EDITOR'S NOTE: Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and played for the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. He is currently a member of the Sounders broadcast team and has published a book "Rise Above" and a documentary "Unbreakable" surrounding his comeback from a serious injury which marked his playing days. He is also a coach at Bellevue High School and makes a difference in the lives of young athletes through his non-profit Kingdom Hope organization.
I can remember the exact moment when I understood what being a Sounder meant to Brian Schmetzer.
It was the night before a 2010 US Open Cup match against our rivals, the Portland Timbers. Our head coach, Sigi Schmid, was wrapping up our team meeting when he invited Brian to say a few words. Brian never spoke in team meetings. His job was to go over the game film and then give the last word to Sigi.
However, on this night, the last word went to Schmetzer. What came next was the most passionate two-minute speech I’ve ever witnessed.
With his voice cracking a few times from all the emotion he was feeling, Schmetzer let us know what it meant to wear the Sounders logo over our hearts. He didn’t care where we came from or where we wanted to ultimately end up. The only thing that mattered was that right there in that moment we represented a tradition that began in 1974. That we represented all the players, coaches, fans, families and everyone who had ever been associated with the Sounders. When the whistle blew 24 hours later, we weren’t just playing for ourselves. We were playing for something much bigger than all of us.
I was ready to run through a wall right then and there. The Seattle Sounders mean a lot to a lot of people and few people understand that as well as Brian Schmetzer.
The new boss
I had my doubts about Schmetzer's transition from assistant coach to head coach in 2016.
In my experience, most head coaches were distant and focused on managing the group rather than building close individual bonds. Schmetzer's style was to be close to the players, to talk to them about their lives, to join in the locker room banter and to even be on the receiving end of the jokes. I thought he’d need to change in order to manage some of the big personalities in his locker room.
But the truth is, he hasn’t changed at all. He’s so loved by the players precisely because he’s so unassuming and just one of the guys. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen him put his foot down when the situation warrants it. But in general, he leads through positive reinforcement and being approachable. I once asked Joevin Jones what he most enjoyed about playing for the Sounders: his response was “I just love Brian.”
As a coach, Schmetzer is about creating a good team environment. He does that by allowing the players to manage themselves. There’s no micro-managing. He sets the overall standard, but on a daily basis it’s up to the players to hold each other accountable.
He’s also big on tactics. “Zakuani, there are tactics in everything” was something he’d say to me daily during the five years I worked with him. What he meant was that in every practice drill or game, I should constantly be thinking of the best way to exploit the opponent's weakness and give myself an edge.
Schmetzer's coaching style
Outside of Seattle, Schmetzer doesn’t get the respect he deserves as a tactician. I think some people believe that it’s working out well for him because he’s a Seattle guy and that he couldn’t replicate his success in another city.
Schmetzer has his philosophy, but he’s also flexible and has an ability to understand the exact tactics his team will need to employ to win any given game.
In the win vs LAFC, he went away from his usual “let’s dominate possession and play in the attacking half” to a counterattacking style. He had watched enough of LAFC to know that they attacked in large numbers and left a lot of space in the wide areas defensively. The Sounders defended well and as soon as the ball was won, they attacked the wide areas vacated by LAFC’s fullbacks. They had less of the ball than usual, but those are the tactics it took to win the game.
A sign of the respect Schmetzer commands in the locker room can be seen in how easily he got the likes of Nico Lodeiro, Raul Ruidíaz, Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan — guys who love to have the ball and play on the front foot — to abandon their usual style and buy into a plan that meant fewer touches and more defending, but also a higher chance of winning.
For the past three months I’ve been amazed by how well Morris has been playing in the final third. However, against LAFC, his biggest contribution came from tracking back and doubling up on Carlos Vela. Getting your most dangerous attacking player to understand that you may need him to defend more than usual for the benefit of the team is a strong statement.
Seattle through and through
At his core, I think Schmetzer considers himself a Sounders fan who just happens to also be the coach.
He is a member of ECS, he’s active in the community. His family are well-known in soccer circles in Washington and he’s a former Sounders player himself.
He’s loved in Seattle because of his success, but also because of small gestures that many people don’t see.
Earlier this year, I traveled to Dallas to cover the team for our local TV broadcast. The game was delayed by two hours due to lightning and so by the time we returned to the hotel, the kitchen had closed and most local restaurants were also closed. Word must have reached team staff because Schmetzer invited our entire crew of analysts and producers to join the postgame team dinner with the players and coaching staff. We enjoyed the buffet, and after the players had left, a couple of us stayed and shared a bottle of wine with him.
It’s the kind of gesture that endears Schmetzer to everyone who runs into him. He genuinely cares about the people around him and if he can help you out, he will.
He probably won’t admit this, but I do think he has a chip on his shoulder, and rightly so.
In four attempts, he’s made it to three MLS Cup finals. In his three full seasons, the Sounders have always finished second in the Western Conference and they’ve maintained that consistency despite losing big players like Brad Evans, Clint Dempsey, Chad Marshall and Ozzie Alonso. How many coaches would have been able to keep winning as they lost key players year after year?
If he can lead the Sounders to a second MLS Cup in four years, I think Schmetzer will finally receive the long overdue respect on a national level that his work deserves.