Toward the end of my rookie year in 2009 it was obvious to everyone in Seattle that I was not a “normal” rookie in that I was someone that was essentially guaranteed to start every game and was becoming a key member of Sigi Schmid’s team. One morning late in the season, I walked out to training in a group consisting of veterans Tyrone Marshall, Pete Vagenas and Freddie Ljungberg. As we made our way to the grass pitch a couple of minutes before the 10 am start time, Brian Schmetzer — an assistant coach at the time — called me over.
He first pointed over to the experienced defender Zach Scott who was already starting to warm up with a few of our teammates and then he said, “I don’t care how many games you’ve started, you’re still a rookie and there’s no way any of these veterans should be on the training pitch before you. If you wanna make it here, they can’t be on the pitch before you. You need to develop the right habits — young players need to be hungry and among the first on the pitch everyday.”
The message was received loud and clear and I made sure to be out on the pitch 10 minutes before every training session going forward, a habit I continued into the next four seasons as much as I could. That’s Schmetzer in a nutshell — a coach who has an ability to call out a starter and the last player on the bench in the same way. He is very good at setting the standard and then refusing to let anyone to fall beneath it. He was the main coach that did extra work with me on my crossing after training, he gave me pointers before kick-off and then was quick to give me an earful if I fell below the level he knew I could reach.
That’s where he and Caleb Porter — two coaches I’ve known for over a decade — are similar. They have extremely high standards and their obsession with maintaining those standards can become all-consuming. Schmetzer is able to keep his obsession a little more in check than Caleb who wears his heart on his sleeve and lets his passion lead openly.
There’s been a lot said about Caleb Porter over the years and maybe he’s rubbed some people the wrong way — at times I’ve even found myself trying to figure out why he’s done certain things — but what I’ve come to learn is that first and foremost, he hates to lose, pure and simple. Nothing he does is personal, he simply doesn’t like to lose and people who fail to understand that kind of intense inner drive to avoid losing, are the ones who struggle to understand someone like him.
I can’t say enough good things about him as a coach and as a person because, as my coach at Akron, I’ve known him long enough now to understand how he’s wired. In 2009, he flew out to watch me make my professional debut for the Sounders and then made his way to my downtown apartment after the game to congratulate me in person before catching an early flight back to Ohio. It’s a side of him that most haven’t seen, but he can be very loyal to those he considers his own.
The side people do see is that he’s intensely driven and there’s no off button — to me that’s why he has been so successful in college and in MLS. His mind pursues challenges that others say can’t be done and then he spends every waking hour trying to prove them wrong. That’s how he was able to transform the University of Akron into the powerhouse it has become — there’s a before and after in the history of that program and he’s the bridge between the two.
Of course he had some great players and, like any coach, he couldn’t have done what he’s done without those players, but it’s also true that some coaches have the right players and still get it wrong. The same can be said for the job he did with the Timbers. Before he got there, they were still trying to find their feet in the league and then he gave them that same confidence that he possesses, and they suddenly started winning more than ever before.
Both Porter and Schmetzer are winners but, although there are plenty of similarities, they go about it in different ways.
One of the big similarities between the two is that they love football. That seems simple and redundant but it really isn’t. When I say they love football, I mean they really love the game — they are obsessed with every aspect of it. It’s the kind of love that keeps them up at night as they plan training sessions or replay the last game in their minds. They enjoy the tactical side more than most, they want their team to impose their style on the opponent more often than not and neither one is afraid to try new things.
One of Schmetzer’s strengths is his ability to coach each individual player in exactly the manner they need. It would take a lot for him to get in Jordan Morris’ face no matter how poorly Morris is playing — that won’t work. You can be firm with Jordan but he is more likely to respond to an arm around the shoulder than he is to the hair-dryer treatment and Schmetzer understands that. On the other hand, even as an assistant coach, I once saw him go face to face with the equally passionate Eddie Johnson after a training session to the point where they had to be separated, only for the two of them to be in the lunchroom laughing and joking 15 minutes later. Eddie needed his passion to be reciprocated and Brian understood that very early on.
Porter’s strength lies in the belief he transmits to his players. I don’t know how he does it, but in all the games he ever coached me, I never once felt like the underdog even in games I knew we were outmatched. He has an ability to shift your mentality into not only believing that you have a chance in every game, but that you can actually win no matter the circumstances. One time, we were down 3-1 and went down to nine men. At half time, he took off two defensive players and threw on two strikers and told us to go for it. I couldn’t believe how bold he was that day — but it worked because we managed to salvage a 3-3 draw. It’s those kind of games that make you proud to be his player. I’ve seen him go into games with three different gameplans that we can apply depending on the way the game is going — his attention to detail and tactical acumen is the best I’ve been around.
As people, though, the two are very different.
Schmetzer is a thinker. He can be in a room and just observe everything without saying much. I think his biggest struggle as a head coach is that he can’t have the same one-on-one interactions with the players that he could when he was an assistant, because as the head coach, you have to manage the whole group and all aspects of the team. When he speaks, there’s an authority and players will listen, but he largely lets the lockerroom manage itself and gives his assistants — Djimi Traore, Gonzalo Pineda and Preki — a lot of freedom to help shape the culture of the club.
Caleb, on the other hand, is only slightly less intense as a person than he is as a coach. He reminds me of Clint Dempsey in that they both carry a chip on their shoulder that constantly drives them and is hard for them to switch off. Don’t get me wrong, he can be fun and lighthearted — especially with his wife and kids — and I’ve definitely shared those moments with him as well, but ultimately he is successful because of the intensity — not in spite of it — and that’s something he’s learned to embrace.
He’s gotten better over the years in how he channels that drive. It used to almost exclusively come out in his halftime team talks — especially if we were losing. But now I think he knows how to use that passion to inspire the players with confidence rather than constantly challenging them. It’s obviously working because he seems to win everywhere he goes.
When they face off at MLS Cup, there will be the handshake and smile toward each other but then the obsession with tactics and the minor details that make all the difference will take over. You’ll be able to hear Caleb from the first minute — “run,” “press,” “drop back,” “let’s go,” while Brian will sit and observe the first few minutes and will only engage if something drastic has happened.
Two different approaches, one common goal — win at all costs. I now cover both and will try to be objective but I’d by lying if I said this isn’t the one game where I wish both men could somehow taste victory.
Former MLS star winger Steve Zakuani was a No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he 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.