How Sigi Schmid saved his job and moved the Sounders forward
Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid was on the hot seat a year ago after another disappointing playoff exit. A year later, Seattle is the top seed in the MLS playoffs and has buy-in from players and management. Here’s how it happened.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Sounders @ L.A. Galaxy, 2 p.m., ESPN
Sigi Schmid file
MLS head coaching career: L.A. Galaxy (1999-2004); Columbus Crew (2006-2008); Sounders (2009-present)
Notable: Has led three different teams to the Supporters’ Shield (2002, Galaxy; 2008, Crew; 2014, Sounders). ... Led two teams to the MLS Cup (2002, Galaxy; 2008, Crew). ... Won three NCAA championships as coach of UCLA (1985, 1990, 1997).
The Woodmark summit, named for the hotel lobby that housed it in November of last year, was one of three meetings that led to the Seattle Sounders’ 2014 revival.
The Kirkland site is modern Victorian, an updated take on the turn of the 20th century, leather-bottomed chairs and glass-topped tables.
A fake fireplace roars in the hearth, hardcover copies of classic literature line the walls. A grand staircase, painted white with dark steel lattice, splits the room. Think the gilded ballroom on the Titanic — you can almost hear the brass band playing its final, somber notes.
Given the circumstances that brought its four participants together last fall, the metaphor of a doomed cruise liner wasn’t that far off.
Sounders coach Sigi Schmid was the host. Three of his players, Brad Evans, Ozzie Alonso and Clint Dempsey joined him. The group hashed out what went wrong during Seattle’s disastrous final stretch — the winless seven games to close the regular season, the playoff elimination to rival Portland.
The men spoke for over an hour, oblivious hotel guests floating past them. The still-festering finish dominated proceedings, but the conversation gradually turned toward the future.
“They were the ones we were going to build the team around,” Schmid said. “They were the guys that were the leaders of our team, in my mind.
“It was important that I had buy-in with them, that they agreed with everything we wanted to accomplish this season and that they wanted it as badly as I did.”
The Starfire summit took place less than 24 hours after the 2013 season limped to that painful conclusion.
One night before, the Timbers tore apart the overmatched Seattle backline, building a 5-1 aggregate lead during the teams’ Western Conference semifinal series. The Sounders pulled two goals back to make the final scoreline more respectable, but disappointed supporters were howling for Schmid’s head.
The coaching staff, owner/general manager Adrian Hanauer and sporting director Chris Henderson showed up at the team facilities that Friday anyway.
“There’s a German saying that says, ‘after match is before a match.’ After the season is before the season already,” Schmid said this week from a spartan meeting room at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, whiteboard on the wall and black marker at the ready.
The group discussed preseason training and locker-room protocol, fitness conditioning and the state of the salary cap.
“We turned over every stone,” Hanauer said. “We had five years of pretty good success. Sometimes it’s easy to get in a rut and do things as you always have.”
The most pressing order of business was remaking the roster. Step 1: A hulking center back to gird the defense around.
Schmid had just the guy in mind — Columbus Crew defender Chad Marshall — but there was a problem.
“(Longtime general manager) Mark McCullers thought Chad was the face of the franchise and wasn’t going to let him go,” Schmid said.
“Then Gregg Berhalter took over.”
With Marshall’s contract situation suddenly in flux, Schmid called Berhalter, then the defender himself.
Marshall was a three-time Supporters’ Shield winner and one-time MLS Cup winner with Columbus, but the Crew had slumped to an eighth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. The defender was receptive to a move to Seattle, a club that had qualified for the postseason in each of its five MLS seasons.
“We not only got a quality center back, but somebody who was hungry to win,” Schmid said.
The template for the new-look Sounders was formed: Victory-starved veterans looking for fresh starts and willing to take on supporting roles for a contender.
The Marshall acquisition was telling in another way.
He and Schmid had a long history together going back to the coach’s spell in Columbus — and they had already fought their share of battles.
“When I first got to Columbus, we bumped heads for probably the first half of the season,” Schmid said. “After that, we had an understanding and things worked out well.”
Evans, the team captain and Woodward summit participant, knows the feeling.
The midfielder first played for Schmid for the Under-20 United States men’s national team in the mid-2000s, was drafted by him out of UC-Irvine and suited up for him in Columbus before coming to Seattle.
But even after Evans was given the captain’s armband, it took awhile before their roles were anything more than player-and-coach.
“I didn’t really have much of a relationship,” Evans said. “It takes a while, I think, with Sigi to be able to build a rapport and be able to sit down with him and really express your opinions.”
Chad Barrett, the veteran bulldog of a forward who, along with Kenny Cooper, joined Seattle in the offseason to help solidify the front line, also first met Schmid in the youth national team system.
Once upon a time, Barrett was buried on the depth chart behind budding standout Jacob Peterson, and it took prodding from his mother to go up to the veteran coach and angle for more playing time.
“So I went up to him, and it was kind of weird how candid he was, how honest he was with me,” Barrett said. “He said, ‘Listen, you’re not the best forward right now. There’s somebody else in front of you. If he gets hurt or loses form, make sure you’re ready.’ I took that to heart.”
Barrett got his shot, scoring the lone goal as the U.S. stunned Argentina and a young Lionel Messi in the group stage. And he has made the most of his limited opportunities this season, as well, netting seven goals in spot duty.
“He (Schmid) did the same thing here,” Barrett said. “He said, ‘You know what, you’re probably not going to get a whole lot of looks till Dempsey leaves (for the U.S. men’s national team). Once he leaves, we’re going to lean on you a little bit.”
The Beverly Wilshire summit took place in the plushest setting of all, the hotel where “Pretty Woman” was filmed in 1989.
Forget the blueprint, the revised training plans, the player movement to come — the boss had summoned Hanauer and Schmid to Southern California, and the coach’s job hung very much in the balance.
“It was close,” said Roth, the team’s majority owner. “I was upset.”
He, Hanauer and Schmid gathered at the hotel bar, checked the same boxes the coach and his players ran through a few days earlier.
“We sat down for a couple of hours,” Roth said in Seattle last weekend, his hangdog expression unmoved and voice measured.
“And I thought, ‘Well, I could fire this guy, who, to me, is one of the two best coaches in the league. He’s won a championship in L.A. and in Columbus. You’ve either gotta fire him or fire the players.’ So I fired the players.”
Out went club mainstays like Eddie Johnson and Mauro Rosales. In came MLS Comeback Player of Year finalist goalkeeper Stefan Frei, starting winger Marco Pappa, midfield linchpin Gonzalo Pineda — plus Marshall, Barrett, Cooper and a few others.
“More plumbers and less dancers,” Roth said.
Schmid prides himself on tactical pliability. The coach won a title in L.A. with a 3-5-2 formation and one in Columbus with a 4-2-3-1. The closest thing he’d had to a trademark strong wide play, but even that’s disposable.
“I’ve never tried to fit a circle into a square peg,” Schmid said.
This Sounders team builds through the middle, getting the ball to the feet of Dempsey and Obafemi Martins as swiftly as possible and letting them do their thing.
The results have been hard to argue with — the club’s fourth U.S. Open Cup title and its first-ever Supporters’ Shield. And negotiations already have begun on extending Schmid’s contract.
Following the offseason of three summits, the Sounders are one series and a championship-game win from becoming the first team in MLS history to win three trophies in the same season.
“I don’t know if there’s any added juice or vindication to what we’ve done,” Hanauer said.
“It just confirms that we made the right decision.”
Schmid in Seattle
|Sigi Schmid joined the Sounders in 2009 after winning MLS Cups in Los Angeles (2002) and Columbus (2008).|