EDITOR'S NOTE: Before you know it, February 29 will be here. That's the kickoff to the 25th season in Major League Soccer history and we're getting you ready for the 2020 campaign with the stories, personalities and questions that will leave their mark on the season to come.
SEATTLE — If you were going to try and downplay the accomplishments of Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer, the argument might go something like this.
Sure, Schmetzer has rattled off three MLS Cup final appearances in the last four years, winning two of them. But were those championship runs really the product of great coaching?
Coaching in Seattle, by definition, provides you with more resources than most other franchises off the top. You’re almost always going to have a high-priced, star-studded roster at your disposal. And at that point, the thinking goes, is it really about tactical acumen or highly refined X’s and O’s? Or is it more about simply throwing your stars out on the field and letting them do their thing?
It’s part of why the narrative around Schmetzer remains a complicated one. In Seattle, the man is an undisputed legend who might very well have a statue outside CenturyLink Field one day. He's one of just five coaches in league history with multiple MLS Cup rings, joining Dominic Kinnear, Frank Yallop and his Seattle predecessor the late Sigi Schmid, who all have two, behind Bruce Arena's league-record five. He also currently resides at third in all-time win percentage for MLS coaches who have coached at least one full season at 60.3 percent, trailing only former NYCFC coach Domenec Torrent (62.3 percent) and former Atlanta United boss Tata Martino (64.7 percent).
And yet, nationally, you still aren’t likely to hear his named mentioned in discussions regarding the proverbial Mount Rushmore of the league’s coaching legends.
“The fact that he hasn’t, in the eyes of some, hasn’t gotten his due, is partly because the way that it all came about,” says FOX Sports commentator Alexi Lalas. “And partly because of his personality. Let’s be honest, he’s an outwardly low-key, humble, quiet, type of character.
“And I think he’s fine with that. If he’s perceived as therefore being less adept or just throwing the ball out, I don’t think he has a problem with that. But don’t let that outward character fool you. He’s incredibly smart. And part of being smart isn’t just the X’s and O’s, it’s also recognizing the opportunity and having the wherewithal to take advantage of it, which he has done. …It comes back to the outward personality that we see and it doesn’t coincide with what we traditionally associate with great coaches and managers. And that’s our problem, that’s not his.”
The notion that Schmetzer is some sort of tactical novice is also not entirely accurate, according to former Sounders midfielder Steve Zakuani, who played under Schmetzer back when he was an assistant under Schmid.
For Zakuani, a turning point in how Schmetzer is perceived, at least in league circles, came in last year’s MLS Cup playoffs, when the Sounders shocked the league by traveling to Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles and knocking off a juggernaut LAFC side that had just buzz-sawed its way to a Supporters’ Shield and entered the postseason as heavy MLS Cup favorites.
“That, for me, is where it’s undeniable. You’re going up against the best team last season, arguably the best single-season team in MLS ever that was playing some fantastic football,” Zakuani said. “You saw his game plan come into effect. Seattle’s usually a team that keeps the ball and tries to make the game but on that day he was able to convince Raul [Ruidiaz] and Nico [Lodeiro] and Jordan Morris and these guys that were in great form to have a little bit less of the ball, to dig in defensively. And then they were able to counter and make it count, and they neutralized Carlos Vela. So, I think that opened people’s eyes that, ‘Yeah, he’s a tactician. He thinks about the game.’”
Added ESPN commentator Taylor Twellman: "I think the narrative may change this year. And the reason why is I think the way they won MLS Cup last year and that game at LAFC, I think that's going to turn the corner for him. ...I think that game at LAFC against that team, he had the team tactically prepared. So, I think that narrative might change in 2020. Now, if they finish in last this year? That might change things. But I think Schmetzer is underappreciated. I think winning MLS Cup the way they did last year, I think it changes things for him."
Still, as long as he coaches the Sounders, Schmetzer will likely always be perceived by some as a product of his surroundings.
In 2016, for instance, Seattle’s second-half surge that led to their first MLS Cup title started when Schmetzer took over the job, but also when the club acquired midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro, one of the league’s best-ever playmakers.
On top of that, Schmetzer is a Seattle lifer. He’s only ever been with one club, dating back to his days as a player. It’s part of what makes his legend so unique, but it also opens up the question of whether his success would translate with another franchise.
“The specific circumstances and situation that he is in, I think lends itself to him in particular being successful,” Lalas said. “I would love to see him somewhere else and see how that translated. But at the same time, there’s a reason why he has endeared himself to Seattle and why he’s been successful in Seattle. It’s tailor made for him. I don’t know if we’ll ever see him someplace else. He knows a good thing when he sees it. How he got there is, to be quite honest, irrelevant.”
As Zakuani points out, it’s also not like Schmetzer could leave for a job that would carry much higher expectations — at least not in MLS.
“If you’re good, you’re good, it doesn’t matter where you are,” Zakuani said. “For Schmetz, I don’t see it as a question of whether he would do well. I know he would do well. Given a quality group of players, he’s going to do well. There’s no doubt in my mind. I don’t think he has to prove himself outside of Seattle.
“The Seattle job is one of the hardest jobs. The expectations are a lot higher than people even think. If the Seattle Sounders lose two or three games, Twitter is not a good place to be, that’s how the expectations are. Some teams can go 10-15 games without winning and no one talks about it. He’s in a place where the pressure is on him, the scrutiny is on him. There’s more room to fail than to succeed.”
Schmetzer himself has never given any indication that he cares about any of this at all. But with Concacaf Champions League coming up, he has a unique opportunity to add a trophy that would make his legacy hard to dispute, even for the most ardent of doubters.
Seattle are already on the cusp on of a dynasty, which would undoubtedly be cemented if they win another league title in 2020. Should he become the first MLS CCL winner, though, Schmetzer could arguably cement his place on the league's Mount Rushmore of coaching even sooner than that.
“For the rest of the country, the rest of the league, outside of Seattle, if you’re still questioning or still saying, ‘He hasn’t done this or he hasn’t done that’ I think you have to start looking at yourself at that point,” Zakuani said. “You have to start questioning why you keep moving the goalposts for this guy. What he’s done not many could have done. If he wins more and more then I think he starts pushing himself into conversations that I don’t think people are even ready to have.
“Now you have to start asking where he ranks among the very best coaches. Because who’s done what he’s done? And could anyone have done what he’s done? I think those are the conversations that will open up. There are some teams that are doing some amazing things – I think a Champions League win would push the Sounders at the very top of those conversations.”