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New Loons leader Khaled El-Ahmad impressed Garth Lagerwey in Sounders interview

Minnesota United’s new Chief Soccer Officer Khaled El-Ahmad applied to become a member of the Seattle Sounders in spring 2021.

El-Ahmad was then a scout for City Football Group, primarily working with New York City FC, and he threw his hat in the ring for an opening as the Sounders’ sporting director. He interviewed with Garth Lagerwey, Seattle’s longtime and hugely successful leader.

While El-Ahmad didn’t get the job, he made the decision difficult for Lagerwey. “Khaled stood out,” he said. “He was really, really impressive.”

Later in 2021, El-Ahmad was hired as CEO and Sporting Director at Barnsley, a club in England’s third division. El-Ahmad’s move to the Loons was announced in early November, but he first needed to finish duties and be released by Barnsley, which happened in mid-December. After receiving his work visa, he will travel from his home in Sweden to Minnesota to begin in-person work starting Wednesday.

Lagerwey, who is now Atlanta United’s president and CEO, spoke with the Pioneer Press about El-Ahmad in December.

When did you first meet Khaled, and what was your first impression of him?

I first met him in the course of interviewing for the Seattle Sounders sporting director job. I was introduced by mutual friends. He seemed like a really good candidate, and did really, really well in the interviews. He came highly recommended from City Football Group. Obviously he had some really interesting life experiences from his time spent in the (U.S.) in school and also the time spent overseas, and just seemed like a really well-rounded, really attractive candidate.

What did he show you in the interview?

Just really smart. It’s one thing to work as part of the City Football machine (which includes soccer titan Manchester City). It’s another to be a person and to really apply yourself and be invested in wanting to do the right thing for players, for people, and that really came through. He was really smart. His presentations were really good, very well prepared. He’s multicultural and multilingual and other things that attracted us as well. (Born in Lebanon to Lebanese and Czech parents, he was raised in Sweden.)

When he was hired in Minnesota, the club was looking for somebody to kind of bring their vision to the club, not only the first team but developmental team, academy — from a style of play to a full ethos. What did he show you about a vision in those presentations?

He wanted balance. He was attuned to all aspects of an organization. He was truly a sporting director, in the sense that he had really good projections in particular about how he wanted to build a team in terms of having an age distribution, as well as skill distribution and a salary distribution. And I thought that was really interesting. He could balance the player development stuff, with the need to have experienced players on the team to help you win games. He just was very, very thoughtful about that. And he had some data behind it. And that was impressive.

Why ultimately didn’t he get the job?

We had great candidates. Here, I’ll tell you the final four. … It was Chris Albright, who got the (FC) Cincinnati job. Craig Waibel, who took the Seattle job and had previously been at (Real) Salt Lake. Khaled and Marco Garces, who is the right-hand man of John Thorington, (general manager) at LAFC.

I don’t think there’s a wrong choice to make from that group. But Khaled stood out. He was really, really impressive. Because I didn’t know him before the process. And he was right down to the final cut.

When it comes to building a club, talent acquisition is vital. What did he show you as far as what he’s looking for in certain players? What did he show you in talent evaluation?

City Football Group has an incredible database. … So what I would say is he was very comfortable manipulating the data to find thoughtful outcomes as to what he wanted to do in terms of building a team.

To say, Khalid wants to sign this type of player based on a conversation I had with him three years ago, that’s probably a stretch. So I’ll leave it up to him as to how he wants to approach that.

He certainly has a network that will be full of big-time connections, both on his time in England and this time was City Football Group, and Minnesota will have the ability to sign any player it wants. That’s really powerful. That’s really a really cool feature in a sporting director.

Minnesota has an interim head coach now. Without talk about candidates, what did you feel like he wanted to see in a head coach and a relationship between a sporting director and head coach?

In Seattle, all that was settled. Brian (Schmetzer) and I had been together for a long time. That honestly wasn’t really part of the interview other than Brian is going to coach and you’re going to be the sporting director, that kind of stuff. … Because everybody had been in their places for a long time in Seattle, that just wasn’t really an issue.

What are you going to remember about his interview?

I thought for sure he was gonna make it — whether it was with us or somewhere else. It’s been really cool to see him successful in Barnsley, and I’ll come back to you guys. I figured he would make it to MLS at some point, and I’m rooting for him. We’ve stayed in touch. We don’t talk all the time, but occasionally, and stuff like that. And I’ve certainly followed his career.

He’s done well everywhere he’s been. And I just think he’s the type of GM/sporting director person that we want to attract to the league. He’s someone who knows the league very, very well, has trained in international organizations. And he is just a great crosscut of skill set, multiculturalism and ability to analyze hardcore data, and be really, really proficient in something that’s critical.

But it also needs to be the person and to be able to apply it. All of these people that he’s dealt with from all different walks of life from all over the world. And then use that knowledge to build a team, because at the end of the day, players are people, and if you assemble the right group of people, you’re going to be successful.”

Khaled El-Ahmad’s resume

Barnsley

Sept. 2021-Dec. 2023 — CEO and Sporting Director at the League One club in England

City Football Group

Feb. 2015-Sept. 2021 — Concacaf and Scandinavia Scouting Lead, supporting roster construction for NYCFC

Djurgardens IF

Aug. 2011-Jan. 2014 — Chief Scout at the Allsvenskan (top flight) club in Sweden

After graduating from Wiscosnin-Milwaukee in 2005, El-Ahmad briefly played professionally, was an assistant coached at Marquette and had various sporting roles from 2008-11 in the U.S. and Europe. He has founded a few businesses, including Connect Management Group, a soccer agency which represents female players.

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