By John Mantia
It’s easy to forget that Seattle Sounders FC is an expansion franchise. Led by owners with deep pockets, supported by a league-leading season ticket holder base and blessed with a secure infrastructure, Seattle is poised to be the envy of all other MLS franchises.
With logistics an afterthought, the next three months will see all attentions turned to building a squad and technical team. It’s a mixed blessing. Such foresight is rare luxury for MLS expansion franchises. The usual tempered expectations will have no home in Seattle.
That’s where Technical Director Chris Henderson comes in. After a playing career that spanned nearly two decades, Henderson was one of the Sounders FC’s first hires. Henderson juggled an assortment of duties since accepting his position, and with just three months from their national television debut, he and his budding staff can expect a busy new year.
In an exclusive interview with Goal.com, Henderson discussed his satisfactions to date, the challenges ahead and the hopes he holds for Seattle’s inaugural season.
John Mantia: What were some of the challenges facing a technical director in your role? Did Seattle or expansion present any unique difficulties?
Chris Henderson: The biggest challenge was envisioning what the organization was going to look like on the team side. Sitting down with Adrian Hanauer we worked on the philosophy and style and where we wanted to go in the future, what kind of style of play, what kind of characters we wanted around the organization. This year, I’ve felt like an assistant general manager. We did a lot of scouting, internationally and scouting MLS; we took some trips, and part of those trips were just making initial contact between our club and agents or the boards of other clubs, to try and grow relationships that we think we’ll use for years.
What is your team doing to merge the existing
facilities to be soccer-specific and make good on the board’s
promise to have a world-class soccer infrastructure?
Quest Field was originally built for soccer and football. When the ownership group tried to get public funding for the stadium, the promise was a future soccer team at the site. The sight lines were conceived with soccer in mind, making it really a world-class venue. It’s right in the heart of downtown, so that creates tremendous atmosphere.
From a player’s perspective, does FieldTurf deserve to be maligned? How is it to play on?
I had a whole season of it at New York, and we trained on it every day. I remember the turf after a Rolling Stones concert, and it was hard, playing really fast. The turf here though, when I walk on it, it is like grass. The blades are longer. I think it player very similar to grass. The only difference is, if you are running full-speed on grass and you stop suddenly, you don’t think about it. As a winger, I think that you have to think just a touch, and you have to strike the ball just a bit differently.
What about the issue of the football lines? Can you ensure there will be no lines? Can this stadium function as one beast on Saturday and another on Sunday?
Gray Wright, head of our business operations for the Seattle Seahawks, guarantees us we aren’t going to see one game with football lines. That’s his quest this year. I believe him. We want to make sure when it’s soccer its soccer and you aren’t seeing any lines. It affects people in the stadium and watching from home.
With Sigi Schmid, Seattle Sounders FC added a cornerstone. What has been the tone of your conversations with Schmid? What are the urgent priorities highlighted in your discussions?
We have to finish hiring the first assistant, the second assistant and other coaches. The other focus is players. We have 14 players at the moment; we have a group of USL Sounder players who have been waiting around, hoping to have a shot with the MLS team. There are foreign players we are looking at, and we are preparing for the Super Draft, with our first pick. That is one of Schmid’s biggest strengths, analyzing player, show they will fit, and how they will add to the team.
Let’s take those player-specific issues one-by-one: What current USL Sounder players have what it takes to make the roster?
Some of those guys I
played against in the MLS - Taylor Graham and Josh Gardner, for
example. Really, when you look at any MLS roster, compared with a top
USL team, a lot of these guys could come in and be a big part of the
roster. These guys have won a few championships with the Sounders;
so we think we can find a couple players there that can add some
depth, add some competitiveness at training and guys that have some
You have the number one pick in the 2009 MLS Super Draft. What are you looking to do? Any specific players? Any deal scenarios that are particularly appealing?
It is great to have that first pick. I think it’s a decent crop of players coming out. I think there are some players that could come right out of school and make an impact right away. A lot of times when guys come into a professional environment, they are used to it. There are a few guys worth taking a chance. There is a lot of value in that spot though, San Jose proved that last season. We are considering everything. I don’t want to give too much (laughs), but we have some really good options and players.
On the international front, you’ve already made noise with Freddy Montero. Where are you looking and what type of player are you looking for?
Insofar as Montero,
I’m not sure, Adrian Hanauer would be the one to ask. I don’t
know what is going on with Montero; I hear the same rumors [that the
Sounders hold partial rights to Montero]. When we put together the
USL Sounder players, the draft and our current roster, we want to
bring in international guys that are typical: a striker, a central
player. Then again, you look at Columbus, Sigi’s squad, and
they picked up Gino Padula that won that role and was a key player
What would be the ideal pick-up? What type of player is needed on this team?
I haven’t ever seen this team on the field, even in training, so it’s hard to say on paper. You look at Freddie Ljungberg, is he going to stay central or play wide? It’s hard to say and we need to see those things before we exactly know how we play and our needs. There are a lot of factors, we really need to see these guys on the field, and we’ve been looking at a number of positions.
When is the first training session? How many
bodies do you expect on the pitch?
about nine weeks before our first game, right around the third week
of January and as we get ready, we’ll head down to Ventura,
California. Before that though, we’d like to bring in a lot of
guys, bring in the Sounder guys and give them a look. I could see
having 35 or 40 players at the beginning.
Are you satisfied by the Expansion Draft? What are your thoughts on the players you got?
Our priority is to get
Jeff Parke signed. I was teammates with him in New York and he is a
good young player with a ton of potential, good speed, good one-on-one
defending. We were a little bit defensive in the draft, which was
reflected by studying lots of old expansion drafts, looking at the
types of players that were still at the club they were drafted by and
other variables. We put a lot of time watching these players, and I
feel really good about these guys. We think they can all contribute.
Minding you retired in 2006, is it safe to say the Expansion Draft picks were largely influenced by your battles with these individuals, in addition to the qualitative studies the organization undertook?
A lot of these guys I played against, and I coached against most of them last year. So going into the Expansion Draft, we felt really comfortable with out knowledge of the players. There are little things, by playing, you remember if they were tough to play against, their grit, desire. These are valuable elements, especially when considering needs, roster space and salary cap.
What has Sigi Schmid’s reaction been to the picks? Schmid is renowned for building squads, what pieces does he want to add?
He feels confident
with the picks and was pretty happy with the group. But it’s a
tough situation, no matter who was coming in; they were coming into a
group picked by someone else. Sigi is really good at getting team
chemistry, getting players to gel, and I think if anyone can put it
together he can. I’ve known him for so long, I’d like to
say that we see the game the same way. We spent time all the way
back to my college-days at UCLA.
Seattle Sounders FC need not worry about the fan base, revenue generation or infrastructure; most teams in MLS would envy your problems. What is the measure of success then for this organization?
We looked at other
expansion teams, and we realize we have a good situation. We had a
whole year to prepare for this season, so we’ve been able to
focus on the competitive aspects from the beginning, not the
logistical stuff that takes away from the team focus. We want to be
competitive right from the start. We want to compete everyday in
training. The only way to compete in the games is to have depth and
compete everyday. I think we can create that atmosphere. I think
our leaders will instill that, set a standard. Moving forward, we have
goals to compete in international tournaments. We’d love to
qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League and SuperLiga, and we want
to go for a championship in the first few years.
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