Eales was a likable figure, his connection with the fans and media (not to mention the tweets) part of the charm of Atlanta United in its early days. But Atlanta were a much different club at his departure for better or worse: Sure, there was the MLS Cup victory in 2018 and the U.S. Open Cup and Campeones Cup in 2019, but the team as a whole was adrift and were closer to the bottom of the table than the top,
Enter Garth Lagerwey. And it’s fair to say that Arthur Blank and Steve Cannon hit a home run with this hire.
Saying that Lagerwey’s resumé is credible is an understatement: after a professional career, he turned to law (and punditry) before being hired as a 35-year-old as Real Salt Lake’s general manager in 2007. RSL won MLS Cup in 2009, was a finalist in 2013, and made it to the Concacaf Champions League final in 2011. That success carried over to Seattle after his arrival in Dec. 2014 as the Sounders won a pair of MLS Cups in 2016 and 2019 and were runner-ups in 2017 and 2020. Then came their crowning achievement and, really the league’s crowning achievement: a Concacaf Champions League triumph over Pumas in 2022. Seattle’s stretch of never finishing worse than 4th in its conference (including a span of 2nd-place finishes from 2017-2021) carried on under Lagerwey until 2022, the first time it missed the playoffs in its history.
With that said, it seemed that Lagerwey had nothing much more to prove after helping shape the Sounders into what they are today. Sure, Seattle’s Alliance (its season ticket holders) overwhelmingly opted to keep Lagerwey as GM during its quadrennial vote days prior, the only place in the league where that process takes place. But his contract still needed to be renewed, and there just so happened to be a club with massive ambitions in the Southeast helmed by an owner with pockets deep enough to match or exceed any offer.
That brings us to where we are now. Per the AJC’s Doug Roberson, Atlanta made an offer to Lagerwey on Friday, and after his acceptance, the deal was signed on Nov. 21. He’ll be introduced to media as the club’s president and CEO on Nov. 29.
Here’s what this means for Atlanta United. From Day 1, its stated goal was to win as many trophies as possible and make an impact on both the American and North American football stages. Today, to hear players mention that goal nowadays seems rehearsed and hollow as simply getting to the playoffs has proven a challenge. That’s not to note the failed Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martinez signings, bloated contract offers to players that didn’t pan out, and the Josef Martinez saga. Under Lagerwey, does that mean the original player acquisition approach will automatically go out the window? Not quite. But it does mean a more thoughtful look at who Atlanta brings in versus going for loud, splashy moves. (It does bear mentioning that Seattle’s most expensive purchase under Lagerwey was the $7 million-plus it spent on Raúl Ruidíaz.) Lagerwey’s hiring means a fresh start and a renewed effort toward the original goal of making Atlanta a top club; after all, he actually has won multiple trophies and helped Seattle make an impact throughout the U.S. and North America, and dare I say globally to some extent.
What does this mean for Lagerwey? It’s the overall responsibilities he’ll have in Atlanta that he didn’t necessarily have in Seattle: here, Lagerwey will have oversight of the organization from top-to-bottom. Sounder at Heart’s Jeremiah Oshan certainly knows Lagerwey better than I do and provided a little insight into just that:
...[T]here have been hints that Lagerwey had bigger ambitions than the title of general manager or even “President of Soccer” could fully satisfy. Those ambitions first came into focus in 2019...[as] there were rumors linking Lagerwey to the Chicago Fire where Nelson Rodriguez was in charge. In shooting down those rumors, though, Lagerwey let it be known that the idea of running a whole organization was appealing to him. Over the years, I’ve asked him about that both on and off the record. Lagerwey never really suggested he was unhappy or unfulfilled here... but it also became clear that he was sort of topping out at what he could accomplish, professionally.
That’s not to say it won’t be difficult as there’s significant unrest among the fanbase due to Atlanta’s on-field performance and the Martinez situation. Gonzalo Pineda, who’s obviously very familiar with Lagerwey, has been the target of massive criticism, as has technical director Carlos Bocanegra. While Lagerwey understands he won’t have a magic wand to make things instantly better I’m sure he’ll relish the challenge of helping Atlanta get back on the right track and enjoy a much wider breadth of influence he may not have had in his previous role.
In short, the hiring of Garth Lagerwey could be looked at as a reboot of Atlanta United in some respects. The club’s ambitions have withered away and left it a shadow of its earlier self. It’s slowly, but surely, losing the support it enjoyed when it first entered MLS. With one of the league’s most successful executives now in its front office, a new (and, hopefully, exciting and winning) era of Atlanta United is now underway.