Sigi stays and the bar gets even higher

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

There is a reasonable debate that can be had about whether are not Sigi Schmid should have remained the Seattle Sounders FC coach. There will be no debate that the expectations in 2014 are higher than any other season.

Seattle Sounders FC lost in the MLS Cup Playoffs in a resounding fashion. It is something that feels like a pattern as it is true too often in this team's short history. Though, in that same short history the club has made the Playoffs every year. In '09 they were the lower seed. In '10 they were the lower seed. In '11 they were the higher seed. In '12 they won as the lower seed and lost as the higher seed. And yes, in 2013 they were the higher seed and then the lower seed.

Outside of the MLS Cup Playoffs the team has done better. This last regular season saw the club on the edge of greatness. They once led the Supporters' Shield race and finished just 7 points off that trophy. In 2012 they were 10 points back from the historic Earthquakes. The 2011 season had them only four points back from LA and were clearly a dominant side. In their second year they were 10 points back from the Galaxy. And in year one they were two points (or one PK miss by Freddie Ljungberg) from winning the Shield.

The Open Cup and CCL are clearly points of strength in the organization. Usually playing one more regular player than their opponents in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup they dominated the tournament in ways that no other modern club has. The successes in the CONCACAF Champions League are a bit more difficult to quantify. They have not made the Final. They beat a full strength side in Mexico, and only the second US club to win there in a competitive environment. Against Tigres just this season they again made history.

But secondary tournaments and regulars seasons are not the standard here.

The standard is greatness. In American sports greatness simply means winning the the Cup. The Atlanta Braves were a failure until they took the Series. The Buffalo Bills are a trivia answer not a dynasty (for most). Seattle sits on the edge of that. So the decision to replace Sigi becomes difficult. He was not completely flawed, but the organization clearly has a higher bar.

A coach's responsibilities are some balance of tactics, training, psychology and talent evaluation. Let's look at how Sigi, the only coach the MLS side has know does along those four main tenets.

Tactics

In soccer tactics are a combination of two things - shape/formation and style. Sigi was both flexible and inflexible in this element. The shape has been mainly variants on the 4-4-2, but at times he's busted out things with roots in the 4-3-3. This year he went from a rather buckety two high-winger system to something more asymmetrical in order to take advantage of certain players' abilities. When Montero was here the Arrow was the shape used to give the most freedom to the special talents Fredy has.

That's probably a great example of what Sigi is when it comes to tactics. He'll get something out there that takes advantage of his best two or three players' talents. The late season switch to the Diamond was exactly this. It was the way to get Clint, EJ and Oba into central attacking spaces and still give Alonso the majority of responsibility in defending the middle.

His style of play within the shape chosen is a bit more static. While the routes to attack have varied from year to year the foundation is simple - win the ball in the midfield and move into attack as quickly as possible. He is unconcerned with long balls or short passes, just that the ball gets to the key attacking players quickly. In some years those attackers are on the wings, in others they are up top and most recently that's meant getting it to Dempsey. It is a recognition that MLS is league that empowers specialists because complete players are not long for US Soccer.

One other constant is that after scoring Seattle tends to pull back a bit, getting less numbers forward. It is a bit cautious in nature, but results in amazing win-loss-draw records when scoring first. It also limits the ability to put up a great goal differential despite winning a lot of games.

He's made mistakes in lineup selection. The substitutions are sometimes baffling. In the Playoffs these things are even more heightened as the compressed schedule and injuries have forced Sigi's choices and those have resulted in Shalrie at forward, Montero on an island and a switch from a two smalls to a big-small system in the past few years.

Sigi is not recognized as a tactical genius, but it also is not a hollow spot. It is similar in nature to what Arena, Kinnear and Bradley use(d) to great effect in this league. System driven coaches are the current rage in hires, but those have been both successes (Porter, Vermes, Kreis) and failures (Rennie, Spencer). Being a system guy does not assure success. Being one that adapts to personnel is also not a guarantee of failure.

On the subject of tactics Sigi is probably neutral. His system and style is neither the solution nor the cause of failures.

Training

In a league with short careers (bad players cycle out quickly, good players move onto better leagues) the ability to draft and develop average to good players is vital for success. Since MLS is just a stopping point on a career path training & development are more important than other top flight American sports where for coaches are more likely to work with final products.

The biggest successes in developments are huge. Fredy Montero and Osvaldo Alonso came to Sounders FC as young players with much to prove. Montero took his learnings from this league to Portugal and is one of the most potent forwards in that league. His natural balance and technique supplemented with an ability to deal with physical play and use his head makes him a rather complete player in a secondary league in Europe. Alonso went from defensive stud to one of the best passers from the central midfield the league has. Where his passes in early seasons were square he is now effective at slicing diagonals and is one of the best long passers in the game.

Those great success are mitigated by lower draft picks that have ranged from outright bust (Tetteh, Duran) to guys that are rotational players (Estrada, Fucito, Rose, Carrasco). Lower picks don't often become great, and usually it is because of their talent not the coaching, but if Seattle had gotten a Parke, Zusi or Cameron late in the draft would dramatically change how this team has performed.

Sigi's experience as a college coach probably means that he's better than the average MLS coach at training players. His draft position has likely made it more difficult for him to produce greatness than those coaches that sometimes get a top 5 pick.

Psychology

Managing a locker room is tough. In MLS it is made more difficult because there are 19-year old players making middle class wages and long time vets pulling in seven figures. There are also several different cultural groups in the inner sanctum. The league pulls talent from so many different cultures and nations weaving them into a tapestry that gets along (or at least doesn't harm each other) is difficult. There have been issues with this in Seattle. Conflicts between Johnson and several players occurred. Ljungberg and Keller didn't get along (Authentic Masterpiece tells this tale quite well).

Managing the psychology of a team is also about their demeanor on the pitch. Are the players showing fight, grit and effort? Do they look to the referee, the other team or do they define themselves? Do they get into it with opposing fans?

This area Sigi may also have issues. Particularly in the Playoff games where the team has come out not just cautious, but a bit down trodden before the first whistle. It's hard to say that motivation should be the responsibility of a professional coach, but when there are routine issues in this realm the coach must fix it. Evidence that is being addressed is hard to find.

There is a trend within sports for a group of athletes to start tuning their coaches' motivational techniques out as the core of the team stays together overtime. Hearing the same ra-ra year after year loses effect. Some times the way to change this is to have a large reload of players. In others it is to move on to a new coach. This may be Sigi's largest challenge in 2014.

Talent Evaluation

Who to acquire and who to use are huge questions. Soccer is much more like college sports than the other US leagues. Soccer almost everywhere gives the manager power in recruiting players to join the club. In some cases, even in MLS now, the GM works for the coach. While Sigi, Adrian and Chris use more of a communal model to their talent evaluation in recruiting it is Sigi who picks lineups based on that talent.

Recruiting has been a strength for Sigi Schmid. Nothing makes that more clear than his bringing in Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey. That is made quite clear here;

Not long ago, Obafemi Martins was in training with Levante in Spain when he and his teammates spotted a familiar figure, but one they had not seen on the training grounds in Valencia before.

"What is Sigi doing here?" he said to his teammates, only to learn later that the Sounders FC head coach was there to scout Martins in advance of his eventual move to Seattle in March.

There is a certain amount of clout attached to being the winningest coach in Major League Soccer history. Just how much, though, may not be fully understood.

"Everybody knows Sigi," said Martins, wide-eyed and impressed that Schmid came to Spain himself to watch him play.

That sentiment was echoed by Clint Dempsey when he explained his desire to come to Seattle to play when he signed with Sounders FC last week.

But Sigi's also been behind (to what extent isn't fully known) decisions to choose Tiffert over Alvaro and to let Montero go on rather than continue here. The DP carousel in Seattle is large and fast. While none have been the outright failures of a Mista or a Denilson several haven't lived up to the promise and the hype. Twice now Sounders FC have had to use the buyout clause to get rid of DPs that weren't quite working out. Two other times DPs were shipped onto Chicago so that Seattle could get DPs that were higher rated internally.

Getting those issues wrong is more than just problematic. It takes away the advantage that a big money club has. Seattle has the money and must get these calls right. The coach can not be the reason that they get DP signings wrong.

Sigi clearly has strengths here. He is known in parts of the world where soccer rules. That's a huge bonus and maybe an indication of the standard to which Seattle will look whenever they do replace Sigi Schmid.

Moving Forward

None of those components change. One could quibble about exactly where Sigi is in relation to other MLS coaches, but he's clearly not awful. What will change? The players brought in (including a full season with Clint Dempsey) and the results. That's it. If it was a difficult decision as to whether or not Sigi stayed this season the only thing that can change that next year are the results.

Sigi will be burdened with the highest of expectations. Five years of good is good. Good will not be good enough. In Seattle, in MLS, greatness is the only acceptable solution for fans now. A long term plan will not be enough for in 2014. Resounding victories and the return of trophies is the future we desire.

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