Jay Bell stops by TSG, does interview
The 2011-2012 offseason has proven to be one of the most eventful in MLS’ 17-year history.
MLS clubs flexed more muscle than ever in the CONCACAF and CONMEBOL transfer markets, especially in bringing in another 300 Colombians. Seattle and New York continued to raid Scandinavia and several clubs made seemingly sensible DP signings (Boyd, Portland; Robson, Vancouver; Salihi, DC), though Houston continues to be spurned by DP candidates.
Top teams and bottom teams alike made overhauls of their rosters. The Philadelphia Union will be almost unrecognizable to the team from last season. Chivas USA continues the transformation under Robin Fraser. The Seattle Sounders and FC Dallas had some roster turnover despite their high finishes in 2011. The Los Angeles Galaxy were busy, but ended up being busy re-assembling the super-team that everyone thought was done after the MLS Cup victory + Edson Buddle and Marcelo Sarvas.
Meanwhile, Real Salt Lake has made some of the fewest acquisitions in the league, along with the Houston Dynamo, despite losing numerous players through various avenues. That list includes: Jean Alexandre (traded to SJ), Arturo Alvarez (free transfer), Nelson Gonzalez (loan ended), Robbie Russell (traded to DC), Collen Warner (expansion draft) and Andy Williams (retired). The team also released, waived or did not re-sign another five players.
Instead, RSL has decided to spend funds keeping some of its core players for the next several years and “replenishing” its roster with draft picks and players signed after trials.
TSG was able to speak with GM Garth Lagerway about RSL’s team-building philosophy as the team prepares for MLS, US Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League competition in 2012.
Jay Bell, The Shin Guardian: Do you have a specific philosophy when it comes to players that you would like to bring in?
Garth Lagerway: Yeah, I guess we do in the sense that we always look at personality and how they behave off the field as well as how they play on it. We’re looking for good people as well as good soccer players.
TSG: I think I have heard before, at least a few times, that Jason [Kreis] has met with a player before you have signed him. Is that a regular occurrence or does that just happen on certain occasions?
GL: It is an always thing. Jason or I or both of us will meet with every player before we sign them. It is the point of the process that we insist on in terms of getting to know them as people.
TSG: This was a big offseason for MLS. The league brought in a ton of players from Central America and South America. I think RSL was already leading the way with a lot of players like Saborio and Espindola. What do you think it says about MLS breaking more into those transfer markets and the way RSL was already doing that.
GL: I think back to my days with DC United as the color commentator and the South American players that they had there like Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno. Going back, I played with Carlos Valderrama in Miami. I think in the early days of the league Jorge Campos was a big player. I think that there is a pretty good tradition of signing Latin American players, so I don’t think we have re-invented the wheel or anything like that.
We have had success. We want to play a possession-style game and we have been very cognitive of going out and finding players that can play in our system. With that in mind, South America has proven to be a very fruitful market for us.
We have a new Argentine in camp with us now that we drafted, Emiliano Bonfigli, and he’s done pretty well so far as well. There is a lot that we are going to continue to look at and even the college kids that we drafted – Sebastian Velazquez is of Colombian heritage and Enzo Martinez is of Uruguayan heritage – both of those guys look to be pretty good fits in terms of how we want to play. I think that has to do with how they grow up and their understanding of the game.
TSG: And even some of the guys that you have brought in on a permanent basis now, you had already had loaned before with Paulo Jr. and Yordany [Alvarez] coming in.
GL: Paulo is of Brazilian background and Yordany is of Cuban background. It is funny when you go down this list, you don’t realize or appreciate how many folks of Latin descent are on the club. It is pretty substantial when you look at it that way.
TSG: I think some of the offseason acquisitions you have made might have flown under the radar. When were some of these players brought in: Samir Bengelloun, Lewis Neal…I know Jonny Steele was a couple of weeks ago? And I think you have a new Japanese outside back too.
GL: Yes, Terukaza Tanaka is the Japanese player. We signed him in January. Of the other guys, Jonny Steele, we actually offered a contract to him a couple of years ago and he turned it down to stay in the minor leagues. He has been on trial with us for the beginning of the season.
Then you have Lewis Neal and Bengalloun and those are both folks that had trialed with us at some point last year for a brief period and we wanted to bring them in for a longer look. So we have had them in for the first camp.
TSG: I think more than probably any of the other top teams in the league this year, you might have lost more pieces during the offseason, but you were able to bring in players that you were already familiar with. How do you think about RSL’s approach, as opposed to Seattle and Los Angeles who were up there with you, but have probably done more to their roster this offseason than you have?
GL: We felt like we had a lot of injuries last year and that, when we were healthy, we felt like we were one of the better teams in the league. Obviously, we were able to finish third. We played basically the whole season without Javi Morales. We felt like if we were able to keep the core elements of our team together and replenish the bottom half of our roster, that that is what would set us up for long-term success.
Seattle has definitely done more than we have. LA, I think, by the end probably hasn’t. If you look at bringing back Juninho and bringing back Buddle, these are all players that have played them before. Sarvas is the only guy that comes to mind as a big new player for them.
I think in that sense we have had pretty consistent approaches where we have identified players that have been successful for us, as has LA, and we have done everything we can to try to retain those players. That is stuff that I would say we have in common.
TSG: Speaking of long-term, you maybe more than a lot of other MLS teams have locked down some of your key players on longer contracts and you have them in place for the next few years.
GL: We’ve tried to do that. We’ve tried to preach stability. We’ve tried to preach that the team is the star and that is true off the field as well as on the field. Off the field, what that means is that guys are willing to take a little bit less money in exchange for being part of the group and that is something that we pursue.
TSG: With this approach, you have definitely had success over the last few years. Some of the guys are approaching 30 or older. Do you think that you can stay ahead of the curve with this approach?
GL: I think we have to be very careful about it. Nothing last forever. One of the ideas behind the transitioning our roster right now is we are trying to get a head start on that process. The reality is we have a number of players that are really, really good. Those guys make a pretty good living. So you’re not going to be able to replace them dollar for dollar, unless you choose to move those guys out.
In 2009, we won the title, in 2010 we were the first MLS team to win a CONCACAF [Champions League] group, in 2011 we went to the CONCACAF [Champions League] final and finished third in the league. I think we have had a pretty good run of success.
I think we owe it to those guys to keep them together to take another run at an MLS Cup and hopefully even our first CONCACAF championship. Those are the things that I think we are most focused on. I think it is important to emphasize, as we get older, the window is closing and we have to try to win championships.
We’ve played some good soccer and we haven’t won titles. We need to win multiple titles, not just one to be considered a success.
TSG: You lost several players and you said that you worked on replenishing the bottom half of your roster, how do you think the team’s depth will hold up with multiple competitions yet again this year?
GL: We’ll see. We have brought in kids that we think are young and talented. By definition, they are kids. So, they are going to lack some experience and we will see if they are able to step up or not.
I have always tried to avoid the prediction game because, ultimately, it is the players that will decide it. We can feel as good as we like right now. At the end of the day, when those kids step on the field in a hostile venue in a CONCACAF Champions League game, they’re the ones that will let us know whether they are ready or not.
We will do the best we can to prepare them. We will do the best we can to make every training session good so that they are in a competitive environment on a daily basis so the game is not a shock to them. At the end of the day we’ll find out if we’re right a couple of months from now.
TSG: How are some of the young guys being brought into the team?
GL: We drafted a number of guys. We re-signed Yordany [Alvarez] and Paulo [Jr.]. I think that is certainly the big mechanism. We drafted Sebastian [Velazquez], we drafted Diogo [de Almeida], We drafted Enzo [Martinez]. We traded for Leone Cruz in the draft. We have a couple of academy kids working out with us.
For the most part, most of those kids are all draft picks. Then there are several trialists as well. You mentioned a couple like Bengalloun, Lewis Neal, Tanaka and Jonny Steele.
TSG: So which of those guys are under contract?
GL: Tanaka is under contract currently.
[RSL announced on the afternoon of Thursday, Feb. 16 that the team had released trialists Samir Bengelloun, Lewis Neal and Wes Knight.]
TSG: The season is not too far away now. Is there anyone else that you might be looking to bring in before the season starts?
GL: We are always looking for players. We will have a couple of trialists in Tucson. We are still working on that. We will be working on that until we get down to Tucson.
Any preseason would be remiss if you didn’t have players looking for a spot. This is the time of the year to do that.
TSG: The signings that always make the headlines are the Designated Player signings. I know you used, I believe, a transfer fee that made Saborio a Designated Player. Are there any other potential DP signings on the horizon?
That’s not who we are. We’ll leave the DP signings to the big markets. The Sabo thing was a one-off and had special circumstances behind it. We were playing in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal.
We are about being better collectively than the sum of our parts. DP’s don’t really fit in to our mentality very easily.
TSG: Could you see another situation where you would have to use a Designated Player slot because of a transfer fee again?
GL: Certainly we would do that again. If that was something that we chose to do, pursue a DP, and we had to pay a transfer fee for him., that is something that we would consider.
To be clear, we’re not out looking for DP’s right now.
TSG: I’m out of questions.
GL: Thanks, Jay. It was nice to meet you. It was good talking to you, man.
TSG: Thanks for talking with me.