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November 9, 2011 at 3:31 PM

An end-of-the-year interview with Adrian Hanauer

hanauer mug.jpgUPDATE 3:31 p.m. — Here’s the transcript.

I’m helping out with Seahawks duty today, so I’ll be a little busy this afternoon, but Don Ruiz of The News Tribune and I had a chat with Sounders FC general manager Adrian Hanauer this afteroon.

Issues brought up include: reflections on the 2011 season, keeping the team together, goalkeeper target Michael Gspurning, capacity plans for the 2012, plans for friendlies, the expansion draft, Kasey Keller’s new role with the team, a new turf field, the state of MLS and more.

* * *

(What are your impressions of 2011?) “I’m happy with the season. I think it was a tremendous season in a lot of ways. Obviously disappointed at the end, (there’s) still more to prove. I remember saying … recently that I wasn’t quite ready to say (losing twice in the first round of the playoffs) is a pattern. Three times, I have to say it’s getting closer to a pattern. So what do we need to do to change that? But I’m a big believer in statistics, and statistically we were the second-best team in the league this year. We were the best offensive team in the league. We were good defensively, but that’s an area we need to get a little bit better. We won another tournament, qualified for Champions League quarterfinals, which was a very important goal of ours, (and) came up short in the playoffs. So, not completely satisfied, but my gut tells me there are 15 or 16 other teams who would gladly trade with us for this past season. I’ve also said this before: When you’re really bad, it’s easy to make a lot of progress. When you’re really good, that extra 5-, 7-, 10 percent is the difference, but it’s really hard. Now we have to keep doing those little things that get us that extra bit of energy at the right times, of intensity at the right times, of athleticism at the right times, leadership at the right times, goal-scoring at the right times, defensive stops — it’s the details. And that’s what we do in the offseason.”

(Do you subscribe to the idea that teams can be built for the regular season and others are built for postseason?) “We’ve talked about that. I think that there is a kernel of that. I think it’s actually soccer teams are built for important moments and some teams are not. The part where I can’t say we’ve really faltered is there have been some big moments where we’ve come through. So, an Open Cup final was a big moment, and we came through. Needing a result in Central America to qualify for the quarterfinals was a big moment, and we somehow came through. Some of the comebacks that have given us three points or one point that kept us climbing, those were big moments. So I’m not quite ready to say this team can’t win at big times, because I think we can. But if we can add, again, that 5- or 10-percent more leadership and ability in those important moments, certainly I’d trade out a couple of regular-season wins, if that’s what it were to take. But sometimes those are compromises. To give you an example, we’re a pretty young team. You take Kasey out, and we’re a pretty young team. Maybe adding a couple of older veterans gives you a little bit more of that leadership. But then during the regular season I think statistically older players are going to be injured a little bit more or be able to play a few less games. So is that a good compromise? It’s the balance that we have to continue to find, because if we make that tradeoff and don’t get the points during the regular season, then maybe we lose the playoff home-field advantage, which theoretically should (help). And then we’re back here saying if we just would have gotten a few more points during the regular season, we’d have had the home-field advantage and qualified. We absolutely need to get better, but we just somehow managed to have the worst game of our season in Salt Lake City at the worst possible moment. It’s hard for me to think about retooling the whole roster or making some dramatic change because of that one night when so many good things happened during the rest of the year.”

(How much to do weight that one result in evaluating what you have? It was just one game, but it was one of the most important…) “I’m maybe rational to a fault and I’m a big believer in math and statistics. I talked to Sigi and the coaches about this all the time. You guys remember the beginning of the season. It looked rough, and Sigi’s good about (handling) this. We were dominating — you know that Houston game that we tied, even the L.A. game, we were playing some good soccer and we weren’t getting bounces. That stuff just balances out during a year. Same thing with the referees. You get a bad call here and there, but then you pick up a good call here and there. Again, I’m not willing to accept that because we had a bad night in Salt Lake City, that the same thing’s going to happen next year in the playoffs. We need to learn from it and for sure we want to get better, period. But to answer your question, no. I’m not going to react to one game by doing something that doesn’t give me a guaranteed chance of making the whole season better. … What if we had lost the Open Cup final 3-0, but we made it through the first series of the playoffs and then lost the next game? People would be saying, ‘Well, we can’t win the big (game). OK, fine. We made it through a series in the playoffs, but…’ So now am I supposed to go back to that game and say, ‘Well, we’re not built for winning championships at home?’ … At some point we have to get better, we have to get stronger, we have to get better mentally, but the rest of it is kind of noise. I think that if you run your team based on anything other than what you believe — and this is sort of the long-term strategy — you’re just going to be yo-yoing back and forth and you’re going to be firing people, and cutting people, and signing new people, and changing systems, and changing fitness regimes, and the length of training, and then you’re going to travel early to a road game, because you think that’s going to give you more preparation. At some point you just have to believe in your philosophy and try to optimize within that philosophy. If it doesn’t work, if you’re bad — which I don’t think we are — then maybe you’re philosophy and your overall strategy is flawed. But I’ve always believed this is business and I don’t think it’s any different for a team. You pick a philosophy and you optimize on the execution, because it’s the old adage: A great business is one-percent inspiration, 99-percent perspiration. I believe it’s the same. It’s the hard work and all the details that go into executing the strategy that really makes you good. It’s not whether you play a 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1, you know? There are still 11 players on the field and it’s all the other stuff that makes you good. That’s my belief, at least.”

(With allocation money running up and players probably deserving better contracts, are you going to be able to keep this core together? Might you have to entertain offers you might’ve been able to push away before?) “It’s a great question. It’s certainly going to be more challenging this year than the previous two offseasons to keep this team together. By virtue of winning Open Cup, we actually were able to squirrel away some allocation money. By virtue of qualifying for the quarterfinals of Champions League we got a little bit of allocation money. (Those are) also things that make it important for us to excel in those tournaments, because the players get some money and the club gets some money to work with. So for the most part, I think by the skin of our chinny-chin-chins we should be able to kind of hold this team together for another year. We will make some moves. We will do some things proactively. It won’t be the same team, but generally we should be able to keep the team together, the core. But, to answer the second part of your question, yes. We may entertain offers that we might not have in the second year, third year, because now looking out beyond next year to 2013, it’s going to get even more difficult or impossible to keep the group together. But again, I don’t want to overexaggerate that. If we sell one player, we can theoretically collect enough allocation money to then keep the rest together. It’s not like we need to get rid of three or four of our best players to make it work. But on occasion, the way the system works, you do have to get rid of a highly compensated player or a young player who has a lot of potential that you can sell and use that money as allocation money.”

(Will a new goalkeeper provide some financial savings or do you think you’ll be bringing in a Keller-like salary?) “I think ultimately it won’t be a financial saving. And we are very close to having that position checked off.”

(Does it matter whether you get a deal done before or after the expansion draft in hopes of keeping that player?) “It doesn’t. We can’t sign players from outside the league right now because our transfer window isn’t open, so we can’t actually get a player on the roster to then have to protect. What we can do are pre-contracts, where you basically have a contract in place, maybe it’s not countersigned, and then once the transfer window opens, you can ultimately get the player on the roster.”

(How is preparing for the expansion list different this year? How do you factor in players that are injured?) “It’s going to be difficult and painful again this year, just like it has been in the first two years. We have a lot of players who we think could start on a lot of teams around the league. Maybe all the teams going through this process feel the same way. And we certainly consider an injured player that may sneak through.”

(What’s the latest you can offer on talks with Austrian goalkeeper Michael Gspurning?) “He’s a player we continue to have interest in. We don’t have a contract finalized with any potential goalkeepers. but we have continued to be in contact and he is a player who we like very much.”

(Do you know what Keller’s role will be next year?) “Kasey and I talked about getting together probably next week or the week after. I want him to have a continuing role, but we just have to sit down and figure out what he wants to do and how that fits in to what we’ve got going.”

(Have you discussed a strategy for friendlies next year?) “I think we want to do the same thing, which is one big friendly. Same plan, unless our reserve team needs to pick up a few more games, that’s something we would consider, whether we bring a game into Starfire or something like that. But generally speaking the same plan as this past year.”

(Any decision on seating configuration?) “I don’t think that we have sort of finalized anything. I think we’re leaning towards opening up the Hawks’ Nest, which would bring capacity up to about 38,500 or something like that. Potentially doing another sort of three-game package, or four-game package, next year in conjunction with the friendly that increases capacity again for those games and try to break our 2011 attendance record.”

(Any update you can provide on replacing the turf?) “I remain highly confident that there will be a new field next year and we should something to announce in the next couple weeks.”

(Do you have any thoughts on this being your last season before you can be voted out?) “I’ve said it before. I’m an unpaid, work-my-(butt)-off general manager; if there’s someone better for the job, please step forward and I’ll gladly abdicate. I don’t know if ‘abdicate’ is the right word. (laughs) … Again, I think I’ve done a good job, but certainly it could be better. We could have three MLS Cups and could’ve won the Supporters’ Shield three years in a row. I’m certainly willing to move on if it’s time.”

(But you do want to continue, right?) “For now, I’m happy and still having fun. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I had my eyes open for just the right person someday who can step in and do this, because I’m certainly not going to do it forever. Even if I pass the general manager role to someone, I would I assume be involved. I still own 32.5-percent of the team and I would be involved in some way, some significant way.”

(What are your thoughts on the state of MLS?) “To repeat the words of the MLS president, Mark Abbott, who I’ve been friends with for a lot of years, this is an evolution, not a revolution. I’m thrilled about the way the league is evolving. The weaker teams are getting stronger from a financial and foundational standpoint. The stronger teams are continuing to thrive. Attendance was obviously very strong this past year. The new franchises are exceeding everybody’s expectations. TV viewership, albeit starting at a fairly low number, is growing, which is critical for us. Relevance of the MLS teams in their home markets is growing. (Media coverage) and whether it’s sports radio paying more attention, ESPN putting goals in their Top 10, all that stuff (helps). And it’s not going to be a landslide of change, but incrementally, it’s all that together. The quality of the play, I think is improving. We’re getting more players in our league who are what we talk about as difference makers, players who really can entertain our fans. Some of them may be big stars and some of them are young, either homegrown or players brought in from abroad. The quality of the overall infrastructure of teams is improving. Teams are building training facilities that 10 years ago would never have considered investing five to 10 million dollars in a training facility. The stadiums obviously. Houston coming online next year. There are very few markets you would point to now where you’d say, not quite up to snuff, so that it’s all super positive. We need to continue to build revenues leaguewide so that we can continue to spend more on our product. I think there isn’t an owner in the league that would disagree that we’d like to spend more, it just has to be at a rational pace that makes sense from a business standpoint. So to me the future is bright. Montreal is going to be a success. The commissioner’s talked a lot about a 20th team in New York. Whether that happens in New York or it happens in another market, I think we’ll be at 20 teams. We can either take a rest there or decide to keep building, but I’m as enthusiastic as I’ve ever been about the future of MLS.”

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