If a North American football club has an off beat club name, there is a good chance Garth Lagerwey has them on his playing resume. From the exuberantly titled New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers, through some Wildcats to the Wiz, Lagerwey has filled the goalkeeping jersey of some of the more entertaining names in North American soccer folklore. There were Flyers and Mariners in there too.
Lagerwey won’t have much opportunity for the old ‘marinering’ these days, seeing as he is now the General Manager of Real Salt Lake, the quirky club nestling in the dry Utah desert that defies the reality of a smaller than average payroll to be one of the most consistently performing MLS clubs in the last half decade.
Watching RSL training one day earlier this month, Lagerwey spoke to us on a wide range of matters, starting with the art of the football interview – and why goalkeepers are the best men to speak to about the game.
Prost Amerika: Many people unacquainted with your personal history won’t know that you come from the post of goalkeeper to being a general manager, and goalkeepers always make good interviews in any locker room. Not just your own–Nick Rimando–but Jon Busch as well, Kasey Keller, and Joe Cannon. Why are goalkeepers so good to interview?
Garth Lagerwey: I think we’re probably all a little crazy if I’m being honest. And I think secondly you spend a lot of time as a goalkeeper sitting back and observing and reading the game and you realize pretty quickly that your success is dependent on the performance of ten other people and maybe that makes us sympathetic to journalists whose success is dependent on others as well.
Prost Amerika: Real Salt Lake is a unique club. You’ve been here for quite a while. If I were to ask you what is the DNA of this club, what would you tell me?
Garth Lagerwey: The DNA is our motto originally espoused by Jason, which is “the team is the star.”
Prost Amerika: What does that mean in practise?
Garth Lagerwey: What we mean by that is we don’t sign big egos, and everybody’s part of the group. We institute that not just on the field with how we play and how we compete, we do it off the field as well. From a salary cap, from a general manager’s perspective, it is not just a team philosophy, it is an organizational philosophy.
I think that’s been one of the core underpinnings of our success as a group. We’ve been here four years and that’s how we market our team, that’s how we promote our team, that’s how we organize our team, and that’s how we play.
Prost Amerika: Would you accept the observation that this club uses the ‘us against the establishment’ mentality as a driving force?
Garth Lagerwey: I think when you’re in the smallest market in the league, and I wouldn’t say it’s just us, our attitude and spirit mirror our community.
I’ve lived here in Utah a little over four years, and people still talk about playoff games, the Jazz against the Lakers, and it has to do a lot with the smaller place against the bigger place.
I’d like to think that David Beckham sells all the tickets when the LA Galaxy are in town but I really think it’s a lot of the Salt Lake fans wanting to beat LA, beat the big city that’s perhaps the closest nearby.
I think it’s fair to say that we draw some strength sometimes from having a bit of a chip on our shoulder. We know that we’re not going to have the money to spend that some of the other big clubs are, and we have to be perhaps a bit more clever, a little bit better organized in order to succeed.
Prost Amerika: Would you accept the parallel then with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen?
Garth Lagerwey: [Laughs] I think I’ll defer to your historical wisdom. I know what you’re talking about but I don’t pretend to understand the entire context.
Prost Amerika: In more general terms?
Garth Lagerwey: I like to think that in America at least we’re the first club run this way. When Jay and I started, the thing of critical importance to us was that we treat our players better than anybody else does.
We were both in many many situations where, as the league was evolving, some situations on and off the field weren’t ideal, and we’re still the only staff in MLS from general manager on down that’s all former MLS players with five or more years’ experience. I think that as a result we’ve seen pretty much any situation our players have been in and we’re hopefully able to address it. I think that’s a real strength of us as a group.
Prost Amerika: Talking of DNA, the acronym MOBB describes the four guys that have stuck around a long time here: Morales, Olave, Borchers and Beckerman. Tell me what the MOBB contributes to the DNA of this club?
Garth Lagerwey: I’m trying to think of the order in which we signed them. Morales was signed before I got here, Beckerman was traded for before I got here. We got Olave in February of ‘08, and we got Borchers I think February or March of ‘08. In terms of the original acquisitions I have to give credit to Jason for the first two. What do they bring? They bring character.
Prost Amerika: As a unit? And why is that so important to a squad?
Garth Lagerwey: Jason, I, Jeff (Cassar), Miles (Joseph), all played in Dallas at different times but Jeff, Jason and I were together, and another time Miles, Jeff and Jason were together, and we had very divided locker rooms.
It wasn’t nasty or anything like that, but just the Hispanic players tended to speak Spanish and stick to themselves, and the Anglo players tended to speak English and stick to themselves. We wanted to really break down that dynamic and have a cohesive whole because we knew we wanted to import Latin players in order to play the way we wanted to play, and we knew we needed a link.
Prost Amerika:That link being …
Garth Lagerwey: I think one of the things that’s not spoken enough about with Javier Morales–we obviously think he’s one of the best players in the league, but aside from that he’s one of the best locker room people.
And he was the first of our players to come in and learn English dating back to Javi and Kyle, the little vignettes that they used to do with him and Beckerman.
But it was a real active attempt to be a bridge between the Hispanic and the Anglo aspects in the locker room and I think Javi’s of critical importance to us as a leader, and as a person.
Prost Amerika: On the point of Morales, you made the point that Morales is very important to this team, and a lot of fans were saying to me, even after the Seattle game (a 0-0 draw), he’ll never be the same again. On Saturday in the 3-0 win over Portland, he very much looked like he was. How much of a relief was that to you?
Garth Lagerwey: I stood up in my box at one point and said “Javi’s back!” That game more than any other game since the first leg of the Seattle playoffs where he was magnificent when we beat Seattle 3-0 here, which was enough to stand up over the two legs.
What we need now and what we all want is for Javi to be able to do that every week. He’s at a point now where his fitness and his health are far enough along and his mental state is positive enough. Again, people don’t talk about this much, but when you’re out for a year — or more, in Javi’s case — it drains you, it takes an effect on you. It’s something that’s difficult to cope with, and I think Javi deserves as much credit for the physical recovery he got last year, his mental recovery has been tremendous in this season, and I think he’s put himself in a position to succeed for the rest of the year.
Prost Amerika: Next on that list is Kyle Beckerman. He‘s not what you think of when you think Utah?
Garth Lagerwey: You’ve been in Utah long enough to see the countercultural aspects of this, and I think a guy like Beckerman mirrors that pretty amazingly.
And I won’t say that was necessarily what we planned for, but it has worked out absolutely swimmingly. We made Kyle captain I believe before the ‘08 season and it was something that took him a while to buy into.
When he came he wasn’t a defensive midfielder. He’d been a more attacking player for long parts of his career and so I give Kyle a lot the transition that that to me was our foundation.
If you’re going to play in our system, in the 4-4-2, the diamond, for me tactically you could argue that the most critical position is the base of the diamond because it’s so much work to ask of that player to individually handle all those duties. Everybody points out the number 10 and Morales and there’s no question that player has to be special but Kyle’s ability to read the game I think is amazing.
In the second part of the interview, Lagerwey defines the role of the General Manager, addresses the strengths of Jamison Olave, ducks a question about Don Garber with the panache of a lawyer, admits the end of the salary cap would be a worst case scenario for RSL, faces up to the spate of red cards and tackles the thorny subject of homer match announcers.