Sigi Schmid had guided the Sounders to the playoffs every year since they joined MLS in 2009. But a slow start did him in this season, and he and the team parted ways in July. Schmid tells his side of the story of how it ended with the Sounders.
MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. – Sigi Schmid has spent hours upon hours of unwelcome free time cleaning out his home not far from the breakfast spot off this beach town’s main drag.
The veteran coach doesn’t have many hobbies outside soccer.
He tried to take up golf in the ’90s, but that didn’t really take. He’s an avid sports fan, from Pac-12 college basketball to the German Bundesliga, though it’s hard to say that really counts as outside, either.
Sounders @ Vancouver, 5 p.m., FS1
Schmid has tried to stay as busy as possible since parting ways with the Sounders in July after seven-plus mostly successful seasons, but there’s only so many ways to fill so much unwelcome free time.
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Schmid has spent most of it with his wife, Valerie – “probably too much for her,” according to him – and downloaded old CDs to his iTunes account. He just finished reading Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography and started Laura Hillenbrand’s “Unbroken.”
“I’m bad at being unemployed,” Schmid said while picking at an omelet, blue UCLA cap pulled low.
He’s always been a prolific and meticulous note-taker. And they’ve piled up: countless stacks of reports on players long since retired, training drills that were never implemented, lineups that were merely hypothetical.
So mostly, he cleans, throws away and shreds. Out with the old, in with the new.
That’s how Schmid stumbled across his notes from the end of the 2015 season. In his telling, that’s when the trouble started.
‘It was still painful’
Schmid was at Seattle’s 4-2 win over Los Angeles last Sunday at the StubHub Center, though with misgivings. It was the first time he’d ever seen the Sounders play live when not standing on the sideline.
The 63-year-old hadn’t even watched a full game since his departure until tuning in to the 1-0 home win over Vancouver on Sept. 17.
“It was still painful,” said Schmid, who ranks first in MLS regular-season wins with 228, including 115 with Seattle. “It gets less painful at times.”
For a while, he tried to get away from it all, rarely successfully.
He and Valerie were somewhere on Chuckanut Drive near Bellingham when the Sounders faced the Galaxy at CenturyLink Field a few days after he was let go, but even there he was recognized by a fan.
Catching up with an acquaintance shortly afterward, an otherwise passing conversation cut to the core.
Friend: How are the Sounders?
Schmid: I’m not the coach anymore.
Friend: But you made the playoffs seven years in a row, right?
What most irks Schmid is the very day he walked out of Starfire Sports for the last time, Nicolas Lodeiro arrived to sign his Designated Player contract. Alvaro Fernandez was acquired a few days later, and Panamanian international Roman Torres returned from his knee injury shortly afterward.
All three started Sunday’s match in Carson, while Schmid looked on from the stands. Under interim coach Brian Schmetzer, the Sounders have played themselves back into the playoff hunt, leapfrogging Portland into sixth place with their home win over Chicago on Wednesday night.
“The day I was let go, three players got added to the team,” Schmid said. “… Plus, we’d gone through the growing pains of (Cristian) Roldan and Jordan (Morris). Compare their games to earlier in the season. There’s a tremendous difference.”
Bounces, he says, even out over the course of the eight-month MLS season, but only if you’re allowed to see it through.
“I would have liked to have had the opportunity to work with those guys, Lodeiro especially,” Schmid said. “If I would have worked with all those guys and we still wouldn’t have succeeded, then I would have said, ‘Yeah, maybe it’s time to move on and change the coach.’ ”
Disconnect on expectations
The Sounders needed to get younger, the veteran coach admits, even now.
He pushed back against some of the moves that cleaned out the back end of the rotation but in general recognized the need to freshen things up, even at the expense of a few trusty veterans.
The disconnect came in the expectation of how such significant turnover would play out on the field.
Going young meant taking lumps early in the season as players grew into new and increased roles, Schmid cautioned ad nauseam throughout the preseason, but “lumps” has a different connotation to different people.
“I was trying to be a good company man and say, ‘OK,’ ” Schmid said. “(But) for me, lumps are losses along the way. It wasn’t that 3-1 wins are going to become 2-1 wins.”
Those losses piled up. By summer, Seattle’s streak of seven straight playoff berths was in serious jeopardy. The Kansas City game happened, his team wilting in the Midwestern heat, defender Tyrone Mears pulling up short to allow SKC’s Dom Dwyer an uncontested look at goal.
“A lot of people took more out of the Kansas City game than was there,” said Schmid, who went 6-12-2 this season. “Because the Kansas City game came on the heels of a very emotional loss to the L.A. Galaxy in the Open Cup, a game that we shouldn’t have lost, a game that we beat ourselves in. And then the heat, and the humidity …”
After seven-plus seasons, was his message falling on deaf ears? Did he still have command over the locker room?
“Any time you have a locker room, some guys are more in your corner, some guys are less in your corner and there are guys in the middle,” Schmid said. “I don’t think that changed. I don’t think the guys in the middle were on the other side. The guys in my corner were still in my corner. The guys that weren’t still weren’t. That was my feeling. Maybe I had it wrong. Maybe Adrian and Garth had a better pulse on that.”
The Sounders are in transition on multiple levels. Schmid’s departure was merely the latest and most public domino.
The club broke with the Seahawks on business operations early in 2014, a defining moment in the modern history of the club. Owner Adrian Hanauer stepped down as general manager later that year, hiring Garth Lagerwey away from Real Salt Lake as his replacement prior to the last season.
Schmid’s relationship with Lagerwey was frosty by the end, the general manager describing their dynamic a few days after the break as cordial but on different wavelengths.
“We were employees that worked together in a job that required us to work together,” Schmid said this week. “We tried.”
Still, that wasn’t the only thing the coach was alluding to when he bemoaned the loss of tight-knit camaraderie early in 2015.
The club he’d help launch had changed. Crowds got bigger. Years of consistent success shifted expectations.
“Somebody made a comment to me within the organization that ‘we’re changing our philosophy here where it’s not about being consistent, it’s about putting all of our effort into winning the Cup,’ ” Schmid said. “I’m going: ‘So how does that work?’ You have to be a consistent team to give yourself a chance to win the Cup every year.
“How exactly from a coaching style do you do that? I said, ‘You let me know how that works, because I’d certainly love to know.’ ”
That Portland beat Seattle to the summit eats away at Schmid — the Timbers won the MLS Cup last season — and not just because of the rivalry between the clubs. The Timbers missed the playoffs in 2014 and unless they can figure out how to win on the road, they’re most likely the odd team out in the Western Conference again this year.
“Does that mean Caleb (Porter) has been a successful coach, because one year he won MLS Cup and in three he barely made the playoffs?” Schmid asked between bites of wheat toast. “… Is MLS Cup the only thing that defines you as a coach?
“There’s a little bit of that feeling. The only thing that makes me sad is there was a feeling toward the end in Seattle is that that’s the only thing that defines success. Getting into the playoffs seven years in a row, winning five trophies – not including Cascadia Cups – I think it’s pretty good.”
‘Drive of proving yourself’
There was a time, not all that long ago, when Schmid figured Seattle would be his last coaching job.
Already with the most wins in MLS history, lifting the MLS Cup with the Sounders was something of a final frontier. He planned on giving it a few more goes, and if they continued to fall short, hey, maybe it wasn’t meant to be.
“If I had finished up this season with the Sounders and we came in and said, ‘Look, maybe it’s time to move on,’ I probably would have said, ‘You know what, I’m probably ready to be a GM,’ ” Schmid said. “But now, with it ending the way it did, I’m really not ready to give it up.”
With four expansion clubs entering MLS over the next two seasons, the man who helped Seattle hit the ground running is likely to be a hot commodity. He’s already spoken to multiple organizations, for front-office positions and his more-desired one on the sideline.
He can afford to wait for the right fit, though judging by the relish with which he’s approaching his hypothetical next step, it’ll come sooner rather than later.
“There’s always the drive of proving yourself,” Schmid said. “When you talk to all good players, as soon as they step on the field, even though they’ve proven it before, they want to prove it again. For me as a coach, it’s the same thing, when you have something like that happen. The drive now is really strong to prove that this last half-year in Seattle is not who Sigi Schmid is as a coach.
“I don’t want my coaching career to end on a losing season. I haven’t had many losing seasons in my 30-some years as a coach.”