John McGrath

McGrath: New GM has big dreams for Sounders

Garth Lagerwey, the new general manager of Seattle Sounders FC, sees the future of his soccer team in a big picture. Very big, as in, from here to Kathmandu big.

Winning a first MLS Cup is the immediate and obvious priority for a club that begins its seventh season Sunday night, but Lagerwey has plans that go far beyond possession of an elusive trophy.

In the world according to Garth, Sounders FC someday will carry the same name recognition as Real Madrid and Manchester United. It may sound crazy, but Lagerwey — a Duke graduate who earned a law degree at Georgetown and played five MLS seasons as a goalkeeper — is keeping his feet on the ground as he reaches for the stars.

“There’s no reason we can’t become a global brand,” Lagerwey said Friday. “That should be our goal. That may come off as presumptuous or even naive. But those are the the kind of things we’re going to try to achieve, and I think our league has similar ambitions.”

Phase One of Lagerwey’s grand plan will be unveiled March 24, when the Sounders face Club Tijuana at CenturyLink Field. Lagerway arranged the match because it corresponds with an open weekend on Seattle’s MLS schedule, but fans shouldn’t expect a conventional friendly against the Liga MX powerhouse.

Tijuana is a potential rival from CONCACAF — an eye-chart jumble that stands for the Confederation of North American, Central American and Caribbean Association of Football Clubs — which kicks off its 2015-16 Champions League competition in August and concludes the following May.

The Champions League victor is awarded a berth in the FIFA Club World Cup, won in 2014 by Real Madrid. The dots aren’t difficult to connect.

“Seattle already is on the map — it’s on a lot of maps — but if you want to broaden this brand, if you want to continuously grow it, you have to be regionally known,” Lagerwey said. “By regional, I mean from the North Pole to the Panama Canal. That’s the range we compete in.

“We want to play for trophies, not friendlies,” Lagerwey continued. “That’s my background, that’s where I come from. I want to play Chelsea and I want to play Man U, but I want to play them for the club World Cup. I don’t want to play in a friendly where we play our first team for a couple of minutes and it’s a spectacle, a show.”

Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer hired Lagerwey after his contract expired with Real Salt Lake. During his seven seasons as GM, Lagerwey built the fledgling franchise into the 2009 MLS champions. But he clearly regards RSL’s 3-2 aggregate score defeat to Monterrey, with the 2011 Champions League trophy at stake, as his former team’s signature achievement.

Lagerwey wasn’t dissatisfied in Salt Lake so much as restless. He’s the kind of boss who thinks very good isn’t good enough if there’s a chance to be great, and in his pursuit of greatness, the Sounders offered a deeper feeder-system talent pool — and a much larger market — than Salt Lake did.

“I didn’t come here to run a mediocre club,” he said. “I came here because I thought there was more ambition here than where I was. Now it’s my job to take the resources we have here, try to harness them and see if I can fulfill those ambitions.”

Lagerwey isn’t shy about identifying his ambitions for 2015: an MLS Cup, advancement in the Champions League tournament, and obliterating any notions Seattle’s sole relevance in international soccer is as a pleasant destination for a midsummer friendly.

“It’s part of respecting ourselves as our league grows and our franchise grows,” Lagerwey said. “We’ve got to respect ourselves. If we respect ourselves and believe we are worthy of taking on the best teams in our region, that will establish the respect we are seeking in a much more meaningful way than playing a fantasy team once every couple years in the summer.”

Trophies, not friendlies. Got it.

As Lagerwey was wrapping up interviews on Sounders Media Day, he mentioned he was from the Chicago area.

“What part?” I asked.

“Elmhurst,” he said.

Turns out his home town is also my home town. We both went to York High School, albeit a generation apart: I graduated in 1972, the year he was born, but I’m sure some of the families I know he knows, too. We’ve probably been inside the same houses.

It’s a small world. No wonder Garth Lagerwey is convinced the Sounders can conquer it.

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