To understand 54-year-old Brian Schmetzer, it’s necessary to start with a history lesson.
More than a decade ago, celebrating successful seasons with family at Sixty Acres Park in Redmond, local soccer coaches Brian Schmetzer and Pete Fewing asked a passer-by if she’d care for a photo.
Fewing’s Seattle University Redhawks had recently claimed the Division II men’s soccer national title, while Schmetzer’s minor-league Seattle Sounders were on the upswing.
They were feeling confident, chests out with pride.
Portland @ Sounders FC, 6:30 p.m., FS1
Schmetzer, nudging his longtime colleague and with the dry humor of knowing one’s standing, noticed a woman heading their way with camera in hand. He also sensed an opportunity to expand upon a running joke.
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“ ‘People must be so excited to see us here,’ ” Fewing recalled. “We’re glowing in our own greatness. Totally facetious. A woman walks by with a camera and Brian asks her, ‘Do you want a photo?’ We’re both grinning.”
Fewing pauses for dramatic effect, flinch-worthy all these years later.
“And she says … ‘Who in the hell are you?’ ”
With Schmetzer, now the Sounders’ interim coach, unbeaten in three games since taking over for Sigi Schmid, it’s possible to hear her incredulousness echoing through time and around MLS.
Excuse me, ma’am? Let me introduce you to Brian Schmetzer, the man who would be king of Seattle soccer. He’s waited for a long time for this chance, and opportunities like these don’t come around very often.
“I don’t think that any coach in my position,” Schmetzer said before a pause, characteristically choosing his words carefully, “… those are never things that you wish. That’s somebody that you work with that got fired. But at the same time, we’re not complaining that we actually get a chance.
“I relish the opportunity to see if I actually can do it. In that sense, it is exciting for me.”
To understand how the 54-year-old Schmetzer has been shaped by his surroundings, and to start to explain why he inspires such deep feeling within the Seattle soccer community, it’s necessary to start with a history lesson.
Going all the way back to his youth days in the 1970s, Schmetzer has played for or coached nearly every professional soccer team of significance in this region.
Schmetzer signed with the NASL Sounders in 1980 under club icon Alan Hinton at the age of 17, fresh out of Nathan Hale High. Schmetzer’s willingness to learn and ankle-biting style of tackling intrigued the veterans, but he wouldn’t earn a regular starting place until 1983, the season before the team folded.
Thus began a trek through the American soccer wilderness, from a stint with what he describes as the appropriately named Tulsa Roughnecks through three indoor titles with the San Diego Sockers.
Schmetzer made a cameo with the semipro FC Seattle team that would produce a host of future local coaches, laced up his cleats with his younger brothers Andy and Walt on the Tacoma Stars. He retired as a player in 1991 due to shoulder problems.
It’s been a long and winding road from then to now.
“10 years ago,” Schmetzer said last week from behind his desk at Starfire Sports and with a bemused glance around his new office, “I never would have expected that I’d be sitting here coaching Clint Dempsey.”
Ten years ago, Schmetzer was still working part-time in construction as a necessary supplement to his salary as the head coach of the minor-league Sounders.
Schmetzer’s coaching career began in 1995 as an assistant coach for the Seattle SeaDogs — a club that folded with the Continental Indoor Soccer League a few years later.
He burnished his credentials with the Emerald City Soccer Club, coaching kids when he wasn’t tied up with his construction business.
Then came a fateful call in 2002 from Adrian Hanauer, the new managing partner with the USL Sounders.
It was the beginning of a fruitful working relationship that would produce two minor-league championships (2005 and 2007) before the leap to MLS.
His steadily rising career arc is a tribute to patience, as well as the value of loyalty to city and club.
“No one is going to care like he will. It’s in his DNA,” Fewing said. “He’s a good pro, a hard worker. He’s endured.”
Schmetzer’s style of coaching comes from a mishmash of influences. He’s taken bits and pieces from Hinton, from Fernando Clavijo, the head coach of the SeaDogs in the ’90s and now the sporting director at FC Dallas, from Jimmy Gabriel, his assistant during his first few years with the USL Sounders.
Schmetzer is described by his charges as a players’ coach, and he defines that as someone who prioritizes open lines of communication. Schmetzer can give off the aura of a kindly professor, blue eyes behind glasses and a soothing tone of voice, but tough love is a central tenet of his coaching philosophy.
That has struck a chord within the ranks.
“The first thing he did,” captain Brad Evans said, “was bring everybody into his office individually and said, ‘This is what I want out of you and if you aren’t going to do it, you won’t play for me.’
“When you treat everybody as equals, no matter who you are, you get the most out of a team.”
Schmetzer’s appointment as interim coach in late July didn’t come out of nowhere. He’d previously interviewed for MLS head-coaching jobs in Montreal and Dallas. But that doesn’t mean he harbors illusions.
“This is a big club,” Schmetzer said. “Lots of guys want this job. I fully expect the club to do its due diligence and search far and wide for what they feel is the best fit for the job. I’m cognizant of that fact.”
There is a perception among MLS observers that the Sounders will feel compelled to make a big-name hire this coming offseason. Major League Soccer’s own website published a story recently listing five foreign coaches who could be a good fit in Seattle.
Hanauer has been in Schmetzer’s corner since their lengthy interview at a coffee house on Capitol Hill in 2002.
It was Hanauer who less-than-subtly twisted Schmid’s arm to take on Schmetzer as an assistant in the first place.
“I did, to some degree, jam it down on Sigi to begin with,” Hanauer said.
Hanauer is open with his loyalty to Schmetzer, but he also says that, this time, it isn’t ultimately his call.
Since the parting of ways with Schmid, this is general manager Garth Lagerwey’s team to mold. Lagerwey has said that he wants to hire a full-time coach that will commit to a defined style of play, that shares a similar philosophy.
“Ultimately, Garth will make the decision as to whether he fits into his vision for the future of the franchise,” Hanauer said.
There’s also something of a feel-good element in Schmetzer taking over the Sounders job, local-boy-done-good, the chance of a lifetime.
Schmetzer is emblematic of a group of Seattle soccer lifers that have done more for the sport in this region than just about any other — Chance Fry, Bernie James, Billy Crook, Dick McCormick, Wade Webber, Fewing.
Schmetzer, like Chris Henderson before him and DeAndre Yedlin for the current crop, is carrying the mantle for an entire generation watching with pride.
“We all played vicariously through Chris’ great, long career,” Fewing said. “Now, we’re doing the same through Brian.”
There are 11 games — plus, for the optimists, the playoffs — in which Schmetzer must make his case.
Leave it to Hinton, his first coach, to outline lofty stakes the Englishman knows something about.
“If he was in England — with the career he’s had and his giving back to youth soccer and the success he’s had — if he hits the jackpot with the Sounders, in England he’d be looking to be a Sir,” Hinton said.
“He’s in the position now, if he makes it here — and he’s got a very good chance — you can forget about anybody in this town becoming Mr. Soccer. He will be the No. 1 guy by a mile.
“He’s got his dream job now. … And this is Brian Schmetzer’s job to lose.”