Like many of us, Brian Schmetzer is a soccer junkie, and eager to get back on the road to some form of normalcy with his Seattle Sounders — a path that started with the gradual return of individual, then team training activities over the past few weeks, and continues with next month’s MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando, Florida.
The head coach of the defending MLS Cup champs also recognizes that sports have quite logically taken a back seat as first the COVID-19 pandemic, then the upheaval in the wake of George Floyd’s murder have wreaked havoc on many millions of lives across North America and the world.
“I think everybody in the sport wants us to come back in some way, shape or form,” the longtime Sounders coach told MLSsoccer.com in a recent phone conversation.
“Sports is a really big deal, but it's just not as important as human lives. But it is a big deal for our fans.”
A deeply respected institution on the Cascadia scene whose Sounders ties run back decades as both a player and coach, “Schmetz” is the rare sports figure who adeptly walks the line between intellect and pragmatism, and that’s reflected in his approach to the current situation. As much excitement as the gradual return of MLS and other leagues has generated, he recognizes that for many members of the soccer community, anything short of regular matches in packed arenas is a pale facsimile of the original.
Schmetzer is a dues-paying member of the Emerald City Supporters, one of Seattle’s biggest supporters’ groups, and he notes that ECS is one of several both here and abroad to have registered their disapproval of games being played in empty stadiums due to the contagion risk of coronavirus.
Brian Schmetzer celebrates with Seattle's Emerald City Supporters group in 2017 | USA Today Sports
“The ECS, they’re pretty adamant. They’re saying, we're not playing in empty stadiums, we want the games to be in full stadiums, which, they have every right to express that opinion,” he said. “A lot of people are really invested in our team. And so it hurts a little bit, because I'm an ECS member, that we can’t get out there and play in front of our fans.
“But look, I see some of the economic drivers of this,” he added, noting that next month’s tournament can serve as a bridge towards an eventual return to home games down the line. “And I fully support what the league wants to try and do: get games back as soon as it’s safe and as soon as possible.”
It’s an unprecedented situation with few easy or simple answers, and in that regard it fits right into the story of 2020 at large, with complex problems and imperfect choices all around.
“I don't think anybody really truly knows, or is going to know, the scope of this until we actually somehow fix it,” said Schmetzer of the pandemic’s sweeping impact. “There's just so many question marks. And I'll start just with human life and people in general, and the unemployment and people going back to work. And then you talk about the pro sports, and then you talk about MLS, and you talk about all the players. I mean, it's crazy. It's just nuts.
“We're in a weird place in this country at this time.”
Coaches and players tend to be creatures of habit, and the process of adapting their usual routines to a time of social distancing has been a challenge in Seattle and elsewhere around MLS. One particular sacrifice has tested Schmetzer and his wife Kristine more than any other, though.
“We're empty-nesters,” he said. “We have six kids between us. The most painful thing for us is, we just had grandbabies born last July and August, and so we haven't had a chance to really be in contact with our grandchildren as much as we'd like to. So that's really kind of a bummer. But we've been following Governor [Jay] Inslee’s stay-at-home orders, we wear a mask when we’re in the grocery store. We're trying to be respectful of other people's health and we take it seriously.”
Conversely, Schmetzer urges his players and staff with younger children to savor this extra time at home, even with the additional responsibilities it’s entailed, in a trade where long hours and constant travel are the norm.
“People with small children don't know how lucky they are,” he said. “They get to spend a bunch of time with their family. Some of our players, guys on my coaching staff, they haven't been able to come to work and they have to help their kids with their homework, and the homeschooling, and they get to go out, take walks as a family, and that's kind of like a silver lining in this whole dark dilemma.”
When play does finally resume, things are expected to run hot and heavy with a busy slate of matches in a compacted period, so Schmetzer plans to lean heavily on the expertise of the Sounders’ top-of-the-line sports science staff to keep his squad fit and fresh. Meanwhile he and his assistants hope their extra tactical work over these past months will help the defending champs hit the ground running.
“As far as us coaches are concerned, it gave us a little break to just fine-tune the game model that we have,” he explained. “We added Joao Paulo [over the winter], who’s a big piece of our team; how does he fit with Gustav [Svensson], how does he fit with Cristian [Roldan]? How are we going to put Nico [Lodeiro] back in the groove? Yeimar Andrade, how does he fit next to Xavier [Arreaga] or Shane O’Neill? So we've kind of fine-tuned some things in the bigger picture.”
And Schmetzer closes with a message of hope and resilience to the Sounders faithful, capped by the phrase they’ve come to celebrate from their coach.
“Stay safe, stay healthy. Let's have a little bit more patience,” he said. “One of the things I say around here in Seattle is, tough times don't last, but tough people do. And our fans are tough kids. We're going to survive.”