Nice guys can finish first: Brian Schmetzer's story a quintessential Seattle journey

Brian Schmetzer - Seattle Sounders

SEATTLE – By now, Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer’s local roots are common knowledge among those who follow the team.

Schmetzer is a Seattle guy through and through, born and raised in the area, and signing with the NASL iteration of the club straight out of high school in 1980. His long and winding playing career saw him bounce around a little bit, but he always managed to circle back, and wound up head coach of the Sounders when they were a USL team – long before the giant crowds at CenturyLink Field that the club is known for today. When he took over as head coach of the MLS side midway through the 2016 season after seven-plus years as an assistant – and went on to lead the Sounders to their first MLS Cup title that very same year – it was a classic story of the local boy made good, bringing a championship to his hometown.

But what’s perhaps less widely known is the true extent of just how deep those roots go. To understand how engrained Schmetzer is in the area, you have to go all the way back, past his days as a standout player at Nathan Hale High School and his club team Lake City Hawks, and to the early 1960s, when he was born shortly after his father, Walter Schmetzer Sr., came to Washington from Germany.

Walt Sr. instilled a love for the game in Brian and his siblings early. He was a top-class youth player in Germany and an explosive athlete in his own right – a track sprinter who was known for using his overwhelming speed to cook opposing defenses. The patriarch became a star player locally, but eventually shifted his focus to coaching, where he molded the Lake City Hawks into a powerhouse on the field, while also running his Schmetzer’s Sporthaus sporting goods store that became well known around town.

Nice guys can finish first: Brian Schmetzer's story a quintessential Seattle journey -

Schmetzer's Sporthaus was a Seattle institution until it closed in 2017.

“As the kids got older, [Walt Sr.] transitioned from playing into coaching,” Seattle soccer historian Frank MacDonald told in an interview on Thursday. “At the start it was just kids in Lake City, but eventually it grew into where he picked up players from other neighborhoods and they won several state titles. They were pretty much unbeatable.

“They were living the soccer life, very much so. And his younger brothers come along and it was more of the same, they were very good players as well.”

At the time, the Sounders were the first NASL team to develop a local reserve squad to cultivate young talent, much in the way MLS teams currently do with their USL affiliates. Brian Schmetzer benefitted from that, logging minutes against semi-pro and men’s league teams in the area. While he managed to establish himself as a decent young prospect, the story of how he wound up signing with the NASL Sounders is a fortuitous one.

Walt Sr. had contacted new Sounders manager Alan Hinton and player-coach Bobby Howe about scouting a different player, who he thought had the potential to play professionally and wasn’t necessarily planning on going to college. Hinton and Howe showed up to scout that player, but came away impressed with a different one.

“Their takeaway was, ‘He’s good. But your son’s awfully good too,’” MacDonald said. “So, that became the catalyst for them signing Brian out of high school.”

It might seem funny now given his nice guy persona that some say is more math teacher than ruthless competitor, but in his day, Brian Schmetzer could ball.

On the field, Schmetzer was known as a hard-nosed midfielder, who wasn’t afraid to be physical, clean out opposing attackers and pick up a yellow card. But he was also a talented offensive player, who could set up teammates for goals and finish them himself.

“The signature game for me is when they played the Brazilian team Santos, Pele’s original team, with FC Seattle, which was really a bunch of local amateurs and semi-pros,” MacDonald recalled. “And Brian scored two just, great, great goals and FC Seattle beat Santos 2-1. And that’s where I was really impressed with his creativity, his instincts to take advantage of a situation. Back then, the American forwards were very much typecast as finishers in the box who didn’t create necessarily, they were on the end of things.

“So, it was really only when they started doing these American teams like FC Seattle, where they were 90 percent local, where a guy like Brian can get thrust into a role of an attacking force, a playmaker. And he made the most of the opportunity. That’s what sticks out to me about seeing him play.”

Schmetzer played as long as he could, largely establishing himself on the indoor circuit, where he played for the Sounders, Tulsa Roughnecks, San Diego Sockers, Tacoma Stars and St. Louis Storm. In those days, the lifestyle was far from glamorous, but he wound up soaking up the knowledge that would eventually lead him into coaching.

“He got a lot of great coaching, he was exposed to a player’s coach like Alan, he played for Ron Newman who was very good and mastered how to play the indoor game,” MacDonald said. “He was exposed to a lot of great coaches along the way and I think he’s a decent amalgam of those, but he’s also his own kind at the same time. I would say he’s very much a player’s coach, which is to be understood, because he actually played at a very high level, so he understands what these guys are thinking, what they put into the team, what they get out of the team, if they lose confidence, if they need confidence – I think he’s very attentive to what each player needs and what the coaching staff does collaboratively.”

Schmetzer was hired as the head coach of the USL Sounders in 2001 and served in the role until 2008, racking up a 122-69-46 record and bagging a pair of league titles. What struck him most about Schmetzer’s initial tenure as the sideline boss, MacDonald said, is the same thing that many point out about him now: His lack of ego.

“Those early years with the Sounders, he had Jimmy Gabriel by his side and I think Brian knew he would benefit and he didn’t feel threatened by having a senior coach next to him on the bench,” MacDonald said. “That was one thing that struck me, that Brian felt comfortable with that relationship.”

Nice guys can finish first: Brian Schmetzer's story a quintessential Seattle journey -

Schmetzer with the coach who both succeeded and preceded him at the Sounders, Sigi Schmid, in 2012. | USA Today Images

In 2016, with the Sounders mired in a 6-12-2 rut that led to the departure of Sigi Schmid – the winningest coach in MLS history and an icon of the league – Schmetzer was given the head coaching job on an interim basis. As beloved as he already was in the city and among the fanbase, there was no guarantee that the job was his beyond that season.

The turnaround that followed is one that will go down as one of the most remarkable in MLS history.

“I remember telling him, ‘Double the point rate and you keep your job,’” Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said last week. “And he didn’t punch me in the face. He said, ‘OK, I’ll do that.’ And he did it, and we won the title.”

On Sunday, Schmetzer will have a chance to get his second title in four years when the Sounders take on Toronto FC in this year’s MLS Cup. (3 pm ET | ABC, Univision, TUDN, TVAS, TSN). This time it’s different, though. For the first time, Seattle will be hosting the final at CenturyLink Field, with a chance to win the championship in front of the home fans in the city Brian Schmetzer has rode for from the beginning.

If Seattle can pull it off, it might just be the ultimate culmination of a wild journey for the local boy made good.

“It’s massive,” Schmetzer said last week. “I tell people, ‘Look, I skipped school when the Sonics had their parade and I was there with the Seahawks celebrating them. Being a Seattle guy, I’m really proud of what the organization has accomplished. You look back to the '80s, we had success back then. Alan started us off. Pepe Hernandez, Dave Gillet, back at Memorial Stadium, even.

“We have a long tradition of being a successful franchise. And this, right now, is a big high point for all of us that put in that work back in the 70s, 80s and the early 2000s during the USL and A-League days. This is all a culmination of all the people that stayed here.”