- The Sounders manager has dedicated much of his life to the club, and it's appropriate that he's the one to lead them to an MLS Cup final–after a patient wait.
He was so eager to play for his hometown Seattle Sounders that he skipped college and signed with the team straight out of Nathan Hale High School. He was so committed to managing the Sounders that while leading them through seven USL seasons in the 2000s, he worked construction jobs on the side to make ends meet. And he remained so devoted to the Sounders that he accepted a demotion to assistant coach when they joined MLS in 2009.
Many would have felt slighted or disrespected after so many years of service. Many would have quit. Brian Schmetzer said simply that he felt “happy and fortunate” to remain with the club.
“I’ve gone on record and said Sigi [Schmid] was the right guy to start the franchise. Do I think I could’ve coached the team? Of course, as a soccer person. But Sigi’s knowledge of our league, of all the intricacies, that was vital for us to get the team off the ground,” Schmetzer told SI.com this week. “I hope that if you ever ask Sigi, he would say I was helpful to him in those early years. We thought our relationship was really good. I was just lucky enough to have that job as his assistant.”
Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer, who hired Schmetzer in 2002 and Schmid in ’09, certainly is grateful the former stuck around and had the chance to earn a full-time salary. But he’s not surprised.
“It speaks to his comfort with himself as a person, his lack of ego, his commitment to the club and the community and his love of the sport,” Hanauer said. “Schmetz is the best. It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true. His honesty, his sincerity and again, his commitment. It makes me so happy that he’s gotten this opportunity.”
If Schmetzer’s years of devotion to Seattle soccer (it goes beyond the Sounders—his family has owned and run a small chain of soccer shops since the 1970s and he even played and coached on two local indoor teams) represents the measure of the man, then so does the MLS squad’s run to Saturday night’s MLS Cup final in Toronto. Seattle was reeling when Schmetzer finally became (interim) head coach in late July, winners of only one of its previous seven MLS matches. It was propping up the Western Conference and after an embarrassingly lifeless performance in Kansas City, Schmid was let go. He’d guided the Sounders to seven consecutive playoff berths, four U.S. Open Cup crowns and one Supporters' Shield. His legend remained intact. But it was time for a change.
Hanauer turned to his once and future coach.
“Early on I said, ‘Look, you never know what’s going to happen with Sigi. If there comes a time when we have to part ways, you have our commitment that we will give you a serious consideration for the head coaching position.’ And he trusted that would be the case,” Hanauer said. “It was satisfying to be able to ultimately deliver on that. Those promises, I would venture to guess don’t often come to fruition.”
Schmetzer, 54, had a winning pedigree. During his seven seasons as a head coach, he took the Sounders to two USL championships, two Open Cup semis (as a second-tier team) and an impressive 100-57-41 regular season record—while building houses on the side. Under Schmid, Schmetzer then had a seven-year apprenticeship during which he honed his knowledge of the league and his ability to command a locker room filled with big names. He frequently ran training sessions. He’d gone on a couple of interviews with other MLS teams during that time, but he wasn’t hired. And the truth is, his connection to the city and club almost surely ensured he’d be a different coach in Seattle than in Montreal or Dallas.
This July, more than anyone, he understood what was at stake. It wasn’t necessarily about engineering a near-impossible recovery and making the playoffs, nor was it about auditioning for the permanent gig. There were 42,000 fans coming to watch the Sounders each week. Back when they played at the Kingdome and Memorial Stadium, Schmetzer was one of those fans. He recalls watching Pelé go up against the Sounders in 1976 and knows he’s far from the only CenturyLink Field regular who shares that memory.
Soccer has real roots in Seattle. It’s had generations of support.
“There are a lot of fans out here that are intertwined with this club for so many years,” Schmetzer said.
There was a standard to maintain. Even if the Sounders didn’t make the postseason, and no MLS team had ever done so after accumulating 20 or fewer points through the first 20 games (Seattle had 20), they had to offer up a better version of themselves. Establish some chemistry. Be competitive. They owed it to their city and the four decades of heritage embodied by their interim coach.
“When I got the call that I was going to be the head coach, we didn’t have a conversation, ‘This is what it takes to be the next guy. You have to make the playoffs,’” Schmetzer said. “It was, ‘Brian, how can we help you?’ I just put my head down and started working. Every game was so critical that I needed to get up and running right away, incorporating [newly-signed DP Nicolás] Lodeiro, figuring out my own words that I was going to say to the team and get them into a system I felt they could be successful with.”
Schmetzer met with every player individually. He told each of them how they fit into his plans while reminding them that in the end, it was their team. It was up to them to reward themselves for the work they put in and it was up to them to create the atmosphere and chemistry they desired. He’d give them that leeway and hold them accountable.
“They were dedicated to themselves, dedicated to their teammates and they didn’t want to end the season in ninth place. That was a committed group of players,” Schmetzer said. “We were left for dead.”
Hanauer said, “I love the fact that he basically said, ‘This is my opportunity. I’m going to grab this and not let go.’”
Lodeiro was everything Seattle hoped he’d be and more—an architect on the pitch and a new, effective influence off it. Hanauer tells a story about how the Uruguayan walked into the locker room prior to his first match with the team, unilaterally decided there’d be no more pre-game music and informed his new teammates that every bit of focus must be on the 90 minutes ahead. The Sounders went out and earned a 1-1 draw with the LA Galaxy. They then reeled off three wins in a row.
Clint Dempsey was lost with heart trouble but Schmetzer remained “really mentally strong and focused … he doesn’t want to make excuses. Control the controllables. Some people just sort of say those things and he really lives it,” Hanauer said.
Forward Jordan Morris, a Seattle native like Schmetzer, got the hang of pro soccer. His best buddy Cristian Roldan, a University of Washington product, blossomed as a deep-lying midfielder in Schmetzer’s 4-2-3-1. Osvaldo Alonso returned to Best XI-level form and Panamanian defender Román Torres returned from injury. Seattle finished on an 8-2-4 run and somehow managed to come in fourth in the West, meaning it would host a knockout-round playoff game.
Schmetzer’s “interim” tag was almost a joke by at that point, and Hanauer and general manager Garth Lagerwey announced its inevitable removal a couple games into the postseason. By then, even hard-luck striker Nelson Valdez was scoring goals.
Hanauer said that the Sounders “collected a lot of resumes” and planned to talk to “a lot of people” about the permanent head coaching position. No one was interviewed.
“We were impressed by his ability to work effectively with Garth and [sporting director] Chris Henderson as the leaders of the soccer organization," Hanauer added. "And that just means good communication, good planning, good execution. Second, the ability to communicate effectively and build consensus within the team to make the locker room a high-functioning locker room. The reality is winning makes a locker room really good and losing frays the edges. Obviously the locker room was a challenge because of the results. And third, it’s a results business. We wanted to see more points per game. All three of those issues were knocked out of the park.”
Seattle was a .500 team entering the playoffs, but this is no .500 team. The midseason changes and the grind to simply qualify altered the Sounders' clutch gene. They’d survived the MLS Cup quarterfinals just twice in seven seasons. Seattle’s ability to sniff out playoff misfortune was impressively effective and had become an unwanted but significant part of the organization’s identity. Hanauer said he didn’t believe there was a formula for playoff success. His patience as Schmid tripped up time and again is evidence.
“This is a tough league to win. Look at last year’s finalists, Columbus and Portland. They didn’t even make the playoffs,” Schmetzer said. “The more times you go, your chances are going to up. That’s obvious … Now we’ve been on a good run of form. Guys are believing they can win games. They’ve matured and found ways to win games. They’re rewarding themselves for sure.”
The margins are thin. It often comes down to a timely play and a bit of luck. Valdez scores his first goal of the year in the 88th-minute of the first-round match against Sporting Kansas City. A couple of very controversial calls go the Sounders’ way, and they’re through. FC Dallas, the Shield winner, loses its best player on the final day of the regular season, and Seattle punishes them in the first leg of the conference semis, 3-0.
Schmetzer’s team then takes a 2-1 aggregate lead into the Western Conference decider at the Colorado Rapids, yields 16 shots to a wasteful host and gets a second-half goal from Morris, who’d just spent two days in bed with a virus. There was plenty of clutch, plenty of good fortune, four wins in five playoff games and the sort of momentum and mojo that no Sounders team has had at this time of year.
“It speaks to a little bit luck, a little bit peaking at the right time—confidence at the right time. The team coming together, because the margin between winning and losing in our league is so, so thin,” Hanauer said.
And now it’s on to MLS Cup, where the Sounders will face Toronto FC. Both teams are on a roll. Both teams field big stars and both have balance and experience. It’s a match-up that would have surprised no one at the beginning of the season. But the route Seattle has taken has been shocking. At the end of the club’s most traumatic and challenging campaign, it’s progressed further than ever.
Lodeiro, Morris, Alonso and others deserve plenty of credit for the team Seattle has become. But Schmetzer deserves a lot of credit for the culture that paved the way. He is Sounders through and through. Win on Saturday, and his renown will extend far beyond the Emerald City. And he’ll be a long way from his days as a part-time USL coach or a player with the Seattle SeaDogs.
“We occasionally joke about him doing some remodeling of the offices, helping to build some things for the club,” Hanauer said.
He already has. And if he pushes the right buttons again on Saturday, Schmetzer can get to work next week enlarging the trophy case.