Armchair Analyst: My memories of legendary MLS head coach Sigi Schmid

There will be other, better remembrances of Sigi Schmid by folks who knew him longer and more thoroughly than I ever did. They will come from players who played for him, coaches who learned their trade from him, colleagues and foes, comrades in arms in building this unique and multi-cultural soccer nation of ours.

Sigi Schmid, an immigrant, came to the US and helped build the game here. He played college soccer, and then he coached college soccer. And he was an assistant with the USMNT, and the head coach of the US U-20s, and the head coach at three separate MLS clubs, and he won – a lot – wherever he went. On a grand, decades-long scale, he left things in much, much better condition than he found them in. He took things that were broken and, multiple times, fixed them. And then he held up a trophy.

Sigi Schmid, the soccer coach, was the first in MLS history to win the MLS Cup/Supporters' Shield double at two different clubs. He did it in 2002 with the LA Galaxy, then did it again six years later with Columbus Crew SC. He will always be the first to have done that. There will be other, better remembrances of those teams by the players who played for them, the men and women who covered them, or who cheered for them, who sang for them until they were hoarse.

Sigi Schmid exchanges pleasantries with another MLS coaching legend, Bruce Arena | USA Today Sports Images

There are two particular moments about Sigi that I really want to recount here, though. 

The first came way back on June 11, 2005. I remember the date because that's the day the US U-20s, coached by Schmid, played the Argentine U-20s. It doesn't matter who the Argentine U-20s were coached by; what matters is that they were led by a playmaker named Lionel Messi, and... I mean, everybody knew. Yes, Argentina were loaded, but what mattered was not letting Messi drop five on you.

Sigi was a well-respected coach (despite having been fired by the Galaxy the previous year... while the team was still in first place), but not known as a tinkerer. He didn't hit you with wrinkles. Rather, he put his team out in their best shape, with their best players, and said "go ahead and see if you can beat us."

That day, he threw out a wrinkle: He had the relatively unknown playmaker he'd discovered via his contacts at UCLA – a kid by the name of Benny Feilhaber – play a purely man-marking, defensive role. Feilhaber's job wasn't to get on the ball, or protect a given zone; rather, it was to make Messi's life entirely miserable.

And that's what he did, staying on Messi's hip the entire second half. Schmid's gambit kept the greatest player our sport has ever seen out of the game, which the US won 1-0. They'd go on to draw Germany 0-0, then beat Egypt 1-0 before getting dunked on by Graziano Pelle and Italy by 3-1 in the Round of 16. It was an entirely respectable showing.

The USA Under-20 team celebrates a Chad Barrett goal against Lionel Messi's Argentina in the 2005 FIFA Under-20 World Cup | Reuters

That US team was really good, but they had no business coming out on top against that version of Argentina, one that won every other game they played in that tournament. Messi took the field seven times that month, and either scored or assisted in six of them. Only the US kept him off the board.

It's still maybe the best single-game wrinkle I've ever seen a US coach throw out there, at any level.

The second really indelible memory I have of Schmid is more recent, coming just over two years ago. In the months after he'd been dismissed by the Seattle Sounders, Schmid came to work with us at MLSsoccer.com in the studio, doing long shows for Decision Day and the playoffs. This is where I really got to know him as a warm, generous and fun guy to be around. I've been around a lot of professional coaches and athletes, and there are few I'd describe as "light-hearted." Sigi was – or at least, could be for long stretches of time.

That's not the part, though. The part is this: I watched that year's MLS Cup with Sigi. The 2016 MLS Cup. The one the Sounders won just months after he was let go as head coach.

I was there with him, watching as Roman Torres banged in the decisive penalty, and looked over to see the strangest look of both agony and ecstasy on Sigi's face. Ecstasy because this was the club he'd built, for their MLS years. Seattle was where he'd lived for a decade. His son still worked for the team. This was the club guided by his friend Brian Schmetzer, who'd known Sigi for decades and been his right-hand man for nearly 10 years. These were the players he'd drafted and signed and recruited and managed.

Agony because, as he looked at the fans... "*&%#," Schmid said, and then again. There was unmistakeable redness rimming his eyes. "I wanted to give this to them. I wanted to give this to them so bad."

Sigi Schmid is gone now, and may he rest in peace. The things he gave us – all of us in MLS, and in US soccer – will last lifetimes.

Series: 
Topics: 

Stay connected: Sign up for The Daily Kickoff, your daily dose of North American soccer news, analysis, and commentary direct to your inbox.