Q&A: Atlanta United’s Garth Lagerwey

Garth Lagerwey is sitting in his new office at Atlanta United’s training center in Marietta.

Gone from over the computer screen is the white board that his predecessor, Darren Eales, had and would write funny lists on for media members to see during his occasional press conference on Zoom.

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Lagerwey is about to turn the page on his second month as Atlanta United’s second president. He hasn’t really moved into the office yet because he and his family are finalizing their move from Seattle, where he was general manager, to Atlanta.

It has been an eventful few weeks. The club has cut ties with many players, notably Josef Martinez, as they begin what Lagerwey refers to as a “reset.” It’s a word the supporters may not like, but the club has missed the playoffs in two of the past three years. It hasn’t won a playoff game since 2019.

Lagerwey is here, he hopes, to fix that, by tweaking the culture, strengthening the analytics, establishing a firmer base of salary structures for players, and by taking advantage of the new Apple TV deal and of the exposure the club and city will get from World Cup 2026.

Some portions of the questions and answers have been edited for clarity or brevity.

Q: One of the things you talked about at your introductory press conference was culture. How would you define the culture that you’ve come into? And how do you want to improve that culture?

A: Sure. What I would say is my cultural training was at the law firm, and I’m sure people are gonna roll their eyes at that and be like, really, Fortune 500 law firm?

When I worked there, we were trained, we were taught that you might be on a billion-dollar case, and as the junior associate, you might be responsible for 1% of that case, but it was yours to own. And if you did, well, you’d get more work to do. You look at working at a law firm as a pie-eating contest where the prize is eating more pie. But you would do the work. And the point was that you were valued but you were expected to contribute on whatever your portion was. And so it creates a really collaborative culture. It had a really flat management structure.

I was in the process of interviewing for the RSL (Real Salt Lake) job way back in 2007, I guess, the managing partner of the firm of Latham (& Watkins) called me in. My hours were down a little bit. So I’m flying out to Salt Lake City to interview and up to New York to meet with the league people. And so I was a little concerned when I was going in there, I was like, is this gonna be all she wrote, like, today, and I didn’t have the job. So I was nervous.

And the managing partner came in, Eric Bernthal, I’ll never forget this, and he said, ‘Hey, your hours are down, what’s going on?‘

And I said, ‘Well, I’m trying to get this job as the general manager for Real Salt Lake.’

And he’s like, ‘General counsel, and you’re helping with the league?’

And I was like, ‘No, no, general manager.’

He’s a sports fan.

So he’s like, ‘Pick-the-players general manager?’

And I was‚ ‘Yeah.’

And he’s like, ‘in the soccer league?’

And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’

He’s, ‘in Salt Lake City?’

So there’s some of that. But then he reflected, and he’s like, ‘Look, I’ll make you deal. I think this is a really cool opportunity for the firm. And I would like to help negotiate your contract, and in exchange, I ask you to come back and speak to the associates. And maybe we use you on some recruiting literature going forward.

I tell the story to illustrate this idea of it’s not just that it was a collaborative culture, but that it was not a top-down culture. I could speak to the managing partner, and he could see it was an unusual situation and think that I was adding value, not detracting from the enterprise. And so culturally that’s something that I want to bring here to Atlanta United to make everybody feel heard and feel valued. To be part of this.

One of the things that came up in the interview, when they were interviewing me for the job, was this belief that internally, everyone kind of had to do everything for the first five years because it was a startup, right? I mean, no one had ever run a soccer team in Atlanta before, right? And you had all this incredible sports expertise, entertainment expertise, and facilities expertise. But nobody’s done this. Nobody’s run a soccer team, right? And so everybody kind of had to kind of figure it out on the fly. So I think there’s some advantage that we can create, again, with my corporate background to say, hey, we’re gonna put a little bit more structure around here, but we’re gonna do the structure in a collaborative way. And hopefully, from a culture standpoint, then everyone is going to be included in the success of the franchise. And that’s a good way to move forward.

And we talked about that stuff, I think about locker rooms. But one of my core beliefs is business isn’t different than sports. You get a report card every week, and people write about it in the paper, and that’s different. But the culture piece, the thing that underpins the long-term success, if you have good process, and you have good people, and you do things the same way, and it’s predictable, and you’re transparent, and you’re willing to give people feedback, I think all those things roll into having a good culture. And that’s certainly what we’re going to try to do here.

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Q: Do you have any specific examples of that yet?

A: I’ll tell you two stories. My background, I’m pretty heavy into analytics, right? And in Seattle, we had some of the best stuff in MLS and some cutting-edge stuff. On paper, there was one analyst here in Atlanta. So I said, ‘well, I can make that better, right?’

I started to get some inkling, actually in the interview, because Rich McKay was in the interview from the Falcons, and it was very clear that the Falcons, in fact, had a robust analytics operation. Karl Pierburg, who runs all the analytics for Arthur Blank Sports and Entertainment, he’s been super helpful in trying to stand up a more robust analytics arm for Atlanta United.

I don’t know if you’ve seen, but Arjun (Balaraman), our head analyst, sits with Jonathan Spector, our head of scouting, in a shared office. Culturally, that’s incredible. It’s not some kind of rivalry (such as) we’re gonna value scouting or we’re gonna value data. We’re already using it together. So long, long way to say, I’ve been pleasantly surprised about the use of data already, that predated me, because I think we have a really, really strong foundation.

And then we, on top of that, we’re looking at hiring a position, a data-engineer position, to add so that person can do some coding, which will then free up Arjun to do more strategic stuff. And then I brought in, and I’ll tell you this, this is not public, but we’re working on an agreement with Source Football. And that’s the consulting company of Ravi Ramineni. Ravi, you probably don’t know here, but he was my analyst for eight years at the Sounders. So he left, he ran, that he’s got a startup analytics company called SRC FTBL. And we’ve contracted, we’re in the process of doing a contract, with them. And so he’s gonna be able to come in and help us with our analytics here and to mentor Arjun and hopefully help Arjun become the next, Ravi. So we’re really, really excited about that. And that’s one example.

Q: Analytics for player scouting or analytics for self-scouting?

A: Both, all of the above. I think there’s, I think there are three buckets. I think there is the player recruitment, which is probably the focus in the first phase, just because of the deadlines with that. Now, as we talked about, we’re now in the reset part of we’re starting to acquire players. And now that we’ve got to reset, then you have (that manager) Gonzalo (Pineda) knows Ravi very well, from Seattle. as well. So it’s a really good fit, I think, because culturally, again, you don’t have any resistance from the coaching staff. You have a young coach who is used to data, and there’s Ravi, so he’ll help us scouting opposition, will help with self-scouting.

Ravi’s wife, Sarah, is part of the team as well. And Sarah’s background is she set up the original analytics for Arsenal, and did a bunch of stuff with the academy.

So we think that it’s gonna have a positive impact in terms of how we set up our player development.

And then you have a last piece, which is, Ravi and Sarah are literally pioneers in their fields. And to have Arjun as a young analyst, to have them as mentors, I think is going to be enormously powerful for his growth and development as well. So overall, I just think we’re going to be very robust from an analytics, scouting, and linked up to these AMBSE resources with the Falcons. (I) think there’s just tremendous potential in that space in terms of how we sign players going forward in particular, but also how we develop players and how we assess ourselves and other teams.

Q: The collaborative atmosphere you talked about internally, what plans, if any, are there for supporters to be able to tell you what they’re looking for, what they want?

A: I’ve had one meeting with supporters, so far, in person, and that’s certainly something that will continue on a regular basis.

Again, I think I’m gonna be different than Darren. I don’t know that I’m gonna be in the parking lot for every game or anything like that. And, it’s not even that much of a stylistic difference, but just in startup mode, that’s the kind of thing that you do. And when you’re trying to establish corporate structures and to try to be process-oriented, it might be more important to have more organized sit-downs with supporters, as opposed to off the cuff, doing shots in the parking lot. As fun as that is to do.

I’m coming from a club in Seattle where literally my job was voted on every four years (by supporters). And there were two votes, 87% in one, one 90% in another, so I like to think I have some background in terms of listening to the supporters and having a positive relationship with them.

Certainly, I had a really good first meeting. We had, I think, five or six of the different supporters groups together and had a meeting over at the Blank family office, and I really enjoyed that and got to get to know them a little bit and looking forward to more of that and continuing to make that. ... I mean, it’s a unique part of soccer culture and certainly of Atlanta United culture as well and ... having a robust sports group is really important to us.

Q: At your introductory press conference, you were asked a lot about salaries and things like that. I know you oversee both sides of the business, but your background is acquiring players, paying the players, figuring out contracts, etc. You said you needed to look at the salaries on the books for Atlanta United before you wanted to talk about that. You’ve now had a chance to look at the salaries. So how would you describe Atlanta’s cap situation before you arrived? And how would you describe it now?

A: I think that we’re in a little bit of a reset moment. You know, not surprisingly, the new guy comes in, and you’re not going to view every contract the same way that the previous regime did.

I think we’re going to change our priorities or evolve our priorities a little bit. But again, we’re going do that in conjunction with what Gonzalo wants to do, how he wants to play, how the team is set up.

I mean, the salary-cap system – and we’ve talked about in the context of building methodically toward what we want – but equally, I think it’s really important to not just ... it’s a Jenga puzzle, right, so you can’t just start yanking out Jenga pieces and not expect the tower to collapse. So, it’s something we’ll look at systemically. I don’t mean to dance around your question. Are there contracts I like more than others? Yeah, not surprisingly, there are. It’s part of the reset, though, and, and we’ve had to subtract a little bit and address some of the ones that maybe were less efficient and now to build with what we have here, and hopefully add to that.

And then again, I think we will evolve that as we head into next year. A contracts a contract, right? But when I came aboard, of the guys that were here, were here. Those decisions were made. And, you’ve just got to build off of that and do it that way.

Q: Where do you see this club at the end of the season? Three seasons from now and five seasons from now?

A: All right. Well, I said on “Men in Blazers” already that we’re going to have a home playoff game, so that’s the goal.

Look, from the disappointment of last season, And, we haven’t won a playoff game in three seasons, you’ve got to work toward that.

But you also have to set goals in order to push the group. And I think that if you look at the talent in the team, that’s something we’re eminently capable of achieving.

So I think that’s the goal: home playoff game for this year.

And I think three years, hopefully, again, if you look at the way it’s worked for me in Salt Lake, the way it’s worked for me in Seattle, I think we can be a championship contender by Year 3. Hopefully, we’re playing in finals and doing things like that, and restoring that Phoenix, so to speak, you know, that was here in 2017, 18. And, and even in ‘19, by and large.

That success wasn’t that long ago, right? So I think we can build back up to it, hopefully, with a little bit more robust foundation. So it’s more sustainable.

And again, that’s the way I’ve done it at other places, and hopefully, then five years, the answer is you’re continuing that. You haven’t just risen and crashed. You’ve built to a way where, within three years, you’re competing for a title, and then five years, you’re maybe getting closer to ageing out with that group. But they’re taking title shots. And that’s the point is to create a championship window where you got multiple title shots, and put more stars on the jersey. And that’s, that’s certainly why I’m here.

Q: Which will be more impactful to Atlanta United: the Apple TV deal, or getting to host World Cup games in 2026?

A: That’s a really good question. I hope both. I mean, when you talk about the innovation that is Apple TV, people can see us all over the world. I think it’s an amazing opportunity for the league, and to be a trendsetter here, it’s one of the first leagues to go this direction.

You look at the demographics of MLS, it’s young, it’s hip, it’s tech-focused, it’s diverse, very much Apple’s audience. So I think there’s a really good fit there.

And I think people are going to watch us play, and we’re going to get calls: ‘I want to play for Atlanta United, look at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, look at that crowd, it’s the biggest in America.’ America is still pretty cool place to live, despite what we do to ourselves lately. And, I think it’s gonna be a real boon to Atlanta United and MLS, as well.

But you talked about a World Cup, and that’s a generational opportunity. When you look at the league as a whole, the run-up in the next four years, when you talk about why did I come here? I know you didn’t ask that, but I like to make everything about me.

I have three boys, and I wanted to go a place that was going to be a host city because I wanted my kids to have that experience. And I just think it’s such an opportunity in Atlanta, specifically because of the legacy of the Olympics.

In the interview, I asked some of the guys who were here, with AMBSE and they said the Olympics transformed Atlanta, and I think the World Cup could transform Atlanta United. Nevertheless, I think it’s a generational opportunity, and you’re going to see a massive uptick in investment, of which Apple is one piece. And if you get the Apple thing right, I think you can have a genuinely historic World Cup, and you can probably hear just listening to me right now, I get pretty jazzed up about that. That’s, that’s really cool. And it’s a really, really exciting part time to work for Atlanta United and to be part of MLS.

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Atlanta United’s 2023 MLS schedule

Feb. 25 vs. San Jose Earthquakes, 7:30 p.m.

March 4 vs. Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m.

March 11 at Charlotte FC, noon, Fox

March 18 vs. Portland Timbers, 7:30 p.m.

March 25 at Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.

April 1 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

April 8 at New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.

April 15 at Toronto FC, 7:30 p.m.

April 23 vs. Chicago Fire FC, 4:30 p.m., FS1

April 29 at Nashville SC, 1:30 p.m., Fox

May 6 at Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.

May 13 vs. Charlotte FC, 7:30 p.m.

May 17 vs. Colorado Rapids, 7:30 p.m.

May 20 at Chicago Fire FC, 8:30 p.m.

May 27 at Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m.

May 31 vs. New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m., FS1

June 3 at Los Angeles FC, 10:30 p.m.

June 10 vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

June 21 vs. New York City FC, 7:30 p.m.

June 24 at New York Red Bulls, 7:30 p.m.

July 2 vs. Philadelphia Union, 4 p.m., Fox

July 8 at CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

July 12 at New England Revolution, 7:30 p.m.

July 15 vs. Orlando City SC, 7:30 p.m., FS1

Aug. 20 at Seattle Sounders, 10:30 p.m.

Aug. 26 vs. Nashville SC, 7:30 p.m.

Aug. 30 vs. FC Cincinnati, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 2 at FC Dallas, 8:30 p.m.

Sept. 16 vs. Inter Miami CF, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 20 at D.C. United, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 23 vs. CF Montreal, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 4 at Philadelphia Union, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 7 vs. Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 21 at FC Cincinnati, TBA