In Part 1 of an exclusive interview conducted with Real Salt Lake General Manager Garth Lagerwey in early July, he spoke about goalkeepers, the club’s DNA, Kyle Beckerman, the importance of Javier Morales to the organisation and other matters.
In Part 2, he talks about the importance of Jamison Olave to the team, the job of the GM, homer announcers, and how the lack of RSL players being voted into the All Star team has its advantages for the club.
And he shows his lawyering skills have not abandoned him completely with a swift and nimble ducking of a Don Garber question.
Prost Amerika: What is the general manager’s job?
Garth Lagerwey: The general manager’s job is to pick the players, do the contracts, manage the salary cap, handle the scouting, run the reserve team, run the youth academy. Other than that, not much.
Being less flippant, Jason does everything on the field, I do everything off the field. That’s kind of how we divide it up.
There are inevitably aspects of both in almost any decision you make. J and I; we’ve known each other 25 years now, we went to college together. I lived with his family at various times, we prepared for the MLS combine together, played in Dallas together, so we basically do everything together.
Prost Amerika: Is the GM then the link between the ‘suits’ and the ‘track suits’?
Garth Lagerwey: I’ve not heard it described that way but it’s fairly clever. Yeah. I really look at my job as having one foot in the business side and one foot in the soccer side and try and provide a cohesive link. When we talk about organizational philosophies I feel like the GM’s the guy that’s got to figure out how to integrate that vertically and make sure that my boss, Bill Manning, is in the same boat and we’re all rowing together as it were. I like that though: the link between the business suits and the track suits, or the suits and the track suits?
Prost Amerika: What does Jamison Olave bring to this organization?
Garth Lagerwey: Olave’s simply the best defender in the league athletically. He’s just gifted. He’s special. I don’t know that we’ll ever see another one like him. Borchers is the brains of the operation. Those two guys, one or both of them have been in the best of 11 or All Stars three years running or so. Those guys are the heart and soul of the team. We all try to attack, we all try to defend, but those guys clean up everybody else’s mistakes. Very impressed with both of them as people and as athletes.
Prost Amerika: You mentioned the All Star team. You managed to get left out in the voting again. Secretly is that a matter of great joy to you; A, because you’re not risking injury in the game and B, it can make that chip on your shoulder a little bigger?
Garth Lagerwey: We obviously still have a chance to have somebody named to reserve, so in that sense you don’t want to go head over teakettle, or anything like that, over it. But we’re not going to win any voting. This is what comes from being the smallest place. It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s just the numbers. When you’re from the smallest place you’re not likely to win fan votes, and I think our guys will draw motivation from having perhaps not been selected for that starting group.
Prost Amerika: Going into the bigger picture of Major League Soccer, it’s my view that the commissioner of the league does thing fairly well but could do things better. What’s your view?
Garth Lagerwey: I think the guys in the league have an impossible job, and that they’re never going to please everybody and there’s some very complex issues facing the league, and I have a lot of faith that the folks at the league level are very thoughtful, very intelligent, and they spend literally every waking hour night and day trying to work through these things and find the solution that works best for what are a lot of parties from broadcasters to journalists to sponsors to ticketholders to fans to supporters groups to players to coaches, it’s just an incredible diaspora of interests and I think it’s a very difficult job trying to figure out what’s best for the collective whole.
Prost Amerika: If I asked that question again but in a slightly different way would you answer it this time?
Garth Lagerwey: (laughs) No. Not a chance. I’m a lawyer by trade.
Prost Amerika: I figured. That’s why I never ask a question to which I don’t already know the answer.
Garth Lagerwey: That’s a good lawyer trick too.
Prost Amerika: Is the removal of the salary cap the worst case scenario for this club?
Garth Lagerwey: I think so for sure. I don’t think it’s going to happen. I think you could have other systems that could work, whether that’s a luxury tax or just some of the other mechanisms that are used in other professional sports in the U.S., but I know our owners are committed to some form of cost regulation to try to preserve parity in the league.
I think in the 18 years there’s been nine champions so I do think that every team having a chance at the beginning of the season is a desirable thing, to not have four clubs that are actually in contention for it at the beginning of every season, and it’s always the same four clubs.
“I think the trick is to preserve the parity while allowing good clubs to thrive”
Prost Amerika: Why does the enforced parity work in American sports?
Garth Lagerwey: I think the American way in that sense is perhaps superior–superior is the wrong word. It works better in our culture to have some form of parity. I think the trick is to preserve the parity while allowing good clubs to thrive, to keep teams together. If you’re in fact a better organization that you’re allowed to succeed, that the stress on parity isn’t such a downward pressure, that its effects just make everyone mediocre. You have to let the teams at the top succeed and thrive, and what you have to provide merely is an opportunity for clubs at the bottom. That’s maybe the trick and the balance.
Prost Amerika: What would you say to those who say it holds back the wealthier clubs?
Garth Lagerwey: I think maybe when the league started and there were ten teams you really had to have parity because every market, every team was brand new, they were starting, every team had to have that chance. The salary cap is not flat like it is in other sports. It’s actually regressive, so the better you play the less money you get to spend, and I think something like that when we talk now about competing on a world stage.
There wasn’t CONCACAF Champions League ten years ago and if you want to try and beat the best of Mexico and the best of the CONCACAF region, I think you have to move to something that looks a little bit closer to, I call it a flat cap but an equal distribution of resources so that at the very least the good teams don’t have to dismantle their teams every year.
Prost Amerika: You talked about Morales’ injury, one of several high profile injuries to creative players last year. Many people put forward solutions to that. One was the Designated Defender where each team gets an additional DP but it has to be a defender. Would that raise the standard and quality of defending and maybe make these injuries less likely?
Garth Lagerwey: It’s an interesting idea Steve. I’ve not heard that a lot. You hear more often at a league level that we want to have more skillful attackers, that if you’re talking about an American audience you want attractive entertaining attacking type soccer, aggressive soccer so as a practical matter I think you’re going to see more offensive players as defensive players brought in overall. There are clear exceptions, Nesta among them obviously with Montreal .
Prost Amerika: But a downside of that is an imbalance between the skill set of the attackers and defending?
Garth Lagerwey: I don’t mean to dismiss the point. I think the idea is that hopefully through better refereeing—and I wouldn’t even say better, because I think it has to do with refereeing a stricter game, and again if you look at other leagues in our country and you’re going to hear me say things like this all the time: the NBA in the 90s was a clutch and grab league. Once they figured it out then creative players get through.
The NHL in the early 2000s was a clutch and grab league., and once they freed that up, and players could skate, and run at players, it made the league more attractive. I think a lot of what we’re trying to do is free up attacking players to be successful.
“I felt as a broadcaster if you were just a homer, you really were undermining your own credibility”
Prost Amerika: Is tighter refereeing the only way?
Garth Lagerwey: So to your point, one way might well be to find more skillful defenders that aren’t lunging into tackles. I would argue that if we police our game a little more tightly we’re going to see more of that exciting attractive soccer and pulling down on jersey tugs and tackles and things like that and if we as a league commit to that–and I do think that we’ve made progress this year. I think with the disciplinary committee’s decisions. Again you want to talk about a thankless job.
They’re never going to get them right and the fans are always going to rail when it’s their guy but they’ve cut down on some of these tackles. We see fewer of these rash challenges and we’ve got to stick with it and we’ve got to stay the course and no doubt when it happens to the home club it’s always going to be viewed negatively, and I know they understand that, and that’s what makes the job awful. But I think that is an important initiative for the league in terms of making it a better league to play in.
Prost Amerika: Talking of stricter refereeing and RSL, your club had quite a number of red cards the first half of last year. Were you not one of those complaining about the discipline being applied to your team?
Garth Lagerwey: If I’m being honest when the red cards happen against you, you always try to remember these interviews and these moments of clarity, as they were.
But I thought two of our red cards last year were difficult.
I thought that Borchers’ red card in the third minute where he cleared the ball off Feilhaber and there was no contact, and then there was a Collen Warner red card where the referee thought the ball hit his hand but it hit his shoulder right here. Those I would say are errors in judgment. It’s not we’ve been harped on or it’s a difficult decision or anything like that.
I’m OK with any kind of 50-50. It’s the referee’s judgment. He has to call the game the way he sees fit, and our players need to govern themselves in a way that avoids red cards.And we need to provide our players with the information to let them know what is likely to be considered a red card. I think it’s an ongoing process to both be a good solid team, a competitive team, and yet not go into those tackles, not do those things that are going to put you at red card risk.
Prost Amerika: Most American sports commentators and MLS commentators and announcers are employed by the home team. Is that good or bad for the game?
Garth Lagerwey: That’s an interesting one. I was a broadcaster for DC United for three or four years before I took this job out here. I think in a perfect world maybe everybody’s objective.and your employer’s not the one that’s perceived to be dictating what’s said. That said, I know I’ve never called Brian Dunseth or Bill Riley to tell them to say anything, or to describe a game a certain way and I think that when our announcers are objective I think they have a far better chance to resonate with their fans and be successful.
I know that’s what I felt as a broadcaster that if you were just a homer, you really were undermining your own credibility. I know for us and for Brian Dunseth in particular who is doing a lot of national telecasts, I know he strives to remember his place in the broadcasting pantheon and not just calling an RSL game when he’s here.
If you think Brian Dunseth allows anyone to dictate to him, wait till the next article in his “So Seth Dunny” series that a quote that will have every fan talking.