TUKWILA – The Sounders, not ones for hyperbole, often avoid use of the “must-win game” cliché, no matter how deep the slump or dire the situation.
There is no escaping the idea this time, however, as Seattle kicks off the MLS playoffs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Western Conference knockout round against Colorado at CenturyLink Field.
The winner advances to the conference semifinals to face No. 1 seed Portland, starting Saturday.
The loser starts thinking about next season.
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A must-win for the teams, obviously, but is it also a must win for Sounders coach Sigi Schmid?
Questions about Schmid’s job security have swirled locally, and also with the national media, as his team enters postseason on a seven-game winless streak, the second-worst in franchise history. Amid lofty expectations, Seattle hasn’t won a trophy in two years, even after spending big this season on two high-profile designated players.
“I coach every day like I’m going to be here tomorrow,” Schmid said Tuesday. “If you start coaching like you feel that you could be gone tomorrow, then you are going to coach out of fear.”
Schmid called this “an unusual year” when it comes to the lineup turmoil, mainly due to widespread injuries and national team call-ups, but noted in his defense that the team has made the playoffs each of the past five years — something only Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake can also claim.
The Sounders’ future, he added, looks bright, being able to build around superstar Clint Dempsey, who arrived in August.
“At the end of the day,” Schmid said, “my focus is Colorado and is on that game. Everything else is out of my hands. A coach always has his bags packed, because you’re going to get fired at some point.”
If Schmid is on the proverbial hot seat, it hasn’t been apparent in recent comments from ownership.
Majority owner Joe Roth, amid the struggles, told Sports Illustrated last week: “This guy is the winningest coach in MLS history. I don’t think he’s at fault here.”
“It’s true,” said Adrian Hanauer, part-owner in response to Roth, “and Sigi’s been around enough to know that owners are emotional, things change — it’s reality. But I do agree with Joe; if we’re placing blame, there’s plenty to go around.”
Inconsistency has made it hard to evaluate. The team has hardly been able to play together as intended and will likely use its 39th lineup against the Rapids out of 40 games.
Seattle’s three DPs have been on the field together a combined 168 minutes — 5.49 percent of the season. That trend looks like it will continue into the playoffs as forward Obafemi Martins, who has already missed four of five games, wasn’t able to practice Tuesday due to a lingering groin injury.
All the moving pieces paint a cloudier picture when it comes to assessing Schmid.
“I know that the first and easiest trigger to pull is to fire the coach,” Hanauer said. “That’s the easy solution — ‘Let’s fire someone’ — but it’s just not always a good solution. My job is to sort through the complexity of the issues. … I don’t think coaches go from being good coaches to bad coaches overnight or even over the course of a year.”
Hanauer, a Northwest native, recalls when the Sonics parted ways with longtime coach George Karl. That move serves as a warning to Hanauer as the Sonics were unable to reach the same success with new coaches.
In MLS, only four teams haven’t changed coaches since the Sounders joined the league in 2009: Seattle, Los Angeles, RSL and Houston. Leaguewide there have been 46 different coaches, including interims, in that span.
“There comes a time when every coach … comes to the end of the line, and whether that means retiring or being fired, it happens,” Hanauer said. “If I get to the point where I think that’s the solution, then we won’t be afraid to make tough decisions like that, but they’re not going to be knee-jerk and emotional.”
• If there is no winner after 90 minutes Wednesday, the teams will play a 30-minute overtime. A penalty-kick shootout follows, if necessary.
Joshua Mayers: 206-464-3184 or firstname.lastname@example.org