Before he moved on to the professional ranks, before he became a thorn in the side of the man he wanted to learn from, Caleb Porter was a highly successful college coach at Akron.
On occasion, Porter would make the two-hour trip to watch the Columbus Crew practice and see what tidbits he might be able to lift from coach Sigi Schmid.
“You don’t forget legends,” said Porter, now the head coach in Columbus. “You don’t forget people, pioneers that have paved the way for you and that’s something that I always am mindful of and I think about.”
Nearly two years after he died, Schmid’s influence is still being felt heading into Saturday’s MLS Cup final between Columbus and Sounders FC.
Schmid is the only coach to lead the Crew to an MLS championship, capping a 2008 season during which Columbus also won the Supporters’ Shield.
Schmid was also the first coach of the Sounders, creating the foundation for a franchise that has made the playoffs in every year of its existence and has played in four of the past five league championship matches.
For two teams with little else to connect them, the career of the Hall of Fame coach who passed away at age 65 in December 2018 is a thread that runs deeply through the history of both clubs.
“I love that he’s been a part of both franchises. I’m sad that he’s not here to witness this,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said.
Schmid’s standing as a head coach is nearly unmatched in MLS history. There’s a reason the league named its coach of the year award after him. Schmid first made his mark in coaching in California, turning UCLA into a powerhouse then moving into the professional ranks and taking over the L.A. Galaxy in 1999. He led L.A. to three finals and a title in 2002.
“He found some top talent,” former Galaxy star Cobi Jones said. “But that 2002 team, for the Galaxy, it was special because we were a tightknit unit, we were buddies on and off the field. We were like family.”
But while Schmid took over an established franchise in L.A. with plenty of support, his coaching jobs in Columbus and Seattle were more organic.
Brad Evans was a young player on that 2008 Crew team that beat the New York Red Bulls in the final. It was the culmination of a three-year rebuilding project by Schmid that more than a decade later is still remembered fondly by soccer fans in Columbus.
“He kind of really got himself ingrained in that like Columbus culture,” Evans said, noting Schmid’s family remained on the West Coast. “ … He was kind of on an island. And he really was just like a soccer rat then, more than he was here in Seattle, or I think even in years prior. Because in Columbus, for him, there was no escape. The only escape was going in early and leaving late. And that’s what made that team successful, and I think that’s why that championship meant so much to him.”
Evans can speak with authority about Schmid’s influence on the two franchises. He followed his coach to Seattle when Schmid was hired for the Sounders’ inaugural season. Evans was the last of Seattle’s 10 picks in the expansion draft and he spent nine seasons with the team, making 200 appearances.
“Winning isn’t the only thing, but the reality is if the Sounders weren’t that successful in the first couple years, Sigi wouldn’t have been here for as long as he was,” Evans said. “If Seattle wasn’t as successful, as we’ve been for a decade, people don’t talk about it being a dynasty like we are now. If Seattle wasn’t as successful as we’d been, Sigi wouldn’t have looked on his time in Seattle as fondly and why it meant so much.”
Tod Leiweke was one of those responsible for helping bring Schmid to Seattle. Leiweke is now the CEO of the NHL’s Seattle Kraken and a minority owner of the Sounders. But in 2008-09, Leiweke ran all of Paul Allen’s sports ventures, which included the launch of the Sounders.
“He was just a remarkable guy. … I think he’ll be looking down on Saturday for sure, looking at these two franchises he had such a huge impact on,” Leiweke said.
Porter eventually graduated from being a student of Schmid’s to a rival years later when Porter took his first MLS job in Portland. He described it as being “in his kitchen.”
But the appreciation for Schmid was always there and still remains.
“When you look at 2008, that’s a season that’s talked about, that’s celebrated,” Porter said. “I think it’s been an inspiration for our group this year, and certainly it would be meaningful with Sigi being the coach of that 2008 team.”