Is an MLS Cup championship team built any differently than a Supporters’ Shield-winning team?
And if so, what’s different?
Seattle Sounders FC won its first Supporters’ Shield last season. And it might have won its first MLS Cup if only Juninho hadn’t gotten a friendly bounce off the bottom of the left post 55 minutes from the end of the Western Conference final, which sent Los Angeles through instead.
With new general manager Garth Lagerwey now in place, the question becomes, how do you assemble a team in February that won’t give up that one fatal goal late in November?
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“As a GM I think you can drive yourself nuts in trying to win in a particular year or this way or that point,” Lagerwey said. “I think you have to broadly be as good as you can in as many areas as possible and get as many details as possible right, and then put your team in the best position to succeed.”
Lagerwey said one key is to have a roster stocked with players capable of making the big play at the biggest moment. But he conceded the 2014 Sounders had such players. And most of the best — Clint Dempsey, Obafemi Martins, Osvaldo Alonso, Chad Marshall and Brad Evans, among others — are back for another try in a new season that begins at home March 8 against MLS Cup runner-up New England.
One difference this season, Lagerwey implied, could come from using that returning roster in a somewhat different way.
”If you say MLS Cup is our goal, and Champions League is goal 1A, then by definition, Supporters’ Shield is goal No. 3,” he said. “So then you may make some lineup choices in certain games in certain situations where you prioritize the longer-term goal over that shorter term. You can do things like that. But … can I control who has a tap-in with 20 minutes left in the conference final? I can’t. And you never will be able to. And you can’t lose sleep over that stuff. Again, you’ve got to try to put as many things in place as you can to maximize your chances.”
Lagerwey — an MLS goalkeeper from 1996-2000 before becoming an attorney and soccer executive — said he believes one of the best ways to maximize a team’s chances is to be in the hunt every season.
That strategy paid off in his previous stop at Real Salt Lake, where RSL has made the playoffs a league-high seven consecutive seasons. It turned those chances into MLS Cup appearances in 2009 and 2013, and cashed the 2009 opportunity into a championship.
The philosophy that allowed relatively small-revenue Salt Lake to remain competitive season after season is one that Lagerwey hopes now to import to higher-revenue Seattle. That involves creating a sort of conveyer belt of talent: assembling a roster that can compete now, while having replacements ready as the needs arrive three and five years out.
“You look at your player acquisitions in that context with a longer-term view toward not just development, but performance,” he said. “So then when you talk about, ‘Can you win a title?’ I can look five years out as to what my pipeline looks like. I can look at what I have signed and what length contracts they are. I can look at what age they are. And then I can tell you — and this is the truth; people may not want to hear it all the time — in certain years you have a better chance than others.”
Lagerwey seems to like the Sounders’ chances this season. Much of the returning talent is veteran talent. Each of the previously listed key players has passed his 29th birthday. Yet Lagerwey has doubled down with even more veteran acquisitions in right back Tyrone Mears, who is 31, and reserve keeper Troy Perkins, who is 33.
The time seems to be now. But soon enough that conveyer belt will be asked to keep the window of opportunity open with another generation of talent.
“Just ask the Seahawks about how easy it is to win titles,” Lagerwey said. “… You’ve got to put your team in the best position to do that, and it definitely won’t happen every year. (The Sounders have) had a remarkable run of success already, making the playoffs (all six seasons), and you’ve had some pretty high expectations. But I like to think we have basically the same track record that we did at my old job, and hopefully we can take some things from there, combine it with all the people and all the talent here, and hopefully wind up with a better product.”