“Eleventh place? Whoever heard of a Sounders team in 11th place?!”

It’s just one sentence among many in a detailed conversation about soccer and life that spans the better part of an hour in a nearly empty hotel conference room. But those 11 words communicate a great deal about both Brian Schmetzer and the club he’s come to epitomize over the decades.

No one in MLS has won quite as consistently – or as historically, considering their epochal 2022 Concacaf Champions League title – as the Seattle Sounders since their 2009 arrival in the league. And for all the “Seattle invented…” jokes, there’s no dodging the reality they were among the first to pack an NFL-scaled stadium, to splash out on head-turning signings, to draw a large local press pack, to weave their signature colors into the fabric of their community, to faithfully connect their present existence to a revered past dating back to their first iteration in the 1970s.

Schmetzer witnessed all this and more, going back to his childhood, way before the word ‘Sounder’ meant what it does today. He’s a native son who grew up in the Lake City neighborhood, where his father Walter, a German immigrant, founded Schmetzer's Sporthaus, one of the city’s first soccer gear shops, and instilled in Brian and his other children an ethos of hard work, resilience and composure.

Brian sometimes tells the story of his parents assigning him the task, at age 10, of pulling nails out of scrap timber and straightening them to be reused in the building of their garage, which set him on course for the construction work that would sustain him and his family in the lean years when professional soccer could not provide a livelihood.

He’d blossomed into a quality player during the old NASL era, signing his first pro contract with the Sounders straight out of high school, and later returned to serve as both an assistant and head coach in their USL days, before anchoring Sigi Schmid’s staff upon entry to MLS. When he finally got his chance at the helm in 2016, he immediately led the Rave Green from the Western Conference basement to their first MLS Cup win, an achievement he matched three years later, reaching two other finals in addition to that 2022 CCL breakthrough.

All that success has not diminished his thirst for more, nor does it soften the sense of urgency he feels when his team falls short of expectations, regardless of the circumstances or time of year. Seattle’s is a culture of winning, and at 2W-5L-4D heading into Sunday's visit to their age-old rivals the Portland Timbers as part of Rivalry Week presented by Continental Tire (4:45 pm ET | Apple TV - Free; FOX, FOX Deportes), they’re simply not doing enough of it at the moment.

Schmetz pointing

Struggling out of the gate

“Bottom of the table,” said Schmetzer when asked to share his 10,000-foot view of the state of his Sounders. “It doesn't take much to elicit that answer. Because I'm pretty pragmatic. I grew up in a German household. You know, things were pretty black and white. We're not doing well. The reasons behind that is what's the story, or not the story. I mean, it's been certainly a bad start, and we're trying to fix it.

“I did a little bit of research; the team has had a reputation for some shaky starts. We had a really good start in 2021, we’d kind of changed formations and we didn't lose 13 games; I think that's still a record. We've had our ups and downs and ebbs and flows throughout the course of the year, but never an actual start of a season having won one out of eight. So it's not good.”

The reasons for that “dysfunctional start to the year,” in his words, are multifold, no matter who you’re asking. Injuries have taken their toll, most prominently to showcase offseason signing Pedro de la Vega, which has in turn posed tricky tactical conundrums for Schmetzer and his staff to wrestle with. Then there’s the deeper, more nuanced question of evolution and change, or lack thereof.

Have SSFC shown too much faith in the roster core that delivered all that success over the past half-decade, or is it the newer arrivals who haven’t measured up? Has it been it that much harder than expected to replace Nico Lodeiro, the Uruguayan playmaker who became a spiritual and tactical talisman almost on arrival in 2016 but was allowed to leave for Orlando City over the winter? Or perhaps similarly painful but inevitable decisions needed to be made about other veterans?

To cite the dehumanizing but descriptive metaphor so common in pro sports: Is this group past its sell-by date?

“Certainly, there's been conversations about the team, and maybe myself – maybe that's past the prime date,” said Schmetzer. “There's some people that probably believe that this team has kind of come to the end. I think last year certainly might have been a bigger story with Nico, because he was such an integral piece of our success, arguably the best player we've had – and we've had a lot of good players.

“Phasing him out, or the way his time at this club came to an end, that was challenging. And did we do the right thing? Could we have used him now, or was it the right move for himself and the club to move on? Those are the things that you never know if you're going to get them absolutely right. I think Craig [Waibel, Seattle’s general manager & chief soccer officer] and I have had enough conversations about this group.”

Schmetzer frustrated

Faith in the foundation

Eleventh place in the West is where the Sounders find themselves as they prepare to visit Providence Park, a hostile venue where they haven’t won since August 2021. It’s also where they finished in 2022, missing out on the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in their MLS tenure, a setback both contrasted with and influenced by their euphoric CCL triumph that spring.

Last season brought a return to the league elite, SSFC going second in the West before falling to eventual conference champions LAFC in the semifinal round of the playoffs, and a measure of vindication for Schmetzer’s belief in what had already been built.

“Certainly last year was a litmus test,” he said, “for Craig and I to kind of say, 'OK, well, we can write that [2022] off a little bit because you won a big championship.' But that doesn't mean you become complacent and you go past your date. We need to keep going because it's pro sports, and because the expectations of your salary and club and all that. So I think we did well to get into second last year. There was a lot of challenges last year, with the team.

“So you might be able to say that we proved some people wrong as far as the turnover, did we do enough? But this year, it's still – I think the conversation’s ongoing. Time will tell. At the end of the year, if we can't right the ship, people will probably say, 'Well, it didn't work.' We probably should have moved on from some people.”

These are the thoughts Schmetzer wrestles with on a near-daily basis, and examines with Waibel, executive/owner Adrian Hanauer and others among the Sounders brain trust.

While he says the widely-hailed “culture of data” built over many years by performance and analytics specialists like Ravi Ramineni and Dave Tenney still persists in Seattle despite the departures of some of its primary architects, it is the nature of his personality to compose his answers on an emotional and instinctive level, too.

“The whole idea behind using data to make better decisions is still within the club. It's firmly embedded, it's everything that we do, from training sessions to monitoring injuries and player signings, all of that. That's still there,” said Schmetzer. “[But] I've never been all data-driven. I'm maybe the counterbalance to the data, because I go by feeling. It's a sport. Sports is emotion, sports is mentality, sports is players that get thrust into situations where they have to sometimes adapt and improvise and be better than the guy they're playing against at any given moment.

“So I think there's a good balance in the club between what I believe, what Craig and his side of things do, and coming from the top, from Adrian, it's all kind of meshed together.”

Schmetz suited and booted

The No. 9 conundrum

That human touch is a useful attribute when making the tough decisions that are his chief responsibility – and he’s got plenty on his plate, starting with his evaluations of Seattle’s best lineup, and the man management that will subsequently be required to keep his squad bought in. He readily acknowledges his handling of the striker position, which has been a lone No. 9 role for most of his time in charge, is first among them.

“It may dictate the future of this season, and the future direction of the club,” said Schmetzer, “in the sense that the club has never been afraid to spend money on the right acquisition during the summer transfer window.”

Peruvian marksman Raúl Ruidíaz has been central to many of the club’s accomplishments, his cool confidence and lethal finishing providing the capstone for the project since he joined up in 2018 as the de-facto successor to the legendary Clint Dempsey. Yet as he moved deeper into his 30s, his rhythm was increasingly hampered by injury spells, which opened the door for Jordan Morris to make his own claim for the spearhead after years of deployment on the left wing.

“Last year was a really challenging one for Raúl in many aspects. Was he kind of just together with Nico, were the two separate? That's one thing I've done a lot of reflection on,” said Schmetzer. “Did I group them together unfairly? Should it have been Raúl individually and Nico? Raúl’s own injury history, because, he’d just train the way he always trained, didn’t understand that Father Time is ticking. Raúl has been super dedicated this year, super good. Last year there were some problems.

“He wasn't happy about being out of the lineup. There were some interesting conversations, and that's always hard. I mean, I've had them with him, going back with Zach Scott, with Clint [Dempsey], and Roman [Torres], and Chad Marshall. Everybody retires a little differently, and it's hard for guys, especially the guys that are way up at this level” – here Schmetzer gestures at an imaginary shelf above head height – “when their careers start to level off and even drop off, it's really tough.

"And Raúl was having some issues there. And so this year, he has rededicated himself. He’s always in the gym, he works in training. He doesn't get upset if he's not in the lineup, in training, he hasn't been upset, in games. He's been encouraging his teammates. He's been the best version of himself. Because when I talk to him, he wants to extend his career a few years, and God bless him, because that's going to help us.”

Ruidiaz rain cele

As superbly as Morris adapted to flank duty, the homegrown US international craves time up top. He has yet to consistently display the clinical menace in front of goal that made peak Ruidíaz such a weapon, however. His coach believes he deserves more run in the spot, and plans to give it to him – to a point.

Schmetzer harks back to last year’s postseason with a level of detail that suggests the final 90 minutes of his team’s 2023, in which the Sounders tripled LAFC’s expected goals but lost 1-0 on home turf, remains vivid in his mind.

“Jordan made it known that he wanted to play forward last year, had last year, most of last year; mixed results – I mean, we came in second, you’ve got to give him that,” he said. “But he didn't score in the playoff game against LAFC. Their guy [Denis Bouanga] had one chance, scored. Jordan has that chance eight minutes into the game, changes the complexity of the game. Maybe we're playing that game against Houston, maybe we're playing against Columbus [in the MLS Cup final]. Maybe.”

Recognizing, understanding and connecting with the distinct personalities of these two attackers is central to Schmetzer’s task, as is measuring their impact amid myriad other factors in the circumstances and team around them.

“I think [Morris] wears a little more pressure than Raúl. Raúl has kind of a cavalier personality, can shrug off pressure, Jordan thinks about it a lot, I think he takes it hard,” he explained. “But he has worked extremely hard, and on some of the small details, because Preki [assistant coach Predrag Radosavljević] watches film with him, did stuff in drills and exercises and really gave him the chance in preseason to be the guy. And he put himself in so many situations in preseason, just couldn’t get it across the line.

“First couple of games, again, a little incomplete because when Albert \[Rusnák\] went down, I played with Raúl and Jordan at the same time and it was kind of dysfunctional. So Jordan is going to get another shot at being a lone forward, because I think the first part of this year is incomplete. I just don't know when. And we'll see. We’ll see if he can do it.”

Nearly a decade into a pro career that began amid hope, hype and sharp criticism of his decision to sign with his hometown club instead of trying his hand in Europe, Morris remains one of Seattle’s most important, and intriguing, personalities. The same can be said of his relationship with Schmetzer.

“How do I interact with Jordan Morris?” pondered the coach. “Because there were times when I was maybe too hard on him. We talked about it, I've had multiple conversations with Jordan, some to poke him, some to prod him, some to put an arm around him, all that. He had moments where he just felt that I was always going to take him off. And we've had a long career together, lot of road together. And so I've learned lots of things along the way.”

Morris intense

The Schmetzer way

Such nuances of his profession seem to fascinate Schmetzer, an intellectual sort who says he’s still learning on the job at age 61. He’s also quick to credit the influence of his staff.

“It's always who that person is, who that individual is, what makes them tick,” he said. “How do they learn? How far you can push them? How much you educate them on life, how much of a fatherly figure you want to be. Or, you know, sometimes you’ve just got to stay away. You can't be friends with your players. Because I think that can come back and bite you in the ass, too, if you're too friendly.

“So that's why a guy like Preki, he's good. Very good. Preki does some of that for me. He can be kind of a nice old guy. In relationships, he's kind of the nice guy and I'm the bad guy, because I make the final decisions.”

In the unique setting of MLS, where a salary budget and stringent regulations limit the extent to which teams can jettison contracts and reset rosters, that requires both coldblooded assessments and careful maintenance of relationships – nowhere more so than with the top talents.

“There are times when you have to be firm. But players nowadays, they need different things,” said Schmetzer. “I mean, I don't think you can go back to days where you're so firm and so strict because again, the salary cap rules, you miss on a relationship with one of your big players, it can cause you heartache. You have to have your big players playing.

“That's the challenge of coaching in MLS: you don't get do-overs. You sign a player and it doesn't work, there's no real ‘OK, that didn't work, so we're going to get him out.’ It's much, much harder in our league to do it than other leagues around the world.”

He is at heart a pragmatist and a problem solver, capable of providing both poise under pressure and the passionate outbursts – albeit almost always behind the scenes – that can galvanize at key moments. In that regard, too, he has adapted with experience, watching and learning from peers like Bruce Arena and Peter Vermes.

“I'm certainly not like Peter, and I'm not saying that in a bad way. He is a system-based coach, and it's 4-3-3, players that fit his system, and it's worked for him,” said Schmetzer. “Bruce always had a knack for getting the most out of his players, kind of figuring out ways to find the right piece here, there to supplement his roster and building a team. I think I'm kind of a hybrid. I do like the way we play now.

“I do like that there's a little bit more structure – with Nico when he first came, when I first looked at him, it was like, 'OK, this guy is going to run all over the field, and he's good enough to allow him to run all over the field. So let's make adjustments for Nico.' Do we have anybody like that on the squad now? I don't think so. I think we have a bunch of good players, a bunch of super-talented players, and we're trying to find the right system to get them all to gel together and to maximize their strengths. So that is the challenge of coaching.”

Schmetz hometown smile

"Everybody can get fired"

Schmetzer has been adept enough to cultivate incredible longevity, spending more than two decades at the club he loves. Yet just as he is charged with delivering hard truths to his players, he knows full well that his story is the exception to the rule, that turnover is endemic to the profession. Schmid made sure of that.

“If you're trying to script a happy ending, you'd rather retire as a coach,” said Schmetzer. “‘OK, fine, I’ve done 10 years at the club and I want to retire,’ not, ‘he’s had a really good run, then had some bad results and he got fired.’

“But Sig always told me, and I always remember this from Sig – I learned a lot from Sig but one thing that always stuck with me: ‘Brian, you're hired to get fired.’ Yeah, I get it. I’m not naive. Everybody can get fired.”

It’s there that you can detect the duality in Schmetzer, the contrast between the genial, gentlemanly grandfather and the ferocious, relentless competitor within. He knows his ideal scenario is the equivalent of a tightrope walk. After all these years, he’s still game to give it a go.

“Would I want to coach into my 70s? I don’t know. Maybe I have a different outlook in life. I mean, again, my family life, my grandkids, stuff like that,” he said. “There's been days where I've thought about what it would be like at a different team. I think that's just reflection. It always lands me almost in the same spot: If I could figure out a way how to continue my coaching career for a couple more years, and then somehow move up into a front office position, then I could say I lead the most charmed life you could ever imagine.

“It's easy to be a friendly guy and a nice guy when your team's doing well, you've got good players, you're in a new facility, you've got a good ownership group. It's easy to be a good coach and a good man, a good human being,” Schmetzer added. “When adversity strikes, that's when you’re tested as a man, as a person, as a human being, under stress and adversity. So I'm kind of in that spot right now. How am I going to climb out of this? What am I doing to make sure that I can have that storybook ending? And we'll see. We’ll see if we can drag ourselves out.”