Jimmy Gabriel, best known around soccer circles in the Pacific Northwest as the original Mr. Sounder, died Saturday at Banner Health Center in Phoenix. He was 80.
With a thick Scottish accent and can-do personality, Gabriel joined the inaugural Sounders FC in the North American Soccer League in 1974 after a storied career in Europe. The spirited center back helped the late John Best form the international roster that made their first appearance in the Soccer Bowl in 1977, losing to Pele’s New York Cosmos.
Gabriel, who also served as the Sounders player-coach from 1977-79 and player-assistant from 1974-76, scored the club’s first goal in the Kingdom in 1976. One of the players Gabriel mentored as coach of the NASL side is Brian Schmetzer, who led the MLS version of the Sounders to two MLS championships.
“I loved bringing him to the training field and loved watching him interact with some of the younger players,” Schmetzer said of Gabriel’s visits to Seattle pre-COVID-19. “As a younger coach, you think you know what you’re doing and you go through an idea that you have, and what Jimmy did was he always asked me questions (and) always pushed me.
“But what everybody remembers about Jimmy is he was a humble man. When I say the team performed well and the players get the accolades and when the team doesn’t play well, I take responsibility — that was stuff I learned from Jimmy. He always put the players first.”
Gabriel was born Oct. 10, 1940, in Dundee, Scotland. He began his career as a right winger in his native country and was signed by Everton in 1960 for what was then a record fee of about $37,000 in U.S. dollars.
Gabriel’s biggest success was for Everton, where he made more than 300 appearances for the Toffees and bagged 37 goals. The Scottish national helped Everton win the 1963 Division 1 championship and 1966 FA Cup.
Schmetzer tweeted a clip of Gabriel during Everton’s win against Sheffield Wednesday for the FA Cup. The Toffees rallied from a two-goal deficit to win 3-2, Gabriel holding off two defenders in the corner of Wembley Stadium in the waning seconds, stifling Sheffield Wednesday’s chances of leveling the score.
“You saw Jimmy’s character kind of come out in that play,” Schmetzer said via phone. “We used to go on road trips in the USL down to Portland. And Jimmy had an old VHS tape, and we’d play that on the bus and you could hear all the (Sounders) players hooting and hollering. He never liked the limelight, but he certainly had a ton of it in his career which gave him instant credibility and respect. Nobody would question him or challenge him because, No. 1, he had a good career, but most important he’d always want to work with someone to get them better.”
Southampton, Bournemouth, Brentford and Swindon Town all sought the defensive midfielder’s services before Gabriel moved his family to Washington. The father of three daughters finally retired as a player in 1982 with the San Jose Earthquakes’ indoor soccer team.
Gabriel’s post playing career had coaching stops in San Jose and Phoenix with returns to Seattle and Everton. Gabriel had an imprint on the Puget Sound’s youth soccer growth and also was on staff for the University of Washington’s men’s and women’s teams, assisting Dean Wurzberger and Lesle Gallimore as the Huskies men and women each won a Pac-10 championship in 2000.
“He was much more than a coach,” read a statement from Craig Waibel, who played for Gabriel at UW and is in his first season as Sounders vice president of soccer operations and sporting director.
“(Gabriel) was someone that made his players better people in everyday life, and I will never forget the lessons he taught. In addition to being a leader and mentor, Jimmy was simply a kind person. He made an impression that has stayed with me long after my playing days. He will be missed.”
In 2003, Gabriel joined Schmetzer’s staff and helped the Sounders win the 2005 United Soccer League’s title. After the title celebration, Gabriel considered himself again retired but kept a thread to the Sounders as part of its original broadcast team.
“Jimmy was integral to those early NASL Sounders teams, which inspired me in my youth and played a major role in my own journey with this club,” Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer said in a release. “Jimmy embodied all that is great about our game: he was passionate in everything he did surrounding the sport, but was always humble and a joy to be around. We will miss him dearly, but his legacy lives on here in this community.”
He is survived by his wife, Pat; three daughters, Karen, Janet, and Samantha; and 11 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.