The Sounders are on the verge of a playoff berth that seemed ludicrous to envision when they were 6-12-2 at the time of Sigi Schmid’s ouster. It seems like the perfect time for the Sounders to do what seems increasingly inevitable: Take the interim tag off Schmetzer’s title.
Cristian Roldan, the Sounders’ 21-year-old midfielder, was asked to assess the 11-game coaching reign of Brian Schmetzer.
“He’s stepped up,” Roldan replied.
And so, in a huge way, have the Sounders. Schmetzer’s ascension to the job July 26, when the club parted ways with Sigi Schmid, has coincided with an astonishing turnaround. The Sounders are on the verge of a playoff berth that seemed ludicrous to envision when they were in ninth place at 6-12-2 at the time of Schmid’s ouster.
Confidence is soaring. The “vibe is great,” according to Roldan, who added, “We’re very happy. Lots of smiles in the training ground, in the locker room.” And the prospect of not just making the postseason, but making a run, rises with each victory.
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In fact, it seems like the perfect time for the Sounders to do what seems increasingly inevitable: Take the interim tag off Schmetzer’s title.
The sense in the soccer world is that the Sounders will be in pursuit of a big-name coach in the offseason as Schmid’s full-time replacement. Let’s hope the priority is the best name, not the biggest or sexiest. When it comes to a coach’s bona fides, nothing is sexier than winning.
And Schmetzer, a Nathan Hale grad who has Seattle soccer in his blood, is showing he knows how to do just that. Sure, he has had some fortuitous circumstances, especially the arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro, Alvaro Fernandez and Roman Torres shortly after he was bumped up from assistant coach.
But he also has had to deal with the extended absence, perhaps permanent, of Clint Dempsey. The resilience Sounders players have shown under Schmetzer’s watch, both within a game and in the larger context of the season, reflects very well on his ability to get their best.
“I keep telling people, the new-coach bump was there,’’ Schmetzer said after a recent training session. “That’s reality. I’m pretty pragmatic. I get it. There was a new voice. The guys, I’ve got their attention. Then you add a couple of new players … we get all that.
“The messenger, the new voice, is about the team. This is my contribution, just to get them to have buy-in.”
That’s a knack not to be undersold. In fact, you could call it the essence of coaching. Schmetzer has convinced Sounders players, in his words, to take ownership of the team.
“The season’s too long, they work too hard, they put too much of their life into it — because the MLS is a long season — not to do everything humanly possible to reward themselves for the work they do,’’ he said. “That’s what I think is ownership of the team.”
Schmetzer is trying not to obsess over his status. He has not been given any timetable for a decision, and he understands; there is a playoff run to focus on. But he’s also not oblivious to what’s going on, and what’s at stake.
“Look, I’m human,’’ he said. “Those thoughts come across at the dinner table at times. But the thing I’m most sure of is that if the team performs at a high level, and along the way wins some games, then that’s the best insurance policy I can have to where my future is headed.
“The flip side of that, do I feel I can coach in this league? Absolutely. Based on the results we’ve had, and the ability to manage some guys, yeah, sure. So it does come up. But I know how to solve it.”
And that is: Keep winning. General manager Garth Lagerwey, though highly complimentary of the job Schmetzer has done, reiterated Thursday that the coaching decision will be made at the end of the season. He also points out that the Sounders, despite their turnaround, have yet to qualify for the playoffs, and that the organizational goal is “not merely to make the playoffs, but to go on runs and compete for championships.”
When I asked if it’s true the Sounders are seeking a big-name coach, Lagerwey replied, “Look, I’m on the record as saying this is the fourth coach I’ve worked with in four years. I’d just as soon not go for five in five.
“One of the strategic advantages with respect to designated players, like Nicolas Lodeiro, is that they don’t have to be household names when we sign them. Our fan base is so knowledgeable, and so large, that we can go get the best player, and if our team is successful, then those DPs will do what they need to do.
“Philosophically, I don’t see why the coach would be any different. I can speculate and say, ‘Hey, when the franchise launched in 2009, a big name with Sigi might have had some extra value and cachet to start the brand and put it on the map.’ But I would argue, to some degree at least, the brand is certainly more established in 2016 than it was in 2009, which perhaps diminishes the need for the big-name coach.
“Look, if you do well and play well, and people want to watch you play, then the coach will sort itself out.”
In the meantime, the Sounders can wrap up a playoff spot with one victory in their final three games. And there’s a quiet confidence building that they can keep rolling after that. The road win against the Galaxy, the recent comeback against Vancouver — all those and others have helped cement the concept of team ownership.
“We’ve had some dogfights, some slugfests. … I mean, we’ve figured out a way to win games,’’ Schmetzer said. “So that makes us a dangerous team. Some days, soccer isn’t always pretty and ‘the beautiful game.’ Some days, you’ve got to gut it out.”
And one day soon, one hopes, the Sounders will sort out their coaching vacancy and realize they’ve had the right man all along.