“As a soccer fan, when I look back on this in 10 years – I mean, that was an unbelievable performance. I don't know how we did it. I'm just telling you, I don't know how we did it.”
Brian Schmetzer would have been quickly forgiven for patting himself on the back in his epic postgame press conference. For pointing to his pivotal substitutions or his tactical tweaks, or simply holding forth a bit from his up-close viewpoint on the unbelievable spectacle that had just transpired at Lumen Field.
But that’s not Schmetz.
As much as he’s achieved, the man who has piloted the Seattle Sounders to four of the last five MLS Cup finals, and won two of them (and counting), who has in his short MLS head coaching career already scaled heights reached by few in the league’s 25-year history, is as unassuming as they come, at least in every public utterance of his we have on record.
Instead of taking credit for that unreal three-goal comeback his team had pulled off on Minnesota United, overcoming another virtuoso Emanuel Reynoso performance to book yet another championship game appearance – as many of his managerial counterparts would have done in the circumstances – Schmetzer praised his resilient players, emotionally and voluminously.
“We use mentality and it's a catchphrase, whatever, it’s culture and all that. I'm telling you, in that locker room, it's real. I don't know how else to explain it,” he said. “Those guys are winners, they're champions.”
Watch: Seattle Sounders lift Western Conference Championship trophy
Then he paid tribute to his coaching staff, who he said insisted that late winner was imminent even as he was mentally preparing for his approach to extratime.
“Those guys are all on the bench saying, ‘nah, nah, we've got this,’” Schmetzer revealed. “I'm thinking about what am I going to do with overtime, what subs am I going to make, I got one more extra sub, how are we going to change again? Those guys were the ones that were saying ‘no, we got this, we're gonna win.’”
Then he put himself in the fans’ shoes.
“God, I wish – God, I wish! – that our fans were in that stadium,” said the head coach who is also a dues-paying member of the Emerald City Supporters. “God, I wish I was a fan. I wish I was in the Brougham End with all my buddies in the ECS, you know, drinking beer and having a good time and all that. I wish I was there watching that game. I mean, that was unbelievable.
“In our Sounders history, this is going to go down as one of the best games ever. I'm just telling you,” he added with another quick smile and shake of the head. “Look, the final last year, we won a final, we won MLS Cup. But this has to rank right up there. This was a great win.”
This utter lack of pretense, it seems, is the genius of Schmetz. And perhaps the reason his all-around excellence is somehow still to this day not acclaimed and revered in MLS circles to quite the extent that it deserves. Yet here he and his squad are, back in another final, poised to defend their title, still riding a six-year home winning streak in the playoffs, seemingly incapable of letting big moments slip away.
These Sounders find a way. Even when the opponent puts them behind the 8 ball, or their star players have an off night or get bottled up, someone – often an unlikely character – always seems to step up. Back in the 2016 final, their first, Stefan Frei made “The Save.” In last year’s MLS Cup it was Victor Rodriguez and Kelvin Leerdam scoring timely goals. Last week it was Shane O’Neill popping up for the winner against FC Dallas.
On Monday night it was substitutes Will Bruin and Gustav Svensson, the former changing the game with his work up top alongside Raul Ruidiaz as Seattle shifted to a 4-4-2, the latter holding down central midfield to allow them to work. And both of them scoring clutch goals, of course.
Highlights: Seattle Sounders 3, Minnesota United 2
“I don't think tactically Minnesota surprised us with anything," said Schmetzer. "I think in the grand scheme of things you can look at how did Minnesota beat Sporting Kansas City? They took their chances and I think tonight they took the few chances that they had, and certainly put us under immense pressure.
“When you ask me again about Will and his impact on the game, Will’s ability to win some headers, gain some possession, it allowed Raul to roam a little bit in different spots. I think tactically we've struggled when we've tried to play 4-4-2, but when I did it today, I told Gustav just to hold the middle, because he's very good at just staying central. Nico [Lodeiro] was right next to him, Cristian [Roldan] was on one side, Jordan Morris on the other and then you have two forwards inside the penalty box. And maybe I need to revisit that, I mean, maybe that's a better formation for us, I don’t know.”
Perhaps, like Keyser Söze with his disarming limp, there’s something about Schmetzer that leads us to look past him. To wonder – as FOX pundit Alexi Lalas did in the runup to this game, giving the coach yet another reason to smile in his press conference – if all this winning is really about him, or the superbly-run organization around him. He’ll probably aw-shucks us a few more times between now and Saturday’s final vs. Columbus Crew SC at MAPFRE Stadium.
But no. We’ve seen this too often by now. This MLS superclub didn’t reach an MLS Cup until Schmetzer took the helm, and now they practically live there. The man behind the curtain is still doing his thing, and at this point, it’s on us if we don’t notice him.