Chris Henderson found himself in the background as the Seattle Sounders claimed the 2019 MLS Cup.
Henderson watched the Nov. 10 championship game against Toronto FC not from the pitch or a luxury box, but instead while seated with his family in the CenturyLink Field stands.
When the game was over and the celebrations were in full swing in the Sounders’ locker room following a 3-1 victory, Henderson was safely stationed at the fringes of the activity, therefore managing to avoid being doused by champagne.
When the Sounders held their championship parade through downtown Seattle two days later, Henderson was on one of the victory busses alongside several other Sounders dignitaries, but he just may have been overshadowed by some of the vehicle’s higher-profile riders — minority team owners Russell Wilson and Ciara.
But working in the background has been Henderson’s role with the Sounders all along. The Cascade High School graduate, the greatest soccer player ever produced by Snohomish County, may not be the most visible member of the Sounders’ front office, but as Seattle’s vice president of soccer and sporting director he played a major role not only in the Sounders’ 2019 title, but in the organization’s sustained success since entering Major League Soccer in 2009.
“I’ve been smiling all week,” Henderson said Friday while en route to Los Angeles for some well-deserved R&R. “Everything came together for the team. The players’ commitment throughout the season, then their ability to come together as a team in the playoffs, it was a situation where everyone performed. They all came for the big games and they played to their potential all the way through MLS Cup.”
Henderson, 48, has been an integral part of the Sounders’ story since before the team took the field for the first time. He was hired as the team’s technical director in January of 2008. Three years ago, given the increase in the scope of Seattle’s scouting department, he was elevated to his current role.
What that means is that Henderson oversees the Sounders’ scouting network and recruitment of players worldwide. He or the scouts hear of a player, examine the available data — data analytics have exploded in soccer just as they have in other sports — then Henderson goes to watch the player in person. If the eye test matches the data, Henderson opens discussions with the player’s representatives. Once discussions have reached a certain level, he hands them off to general manager Garth Lagerway to apply the finishing touches.
Just how important was Henderson’s work to the Sounders’ title? He’s the one who traveled to Argentina to scout a Uruguayan midfield playmaker named Nicolas Lodeiro while Lodeiro was playing for Boca Juniors. During the Cup final, Lodeiro donned the captain’s armband and played the deft wall pass to Victor Rodriguez for the goal that gave Seattle 2-0 lead. Oh, Henderson scouted Rodriguez in Spain, too.
Not enough? Henderson is also the one who went to Lima to check out a striker named Raul Ruidiaz while Ruidiaz was playing for the Peruvian national team. Ruidiaz is the one who out-muscled his defender for a long ball and fired over Toronto goalkeeper Quentin Westberg for the Sounders’ clinching third goal.
Because there was no room for Henderson in the technical boxes, he got to witness the fruits of his labor next to his family, including his father, Dick, who still lives in the south Everett house where Henderson and his brothers Pat and Sean — who were also at the game — grew up.
“It was amazing,” Henderson said about the viewing experience at the final. “There were a couple times I just stopped and looked around at the stadium, and I could not believe this was a Seattle Sounders soccer game. To see all the fans decked out in Sounders gear … the connection between the fans and the players is special. It’s something you won’t see anywhere in North America.”
Though Henderson watched the game from the stands, he was able to make his way down to field level for the end of the game. His reaction at the final whistle?
“It was elation and relief and excitement at just being a part of it,” Henderson said. “You want to be around the players at that point. To be honest, they’re the ones who did it. They performed, they stuck with the coaches’ game plan, and just to be around those guys at that moment is something I’ll have and carry with me forever.”
This was the second time Henderson got to watch the Sounders win an MLS title. He also was on hand when Seattle beat Toronto for its first Cup in 2016. How did the two compare?
“It’s interesting because it was different in so many ways,” Henderson said. “Getting that first MLS Cup was huge for the club. We had won U.S. Open Cups, we’d won the Supporters’ Shield, and to finally get that Cup at Toronto’s home stadium was pretty amazing. But to now be able to celebrate in 2019 in front of our own fans and just the response of the fans, selling out (the game) in 20 minutes or however long it was, it really made it a special moment for our club.”
Henderson had little time to celebrate the championship. After spending a few days in L.A., he heads out Wednesday to South America, where he’ll be through mid-December as he resumes hiking the scouting-and-negotiating trail — once again contributing to the Sounders’ success from the background.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.