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The Five: An In-depth Look at Potential Sporting Director Candidates

The Five SD candidates

Pictured in clockwise order: Ali Curtis, Todd Dunivant, Craig Waibel, Amanda Duffy, Garth Lagerwey

If the last three days still are a blur to Amanda Duffy, she’s very good at hiding it. Of course, part of that could be because she’s had ample time to practice over the last three years.

In the fall of 2015, the then-36-year old ECU alum had just been named the president of Louisville City FC after their wildly successful maiden season.

The appointment, which made her the first female executive in the USL to lead a team, capped off a meteoric rise in the American second division, which in just 12 months saw her hired from the league office to Vice President of Operations then promoted to Asst. GM and GM.


Now 39 and the de facto commissioner of the NWSL, she was seen just this past Saturday in Portland, handing out the 2018 NWSL Championship Trophy to her hometown team, the North Carolina Courage. A day earlier, she presented the MVP Award to Thorns and USWNT standout Lindsay Horan.

The final in the Rose City was attended by 21,144 fans -- an all-time record for a women’s final -- and watched live by thousands more on Lifetime, who now are in year two of a broadcast deal she helped close.

Sounds like a serious candidate for any top executive role in MLS. So when might the Galaxy give her a ring? And if they did, why wouldn’t she immediately hang up?

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As I explored last week, one of the reforms the Galaxy should strongly consider ahead of the 2019 offseason is the hiring of a full-time Sporting Director, similar to Claudio Reyna at New York City FC or Carlos Bocanegra at Atlanta United.

Just to remind everyone, a sporting director is not the same thing as a general manager, although there may be some overlap in their duties. Several clubs around the league, including the two mentioned above, have one to whom either a separate GM or a head coach/GM reports.

The Galaxy don’t even have the latter. Team President Chris Klein is responsible for managing both the business and soccer sides of the organization, and it’s under this arrangement that they could miss the playoffs twice in a row for the first time in 10 years.

In addition to Duffy, here are some possible names that could change that.

Ali Curtis

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Ali Curtis, right, as Red Bulls Sporting Director.

To many, this the most obvious person for the job. Curtis is a proven young executive himself, who will almost assuredly be considered for every future open SD or GM role until he’s hired.

The 39-year old former Blue Devil played three years in Major League Soccer before going to work for JP Morgan and later, the league office, as Senior Director of Player Relations and Competition.

In 2014, he was hired by the New York Red Bulls to align the academy, reserves, first team and scouting department with the club's European affiliates. The top brass were impressed with his now famous 300-page plan, which apparently included firing popular coach Mike Petke and eschewing the team’s pursuit of aging superstars.

Before the 2017 campaign, Curtis negotiated his exit, citing "different views" as his reason. He's been self-employed as a consultant since, although was considered a finalist for the new USMNT GM job.

Why he’d be a good fit:
Curtis clearly knows how to form a coherent, long-term plan and execute it, even if it requires some short-term pain. He’s also not shy about explaining his decisions to hostile crowds. Both traits mark a welcome contrast from Chris Klein, who, despite saying many of the right things, has been criticized by some fans and pundits for being aloof. Finally, Curtis’s success in building a youth-first culture at Red Bulls should be especially appealing to a Galaxy team that hasn’t had a homegrown star since Gyasi Zardes, even with what some have said is the most talented academy class in MLS history.

Why he wouldn’t: Though there’s much to like about Curtis, some questions linger. Arguably the biggest one is: just what happened in New York? Rumors abound of a power struggle between him and then-head coach Jesse Marsch, who he hired. Curtis denies them, but it’s evident his relationship soured with someone important and he couldn’t continue on any longer. Another issue is whether or not his extreme focus on youth is right for LA. Some would be happy if the Galaxy never signed a player of Zlatan’s stature again; many wouldn’t be. And while Curtis is a big community guy, the vision he comes in with could alienate half the LAG fanbase before he has the chance to win them over.

Would he even answer the phone? After narrowly losing out on the USMNT GM job to Earnie Stewart this year, we know Curtis isn’t done with soccer. His time at Red Bulls may have ended far sooner than anyone expected, and because of that, the Galaxy could certainly use his motivation and skillset as they try to recover their status as the league’s glamor team. But NYRB weren’t the Continental Tire™ fire the Galaxy are when he joined them, and if he’s afraid of being overruled again, he’d do well to get proof of his authority in writing or walk away.

Amanda Duffy

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The aforementioned Duffy brings a wealth of experience to draw upon from her time in the USL and NWSL. There’s not much else to say about her that wasn't covered in the intro, so let’s advance to the all-important question of job aptitude.

Why she’d be a good fit: In 2014, with less than four months before their inaugural season, Louisville were a team without a GM. Djorn Buchholz had resigned less than a few weeks after hiring Duffy, and now she was tasked with assembling a roster of a professional men’s side with little help. That year, Louisville not only made the playoffs but the Eastern Semifinal. A year later, while she was president, they replicated that same feat. Her ability to work in highly dynamic environments and still succeed proves her rapid ascent is no accident. And the connections she's forged in the USL and NWSL would surely benefit a Galaxy team with no holistic plan for their academy or USL team. Could she help land LA a NWSL franchise? Who knows, but it’s hard to think she hurts the Galaxy’s chances.

Why she wouldn’t: Let’s be clear from the start: Duffy’s potential success or failure in this role won’t hinge on the fact that she’s a woman. Even before joining Louisville, her resume was highly-decorated, and she’s since gone from strength to strength, serving as Managing Operations Director of the NWSL ever since previous commissioner Jeff Plush stepped down in 2017. If there are any concerns unique to her candidacy, it’s that she seems to rarely stay in one place for long. Throw in the fact that she’s never been in MLS and that big red disclaimer about Dan Beckerman and Klein, and one starts to see why this may not work.

Would she even answer the phone? Honestly, the answer to this question for so many candidates is "I have no idea". But of course, what fun is it to hear that? Duffy has left the women’s side of the league for the men’s before, and a position in MLS is about as high as many can climb in this sport -- barring a position with USSF, CONCACAF or FIFA. The longer the NWSL goes without finding a new full-time commissioner though, the more likely it is they just give Duffy the job. That could in fact be what she’s angling for now, and despite all the issues the NWSL has, it’s still debatable which situation would appeal to her more.

Craig Waibel

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Waibel, left, as General Manager of Real Salt Lake.

After being fired from the New York Red Bulls by new Sporting Director Ali Curtis, Mike Petke remained unattached for nearly two years. In 2017, he finally resurfaced in Utah, now as the head coach of Real Salt Lake’s USL affiliate, the Monarchs.

It was a move that surprised as many people as his firing did. Here was a coach who won a Supporter’s Shield as recently as 2013 and made it to the Eastern Conference Final in 2014... yet all he could get was a lowly USL job?

Then all of a sudden, Jeff Cassar was out, and Petke was in. As if GM Craig Waibel planned it all along.

Waibel, a former MLS journeyman who suited up for the Galaxy en route to their first ever Cup, has been a ruthless exponent of playing the kids in MLS. Earlier this year, RSL fielded seven homegrown players against Sporting Kansas City and later made history with FC Dallas for the most homegrown players in a single match. The game was also the first time a team fielded an all-homegrown backline in MLS history.

RSL has always been one of the more economical teams in the league since their inception, and Waibel has continued the doctrine of getting more with less since 2015.

Why he’d be a good fit:
Waibel’s commitment to youth is one few can match. His brutal firing of Jeff Cassar and disposal of forwards Alfredo Ortuno and Yura Movsisyan reveals a willingness to make changes as soon as they’re necessary. The Petke hire was calculated and opportunistic. If he brought the same values to the Galaxy as he’s shown at RSL, one would have to think he could do a lot better than the current regime.


Why he wouldn’t: For all his success at RSL, there’s a concern about whether he’s actually done all he can to build them into a contender. A stat often used to highlight an inept defense is unforced errors, and Waibel seems to have a few, like keeping Cassar around for a whole offseason -- only to can him three games into the 2017 season-- and signing Ortuno and Movsisyan. What good is it to atone for your mistakes if you keep making them? Another question is whether he’s utilized the Monarchs to develop homegrowns enough. If either of these seem familiar, it’s because we’ve heard them asked of Klein and VP of Soccer Operations, Peter Vagenas. Perhaps here though, it’s more a case of being hamstrung by financial limitations and a meddlesome owner.

Would he even answer the phone? Well, let’s say this: if not, you know the Galaxy’s restructuring efforts are screwed. Waibel’s contract is up at the end of this year, and some fans think he should go. A position with the Galaxy isn’t only leaving before he’s pushed, it’s leaving for a bigger and better opportunity. However, if he doesn’t consider it one, what does that say about this FO? Almost certainly that they don’t have a chance of hiring many top-shelf candidates to this role.

Garth Lagerwey

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Lagerwey, left, with Sounders Coach Brian Schmetzer.

The second Duke alum on this list, Lagerwey is arguably its most recognizable name and the most successful.

After serving as RSL’s GM for seven years -- a period that saw the club move into a new stadium, make four Cup finals, and sell to a new ownership group -- the 45-year old retired goalkeeper traded his view of the Rockies for gloomy PNW skies.

His time with the Seattle Sounders has already seen the biggest shake-up at the organization since joining MLS in 2008.

It has also seen the Sounders appear in their first two MLS Cup Finals ever, winning it all in 2016.

How could such an accomplished executive come on the market, and could his style of management work in LA? Let’s examine.

Why he’d be a good fit: If Craig Waibel deserves credit for anything he’s done at RSL, that’s not messing with the framework laid by his former boss. Lagerwey’s analytical approach in Sandy put RSL on the map after many doubted whether they could contend with their better-funded rivals. His emphasis on youth development is something that he’s since carried over to Seattle, honing the academy and S2 into one of the better set-ups in the country. And his ability to scout impactful central and South American players like Roman Torres, Nicolas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz is unimpeachable. In LA, he’d be reunited with chief scout Kurt Schmid and presumably turn his attention to bolstering the team’s presence in the southern hemisphere. Oh, and getting the academy-to-first team pipeline up to code.

Why he wouldn’t:
Despite having the resume he does, there's no such thing as a flawless candidate, and Lagerwey’s efforts to disrupt traditional thinking in the Emerald City have drawn resistance from a vocal minority of fans (more on that later). He’s still blamed for disbanding one of the most lethal duos in MLS history by selling striker Obafemi Martins to China plus forcing Sigi Schmid out without giving him a chance with Lodeiro. And while the team would later rally around interim coach Brian Schmetzer to win the MLS Playoffs that year, it illustrates the dangers of his fanatical devotion to moneyball tactics. There was a time under Arena when the Galaxy, not Seattle, were known for going on late season runs. That didn’t make it sustainable then, and that doesn’t make it sustainable now.


Would he even answer the phone? Probably the biggest factor in all of this will be his status come October, when the Sounders’ Alliance Council decides whether he should be retained or not. Letting fans vote on the fate of team officials isn’t unheard of in other parts of the world but is unique in North America. If he loses the vote (and this Sunday's defeat to LA improves those odds), he could become available for the Galaxy. Hell, if he wins but by a close margin, he could become available for the Galaxy. LA in theory offers him more resources and more job security. And they already saved him the trouble of firing Sigi.

Todd Dunivant

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So far, all the names we’ve reviewed have had a large enough body of work to safely draw conclusions about their strengths and weaknesses. That’s in turn made it easier to predict how they’d each interface with this Galaxy FO.

It also makes Dunivant, the 37-year old Galaxy legend-turned-executive, the most wildcard entry on this list. He could have the most upside of any of the candidates or none at all.

As a player, Dunivant always seemed destined for a career in management. In 2002, a year before being drafted by the San Jose Earthquakes, he graduated early from Stanford with a BA in Economics. Known as a defender with an immense soccer IQ, he then helped the Galaxy win four of their five MLS Cups, two Supporter’s Shields and one US Open Cup.

Dunivant retired in 2015, after negotiating a new CBA as a representative for the Players Union. The following year, he was tapped as the Director of Business and Soccer Operations for the SF Deltas. It was there he hired Marc Dos Santos and built a roster that won the NASL Championship in their first and only season.

Now, he’s the GM of Sacramento Republic FC, an MLS expansion hopeful that sits fourth in the USL West.

Why he’d be a good fit:
Dunivant is very much an idealist who dreams of building great things. His decision to join the Deltas and then Sacramento knowing the risks demonstrates this. He’s already started a youth movement with Republic and would, like all the other candidates mentioned here, undoubtedly work to fix LA’s broken development system. But Dunivant is unique in that he played under the current regime, and that may give him an edge. If your criticism of the FO is that they’ve lost their way and just need to be nudged back on track, then hiring Dunivant, himself an advocate of promoting from within, makes a lot of sense.

Why he wouldn’t:
The challenge the FO already have is refuting the perception that they’re an old boys’ club; Dunivant, however capable he is, doesn’t help that. That could cost him support, particularly if his ideas are too similar to what we’ve seen before. After all, what good is trading in your old Chris Klein for this year's model? To that point, Dunivant has the least experience of any candidate when it comes to managing a professional team, and there will always be those who say luck was responsible for everything he’s achieved.

Would he even answer the phone? You don’t make 193 appearances in two stints with the Galaxy only to let that call go to voicemail. Does he answer? Of course he does. The better question is, would he accept the job? Because for a team that employs as many ex-players as they do, it’s hard to buy the idea that Dunivant was never offered so much as a ceremonial janitor role. That could indicate he didn’t like management or they didn’t like him. And similar to Duffy, it’s far from given he’d surrender his gig at Sacramento just because the LA job is higher profile.

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In the end, there’s definitely no shortage of qualified candidates the LA Galaxy might have if they agree that hiring a Sporting Director is within their best interests. I may have only gone over five of them, but if you have another idea, shout it out.

For all we know, the Galaxy’s search could take them in an entirely different direction than we’re expecting. A Jurgen Klinsmann sighting at Stubhub this weekend generated plenty of speculation before ESPNFC reporter Jeff Carlisle tweeted that he's not a candidate for a front office role. I guess we'll find out how true that is soon enough.