SEATTLE – A blade of grass can depict how important Chris Henderson was to the Sounders FC franchise.
Any soccer player can share the nuances of play when the blade is artificial or natural turf. Henderson can tell you at least 50 players from around the globe who excel on either or both and whether they’re worth signing.
Since the club’s inception in 2008, Henderson has provided the Sounders with that type of information as sporting director and vice president of soccer. A blend of soccer savvy and salesman charm that has helped lure international stars such as Nico Lodeiro (Uruguay), Raul Ruidiaz (Peru), Djimi Traore (France), Nouhou (Cameroon) and Kim Kee-hee (South Korea) to Henderson’s native Pacific Northwest to win four U.S. Open Cups, four Cascadia Cups, two Major League Soccer Cups and one Supporters’ Shield within Henderson’s 13 seasons.
In January, the Cascade (Everett) High alum uprooted himself with the aim to seed another MLS franchise in Inter Miami CF.
Henderson’s parting gift is one of the most Washington-centric Sounders rosters he’s helped the club design. Gone is one of MLS’s best homegrown players in forward Jordan Morris, whose loan to Swansea City AFC in Wales is a windfall for the 2021 salary cap. Arriving are two homecomings and a plan to play five teenagers developed through the club’s academy system.
Henderson’s departure will leave behind a void, but is what’s left behind still enough to continue the club’s unprecedented run of success?
Not a rebuild
Garth Lagerwey was careful with his words. In announcing the deal that sent Morris to the EFL Championship in January, the Sounders general manager and president of soccer insisted the roster moves don’t signify a rebuild.
Voids like Henderson and Morris feel like swiping Mount Rainier and the Space Needle from view. From Lagerwey’s perspective, other gems are still in view.
The Sounders retained their technical staff, including coach Brian Schmetzer, who signed a deal this offseason that will keep him in Seattle through 2023. The Nathan Hale (Seattle) High alum led the club to the MLS Cup final in four of the past five seasons. While keeper Stefan Frei and Ruidiaz, a forward, are in contract negotiations, both are expected to also sign through the 2023 season.
Lodeiro, who was named to the league’s 2020 Best XI team with Morris and Ruidiaz, is signed through 2023 along with defender Yeimar and midfielder Cristian Roldan. There’s an option to pick up the contract of midfielder Joao Paulo through 2023, too.
It’s a formidable core that helped the Sounders win every home match but one, average a franchise-best 2.0 goals per game and advance to the MLS Cup amid a pandemic. Yet the Sounders’ performance in the league final against the Columbus Crew SC – a 3-0 defeat – was alarming, as was the team’s decision to not start veteran defenders Gustav Svensson and Kelvin Leerdam.
Now, those key players are gone – with Svensson signing a deal to play in China and Leerdam, who’s regarded as one of the best right backs in MLS, is out of contract.
“We went all in to try to be a dynasty, to try to win at least three titles,” Lagerwey said. “We fell short of our goal ultimately in Columbus and that stunk. That was embarrassing and a little humiliating and a real bummer way to end the year. … We took our best shot and now we’re going to rebuild our team in this new way. Hopefully, it’s going to come back better than ever.”
Lagerwey caught himself to describe the Sounders’ immediate future plans.
“Sorry, I used that word I hate. We’re not ‘rebuilding’ anything. We are retooling around our core. This is not a rebuild. We’re going to be contenders this year.”
Lagerwey worked with Henderson this offseason as the club moves to pursue a league-record 13th playoff berth, but swapping in promising Seattle-area players doesn’t make up for the loss of local star Morris.
Veteran midfielder Kelyn Rowe (Federal Way, Washington) and keeper Spencer Richey (Seattle) are fulfilling dreams of playing for their home-state’s MLS club. They join defender Jimmy Medranda (Colombia), a trade pickup from Nashville SC, as talented players who need to prove themselves. Medranda hasn’t cracked 20 starts since 2017 while Rowe and Richey haven’t surpassed 20 starts the past two seasons.
Regardless, none of them is a winger.
Without Morris, the club’s second-leading goal scorer last season (10), Lagerwey and Schmetzer point to the youth.
The USL canceled its season last year and injuries kept homegrown midfielders Danny Leyva and Shandon Hopeau from building on their impressive 2019 stints with the first team. All eyes also will be on midfielder Ethan Dobbelaere, a homegrown player from Seattle, and Josh Atencio, who’s from Bellevue, to build from their 2020 appearances.
“It doesn’t go all the way out the window,” Schmetzer said in January of the club’s playing strategy during a Sounder at Heart podcast. “We do have exciting players, we do have an exciting team. Taking Jordan out of that, we’ll have to rework some of that, but we still have good pieces there.”
While MLS has yet to release the schedule, each club will play a 34-game regular season. The league plans to kick off April 17 with training camp opening no earlier than Monday. The MLS Players Association negotiated a third version of the collective-bargaining agreement because owners aren’t confident every market will be able to have fans in attendance because of the pandemic.
Seattle didn’t have fans when play resumed last fall and it’s unclear if they will when the 2021 season begins. But that might be beneficial if the club’s youth movement doesn’t yield immediate results.
Any setback will put a spotlight on Henderson’s absence.
“As much as Chris quite rightfully gets the absolute lion’s share of the credit and was the single-most important piece, we do have other pieces,” Lagerwey said. “As with any transition, you’re going to take a step back first. But hopefully we can build it back one more time.”
The Sounders also will benefit from Henderson’s younger brother Sean, who is the club’s director of scouting and has worked with Chris to create a global player database. Chris isn’t running off with the “book of business,” according to Lagerwey.
Expectations are still high and are embedded in the turf of Lumen Field. The Sounders have won too much for too long for fans not to expect a winning club, and with Lodeiro, Ruidiaz and Schmetzer leading the way, it’s not a stretch to think they can get back to at least another Western Conference title match in 2021.
“Nico and Raul, in particular, are really special players,” Lagerwey said. “They’re top-10 players in MLS. They just don’t come around every day and we need to take advantage of their (prominence) as best as we possibly can and continue to field really competitive teams. As long as we have those guys, that core of six guys, and a bunch of good supporting guys, we’re going to contend every single year.”
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