makes the role of general manager so crucial. In a mid-sized or small market, GMs are tasked with doing the impossible: fielding a team good enough to win on any given week; and having the roster depth to do it over the course of a full season; and, ideally, doing this with players alluring enough to sell enough tickets and jerseys; and, doing so with a style attractive enough to the home fans that they want to keep coming back. Somehow, an MLS general manager has to assemble a complete product with a budget that might be able to handle the weekly salaries of a couple good-but-not-great Premier League defenders. It’s a job designed for them to fail.
Lagerwey, seen here in 1996 with the Kansas City Wiz, played five seasons in Major League Soccer, eventually going to law school and spending time in soccer media before being named Real Salt Lake general manager in Sept. 2007. (Photo: Stephen Dunn /Allsport/Getty Images)
Lagerwey’s time with Real Salt Lake has been the brightest example of how to work within MLS. During his seven full seasons as general manager, the club has posted 99-66-61 record, with playoff appearances each season and a league title in 2009. Someone could raise a debate that one MLS Cup in seven years isn’t impressive, but a five- or six-game crap-shoot at the end of a 34-game season does nothing to identify the best team. RSL’s .438 regular season winning percentage over Lagerwey’s tenure is a number most MLS teams would sign up for over that time frame.
What really highlights Lagerwey’s success is the talent he’s consistently provided Salt Lake’s coaches – consistently championship-level squads, despite the team being on a tighter budget than most of his main rivals. RSL currently have three Designated Players, but they are by no means Robbie Keane or David Villa. According to MLS Players Union figures, club icons Javier Morales and Álvaro Saborío only received a combined $753,333 in guaranteed compensation this year. U.S. national team regulars and perpetual MLS Best XI candidates Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando sit below the DP threshold. Consider big team contributors like Nat Borchers and Tony Beltran, a developing talent like Luis Gil and a diamond-in-the-rough South American attacker like Joao Plata, and it’s easy to see why so many around MLS consider Real Salt Lake’s front office a blueprint for sustained success.
This offseason, one lucky MLS club just may get the chance to make Lagerwey’s blueprint its own. Reports indicate that after not being able to reach an agreement on extended terms sooner, Lagerwey and RSL have held off any further negotiations until after the season has ended.
Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen:
“Garth knows if we win the championship, it’s a better time to talk. Our simple answer is: Things are great. We love where we’re going … I’d like to finish this season, we’ve got a two-month window, [then] let’s figure it out. We’ve both agreed that professionally, that’s OK …
“Great teams help other people mature. However, all that said, we will kill for Garth to stay here and I don’t think money will ever be the issue. It would be opportunity, as it was, I believe, with (former head coach) Jason (Kreis).”
Fans in Salt Lake could understandably be a nervous. Lagerwey’s situation sounds eerily similar to the weeks leading up to the loss of Kreis to New York City FC after last year’s MLS Cup final.
Lagerwey has made no secret of his desire to expand his role and become a team president, a job currently held by Bill Manning at Real Salt Lake. Lagerwey:
“If there are opportunities [to be a team president] — and there aren’t any right now — but if there might be in the future, that is something I’d like to consider. That is why I say we probably won’t resolve anything contractually during the year.”
The two most interesting (hypothetical) candidates for Garth Lagerwey’s services are the Portland Timbers and Red Bull New York. Timbers fans have grown dissatisfied (to put it mildly) with their current general manager, Gavin Wilkinson. The franchise is a well-supported club with an ambitious owner and a roster that is only a player or two from being a contender. Lagerwey is the perfect candidate to bring them more Diego Valeris and less Liam Ridgewells.
The Timbers aren’t a team looking to sign the next David Beckham. When the stadium is already packed to the point that supporters camp outside the night before to get a good seat, huge contracts don’t make financial sense. Lagerwey is a master of finding financially efficient talent.
The Red Bulls are soon to have a vacancy at the top, with sporting director Andy Roxburgh departing at the end of the season. On multiple occasions, Red Bull higher-ups have name-checked the Real Salt Lake organization, from system to scouting to personnel moves, as the best in MLS.
There have also been signs and whispers, if not outright admissions, that the days of $5 million designated players are over. The big name signings haven’t worked to boost RBNY’s stature in a congested sports market. If Thierry Henry doesn’t ring enough bells to get people into Harrison, N.J., no one will.
The club’s hope for the future is that a run of cost-effective success can be had, and that silverware proves to be a bigger draw than names. The timing is perfect for the team to pursue the man behind the organization they appreciate most.
Success in Major League Soccer is difficult and requires more than any single player or coach can provide. It has to come from the top down. With Lagerwey in charge, a new club could soon be on their way to a rare type of success that satisfies both owners’ financial wishes and fans’ hunger for glory. Regardless of where he ends up, Lagerwey will be the most important signing of the offseason.