Seattle's third MLS Cup final in four years shines spotlight on Schmetzer — whether he likes it or not
In Seattle, it has become a rite of autumn. The Sounders will make the MLS Cup playoffs, usually make a deep run toward the final, and the spotlight will shine on manager Brian Schmetzer to the point of discomfort.
One would think that given his near-40-year association with the Sounders — from his playing days to managing the team in the second tier, to being an assistant in MLS, to eventually managing the team in the top division — that Schmetzer would welcome some deserved praise. But any attempt to bestow accolades on the Seattle native is met with near instant deflection. One can almost hear him squirm over the telephone line. Praise is for the players, his assistants or even opposition coaches. It’s why the word “steward” is most often applied to Schmetzer, and it fits. He is the organization’s conscience, its north star.
“The club is in his DNA,” said Seattle GM Garth Lagerwey about Schmetzer. “When he speaks, he speaks sincerely and humbly, and those are things that really resonate with not just our fanbase but the wider community.”
That ethos will be put to the test on Sunday, when the Sounders square off against Toronto FC in the MLS Cup final (3 p.m. ET, watch live on ABC). It marks the third time in four years the two sides have met with MLS supremacy on the line, and amounts to the rubber match, with each team having hoisted the MLS Cup once. Yet it’s the first time that Seattle has hosted the title game, so for Schmetzer it resonates even more.
“I am immensely proud of this franchise,” he said. “Being a guy from Seattle, and this being your hometown team, and then the way my career path kind of happened — [starting in Seattle with] a couple of stops down in San Diego, a year in St. Louis and Tulsa — to have the MLS Cup final here, you’re so fired up.”
Seattle’s run of MLS Cup finals would normally catapult a manager into discussions about the league’s best coaches, yet Schmetzer’s name hardly ever comes up. Granted, the fact that the Sounders are always in the playoffs — they’ve reached the postseason every year since joining the league in 2009 — means there’s no “Most Improved” component to get him attention. There have been few wow moments in the regular season either, with Seattle finishing second in the Western Conference each of the past three seasons. There’s also the matter of high expectations given that the Sounders have 13 players making above the maximum salary.
That lack of notoriety matters not at all to Schmetzer. He is a near perfect fit for the organization and the city at large.
“I’ll let all the experts tell me whether I deserve all the praise for all this stuff, whether it’s the team, whether it’s Garth, whether it’s [owner Adrian Hanauer], whether it’s my assistants,” he said. “I think there’s a successful-enough organization, and what we all have are small bits and roles and parts within the team.”
So how has Schmetzer achieved so much success? His approach is all about balance; when to push and when to ease off both in terms of tactics and in his talks with players. His steady accumulation of experience as a player and coach positioned him well to impart his vision.
Schmetzer’s style can be traced back to his modest but lengthy playing career that spanned the heyday of the old North American Soccer League in the early-1980s, its demise and then the transition to the alphabet soup of various indoor leagues.
“My gift to the game was my endurance,” Schmetzer said with a trace of humor. “I could run, I could get up and down the left wing. Steve Daley used to raise his arm and say, ‘Schmeeetz!’ And I’d take off and I’d run and he’d pass the ball somewhere else.”
Schmetzer recalled how when he was an indoor teammate of Preki’s, he would always be aware of where his more talented teammate was, the better to pick up the defensive slack when the ball was lost.
“Those little things helped me have a pro career just because I was smart enough to figure out a way how to get people to say, ‘That Schmetz, he’s a pretty handy guy,'” he said.
Along the way, he made note of the different locker room dynamics on the teams for which he played. There was an American-Brit divide in Seattle, while the Tulsa Roughneck team “was the tightest group of players I’ve ever seen.” In San Diego, there were multiple cliques, so Schmetzer made sure to bounce around to each one of them. The experience of bridging those divides was useful during his coaching career given the wide disparity in pay in MLS, and the impact that can have on a locker room.
When Schmetzer transitioned into coaching, his time managing youth teams gave him an understanding of how to develop young players. He spent seven seasons managing the Sounders in the various second divisions of the time, and then took on the role of assistant under Sigi Schmid for another seven-plus years. Under Schmid, Schmetzer would imagine he was making the decisions, and if the head man did something different, Schmetzer would tease apart the reason why.
Schmid passed away last December, adding another emotional layer to Sunday’s final. Schmetzer’s gratitude towards his old mentor remains clear.
“Sigi’s memory was unbelievable. Organizationally, structurally, he was better than I was,” said Schmetzer. “I learned a lot from Sig as far as how to win in MLS.”
It made for an extensive apprenticeship at all levels, so when the call to take over from Schmid came midway through the 2016 season, Schmetzer was ready. That included the knowledge of how his role would change now that he was the man in charge.
“Their livelihood is now in your hands,” he said of his players. “What they require is honesty, whether it’s the brutal honesty of, ‘Hey, you’re not playing this weekend,’ or the brutal honesty of ‘We’re not going to renew your option for next year.’ How you say that is massively important, as much so as when you compliment a player for a good job, trying to boost the player’s confidence. It’s different as a head coach than when I was an assistant.”
Schmetzer emerged as a well-rounded coach, adept in all aspects. He describes himself as a players’ coach in the mold of former Sounders manager Alan Hinton, who signed him as a teenager in 1980. He has also shown he can throw out a tactical wrinkle or two, like in the Western Conference final against LAFC.
“I think to get to the level that you need to get to in order to coach in MLS, you can’t be too light on the tactics piece,” said Sigi Schmid’s son Kurt, who was previously Seattle’s director of player personnel but is now the technical director for Inter Miami. “But that being said he’s definitely very good at man management. I think some people can manage big groups really well, big personalities really well. I think Brian is really good at managing individuals really well. No one bats 1.000 in that department, but I think for the large majority of players who were there, he was always pretty good about just developing good relationships with those guys and even if guys walked away after hearing things they didn’t like.”
“There’s a closeness there within the group because they know that we as a staff have their best interests at heart,” said Schmetzer. “That closeness is developed out of mutual respect. It doesn’t mean we’re going to go on double dates with the players and their wives.”
Schmetzer has been adaptable as well. Lagerwey notes that the 2016 team that Schmetzer led to that year’s MLS Cup was more rugged following the midseason loss Clint Dempsey to a heart ailment. The following year there was the challenge of repeating as MLS Cup champions. The disappointment of being eliminated to archrival Portland last season was eclipsed this year by the run to the final, with Seattle dispatching LAFC along the way.
“I think that his kind of enduring quality has been that he can coach that 2016 run-and-fight team, and now he can coach this team which can play soccer,” said Lagerwey. “We can score a bunch of different ways and be more varied in our attack and our approach and how we play. The credit to him is he can manage both, his message resonates with both groups.”
Schmetzer called 2019 his toughest year given the forced retirement of defender Chad Marshall, the injury to forward Will Bruin as well as the suspension to Torres for using performance-enhancing drugs. But now he is on the cusp of another title.
“If I can get them all to believe that if they work for each other and fight for each other, that’s the best way they can win, then I’m doing my job as a manager,” he said.
With a win on Sunday, praise from outside will surely follow, whether Schmetzer wants it or not.