As the Sounders open camp in Tukwila, getting players to forget their MLS Cup title win six weeks ago and focus on what's ahead looms as the biggest challenge for head coach Brian Schmetzer and his staff.
Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer didn’t waste any time calling in the favor one of his former players owed.
Earlier this month, Schmetzer agreed to be a surprise guest speaker at a corporate kickoff event in Seattle held by Slalom Consulting, acting on a request by the company’s newest business development employee — Sounders legend Zach Scott. So when seeking a different way to caution players about complacency as they opened training camp this week ahead of defending their MLS Cup title, Schmetzer knew exactly who to call.
“He owed me one,” Schmetzer said with a smile.
Scott recalls taking the Monday phone call and hearing a coach emphatic about sending a message that the title win of six weeks ago is over with. That lingering too long over past success is a surefire recipe for future failure.
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Despite misgivings about returning so soon to address the team he spent 15 years with before retiring after last month’s title victory, Scott went along with the plan. He quietly slipped unannounced into the back of a conference room Tuesday as Schmetzer was giving players a Power Point presentation on being a Sounder and some of the prominent figures in franchise lore.
After a prolonged segment on Scott, Schmetzer surprised the players by calling him up from the back of the room to speak.
“He wanted me to explain to the guys a bit about what life looks like outside of soccer,” Scott said. “How lucky they have it to be in the position they are. Being … in a unique situation of coming off of a championship and now, how are we going to answer that with a renewed focus and vigor for 2017?”
Schmetzer had wrestled with that question since the moment he hoisted the MLS Cup in Toronto last month, knowing the last two league champions missed the playoffs the following year.
His coming first full campaign as an MLS head coach — having taken over midway through last season — would have a daunting task added: motivating a team he’d already led to the pinnacle of success.
And pinnacles worry Schmetzer more than most things in soccer.
He’d recently sat in on a speaking engagement by U.S. women’s coach Jill Ellis, who drew a mountain peak on a board to show the audience where her team’s mindset had been following a dominant 2015 capped by a World Cup win. Ellis noted how narrow and pointy the pinnacle was and how easy it would be to get knocked off in any direction and crash to the ground.
Sure enough, the women’s side was upset by Sweden in last summer’s quarterfinals at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
For Schmetzer, it was a reminder about complacency and having players too comfortable with their status. He had firsthand experience with that his previous occasion coaching a professional side to a title when his pre-MLS Sounders captured the United Soccer League crown in 2005.
Schmetzer admits now that the follow-up 2006 season — in which the team placed seventh and missed the playoffs — was the worst of his pro coaching career. He simply could not get players to respond the way they had the previous year.
So, he called on Scott, a veteran of those 2005 and 2006 squads, to help him make the point.
Scott admits he emphasized things with some language unprintable in family newspapers. But the overall message was: Don’t get too comfortable.
“No one cares about mistakes if you get on with it,” Scott said. “But I told them ‘There’s going to be moments throughout the year when you’ve felt like you’ve made it. That’s when you’re about to (screw) up.’”
Scott further told them: “Don’t get into a situation where you think you’re here, you’ve made it. Where you think you’re talented. Where you’re given this amazing opportunity and you take your foot off the gas. Because 15 years, for me, has gone in the blink of an eye.’’
Midfielder Cristian Roldan said the players in the room were attentive throughout and understood what was being communicated.
“I think he left a positive message,” the former Huskies star said. “He’s in the real world now and he says it isn’t too fun. And we have to take advantage of this opportunity that we have and make sure we make the most of everything given to us.”
The Sounders have already bid farewell to 14 players from their championship squad, including catalysts like Scott, Andreas Ivanschitz, Tyrone Mears, Erik Friberg and Nelson Valdez.
They’re trying to get younger and more durable, but Schmetzer is also a firm believer that “character” wins championships. He hopes none of it was lost in the trade-off.
Nobody can answer that until games start being played.
For now, Schmetzer plans to fend off any on-field complacency by keeping drills “competitive” and matching up players with personal histories or similar sizes to bring “an edge” to each day and prevent anybody from feeling too comfortable.
“The biggest positive is they’re all energetic, they’re all happy to be back out playing soccer,” Schmetzer said following the team’s Wednesday workout. “And that is key. We cannot afford to have them come out and be complacent. We all know that it’s really difficult to win back-to-back. So, that’s what I’m keying on.’’