The year is 2014, and Real Salt Lake is coming off an underwhelming first year with Jeff Cassar as coach in which they lost particularly poorly in their first playoff. The bright spot was squad put together by then general manager Garth Lagerwey, who had, in seven years, steered the team toward an MLS Cup victory in 2009, and nearly toward another in 2013.
But his tenure was perhaps best known for his relationship with Jason Kreis, the coach with whom he formed a tight bond on their way toward those famous victories. Lagerwey, of course, was responsible for roster decisions, and that was something he’d largely got right over time.
But if we’re to ask ourselves what the team might look like now, it might be useful to fast forward a bit to some of the last decisions he made.
- Nat Borchers was traded to Portland Timbers for a small amount of allocation money. Garth Lagerwey, at the time: "I know Nat didn't want to leave, but we simply couldn't work out a way to protect him as part of the expansion process. Understanding that staying was Nat's first choice, we were able to at least give Nat the choice as to where to go."
- Days after Borchers was traded, the club signed Jamison Olave after his time at New York Red Bulls.
- Carlos Salcedo was protected by Real Salt Lake in the 2014 MLS Expansion Draft despite his asking that the club option not be picked up.
- Demar Phillips was signed by the club, though that move came two days after Lagerwey’s exit — presumably, at that point, now-GM Craig Waibel was involved before Lagerwey’s departure.
- Ned Grabavoy was left unprotected in the Expansion Draft, being picked up by New York City FC as a result. Chris Wingert was also picked up by Jason Kreis’s new side.
Those were moves made by a general manager in transition out of a club. I’d posit that, internally, it was entirely clear at this point that Lagerwey was going to leave the club. But in his wake, he left the Salcedo situation unresolved, traded away a veteran defender that would go on to win an MLS Cup with Portland Timbers, and left unprotected at least one valuable player in favor of a begging-to-leave budding Mexican international.
Let’s assume that these decisions might have been played differently should Lagerwey have stayed. Instead of taking an opportunity to bring in a top player to replace Salcedo and Borchers, Lagerwey brought in an aging veteran — a decision that wasn’t a terrible one, but it felt incomplete. The real trouble, for me, is that RSL’s next general manager (of course, he was technical director first), Craig Waibel, didn’t really have a chance to enact his own decision-making process here. He was left picking up the pieces of Lagerwey’s decisions.
What might be different now if Lagerwey had renewed his contract with the club?
- The transition between 2014 and 2015 might have been smoother, perhaps giving RSL a better opportunity to end the season well. Veteran experience wasn’t exactly in short supply, but a more cohesive squad could have made the playoffs instead of missing out. That might have only just staved off an inevitable transition period.
- Perhaps Real Salt Lake would have ended up drafting Cristian Roldan rather than executing an allocation-money trade — in theory, at least.
See, the interesting thing, to me, is that even on this roster, we can actively see Lagerwey’s fingerprints. But it also makes me wonder if, with Lagerwey’s penchant for signing out-of-sorts MLS players, we would have ended up with the most youth minutes played this year, or if we would’ve given the same priority to players like Justen Glad, Danilo Acosta and Brooks Lennon, among others. It’s certainly possible, but RSL struggled to develop young players for a substantial period.
Youth has become our mantra in the past three years, and if we had been without that, instead focusing on players later in their playing career, we might not be on the verge of really making the academy system work. But here we are, and it really is starting to seem like it could be our hallmark.