"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."
-A Tale of Two Cities
Although the stakes are notably lower than the French Revolution—and hopefully no guillotines involved this go around—there are striking parallels between the Seattle Sounders’ current season and the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ iconic novel A Tale of Two Cities.
Light, wisdom, and hope are clouded by darkness, folly, and despair. The battle between good and evil could not be more evident, but yet when dug deeper appear to be heavily interlaced and riddled with nuance. They are one of the best teams, they are one of the worst teams.
The Sounders are where they always have been—in the playoffs. But this season has featured turns sharp and unpredictable enough to make hedge fund managers and penny stock traders try their luck in real estate. In a matter of weeks Seattle went from Supporters’ Shield favorites to fortuitous benefactors of a playoff berth. A dominant late summer run that saw the Sounders lose only 1 match in 12 has been sandwiched between 5- and 6-game winless streaks capping the beginning and end of this wild ride.
Fitting this paradoxical narrative, draws to New York and Los Angeles—while at the Sounders’ peak position in the standings, no less—are what concluded the 12-game hot streak and introduced the 6-game woe. They are good results, they are bad results.
At the center of questions surrounding the inconsistent nature this season has taken lies one man: head coach Sigi Schmid.
Whether fair or not, whenever a team playing a sport as fluid as soccer shows the distinguishable feel and look of being ‘off,’ the coach is usually where most eyes point. In some games, individual breakdowns can be pinpointed as turning points—less a symptom of erroneous tactics and more a testament to the inevitability of human error in sports. But when problems become patterns and losses feel more systematic than unfortunate, the undisputed leader of the team can and should be the one ultimately held responsible.
There is no disputing the Sounders currently have problems. Four straight losses while within grasp of the Supporters’ Shield—punctuated by a 5-1 blowout loss on the road to Colorado and a 4-1 blowout loss at home to Vancouver—have provided the deepest of emotional scars. But upon looking at those games within the greater context of the season, there is perhaps yet another contradiction: The 1 and 1 may be worse than the 5 or 4.
All indications point toward those two games being defensive anomalies. Traditionally stout and effective, the Sounders backline was simply burned by youthful speed and uncharacteristic decision-making between the posts. Although these are issues that must and are already being addressed, it runs counter to the overall narrative of the back line thus far: not immune to individual gaffes and susceptible to speed, but traditionally solid and even dominant for stretches when healthy and organized. Even when including the 9 goals conceded during the two recent blowouts, the Sounders are barely worse than the league playoff-team average of 38.8 with 41 goals conceded.
The same cannot necessarily be said for the offense. Seattle has netted 2 or more goals in 11 of 33 games this season and in only 2 of their last 12. Their 41 goals to date ties them for fifteenth in the league in goals scored and ranks dead last among current playoff teams (SKC, CHI, and COL being the next closest at 45 goals). Despite containing one of the most feared cores of attackers, the Sounders are just flat out not putting the ball in the back of the net with any sort of regularity.
Perhaps more concerning is the fact that in many ways, set pieces and scrappy goals are really the only reason why the situation doesn’t look worse. While Seattle has shown a proven ability to score off of set pieces—particularly off the head of Eddie Johnson, who leads the team with 9 goals—they are struggling to score goals in the run of play. In retrospect, the beautiful six-pass sequence building up to a Lamar Neagle goal that was widely discussed on this site was less a celebration of triumph and more a collective sigh of relief that the Sounders still can score through creative passes and ball movement.
While stout defenses and being able to score off set pieces are surely to be valued in the gritty, physical setting we know as the MLS Cup Playoffs, supporters have good reason to be nervous about Seattle’s prospects if they can’t figure out more creative ways to score goals. They also have good reason to wonder if Sigi Schmid really is the man most likely to take them to the Promised Land.
There exist two parallel narratives of Schmid’s tenure with the Sounders. One features the immediate and sustained success of an expansion team that racked up a trio of U.S. Open Cup trophies and was the first MLS team to eliminate a Mexican squad in the modern day CONCACAF Champions League. The other features a team that often comes up short—sometimes in spectacularly atrocious fashion—despite being widely viewed as one of the most talented attacking rosters in the league. This begets the question: is Sigi a great coach for the Sounders, or is he simply washed up?
You do not become the winningest coach in MLS history out of happenstance or luck. Sure enough, that’s exactly what Sigi Schmid has done. Raking in victories with 3 MLS clubs over 13 seasons has led Schmid to the summit of MLS success. Not Bob Bradley, not Dominic Kinnear, and not Bruce Arena. He has gotten there with different players, different formations, and different circumstances. He has won 2 MLS Cups and 3 Supporters’ Shields—at least one of each with two separate teams. He is one of—if not the—best coaches in league history.
His tenure with the Sounders is no different. Although they show no major MLS trophies to boast, they have been remarkably and consistently good. From the 3-0 shutout in their first ever MLS game to today, the Sounders have systematically dominated the regular season. Over the course of their 5-year existence, only the Los Angeles Galaxy have accumulated more points. They have made the playoffs in every year they have been in the league, which currently ranks as the 4th longest streak in post-shootout MLS (RSL is the only active team with a longer streak at 6). The fact that this run started with an expansion team makes the feat all the more impressive.
And then there are the trophies. I don’t care what anyone else says—U.S. Open Cup Final matches are big games. Period. While they may not match the allure of MLS’ two major prizes in the MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield, they are nonetheless major accomplishments. Teams would not be rewarded with a berth into the CONCACAF Champions League if no one took them seriously.
Seattle has won 3 of them. Scratch that. Seattle won 3 U.S. Open Cups in a row. They join the 1967-69 New York Greek Americans as the only other team—MLS era or otherwise—to have accomplished this feat. Their names are etched in the history books.
As mentioned before, this has meant trips to the CCL. The Sounders have twice emerged victorious from the group stages, which is no small feat in and of itself. Just look at the numerous examples of MLS teams struggling to emerge from their groups amid the balancing act of the regular season and lengthy trips to hostile stadiums down south. Managing depth and identifying the right pieces while encumbered with the reality of MLS’ salary cap provides the deepest of tests for coaches during these scheduling whirlwinds.
Back to the history books (notice a theme, yet?), the CCL is also a place where the Seattle Sounders are winning the game of first. They were the first U.S. team to beat a full-strength Mexican squad on their own field. They were the first to beat a Mexican team in a two-leg knockout round. In those matches they were not representing a city. They were representing a country—a country desperate to break its ‘little brother’ syndrome and years of playing on the defensive. America, you’re welcome.
Even the stoutest of Sigi defenders acknowledge that Seattle’s historic playoff aspirations could easily be confused with the sound of a sad trombone. But is it really fair to allow a coach’s legacy to be defined by a tournament in which there is virtually no correlation between advancing and regular season record or late-season form? In a tournament where an entire season’s narrative can be defined by the single strike of a ball?
In short, no. As painful as the playoffs have been for the Sounders, this cannot define them. In addition to the relative ‘randomness’ of the playoffs, the Sounders have been struck by the know-no-pity gods of health. In 2011, it struck their leading playmaker Mauro Rosales. Last season it struck Rosales again, this time adding the Sounders’ primary target forward Eddie Johnson to the list. Without Johnson and on very short rest, the Sounders walked into Home Depot Center already down a goal, if only metaphorically.
The 2013 regular season has been no different. For all the hype surrounding Seattle’s Big 3 (Dempsey, Martins, and Johnson), they have been healthy enough to start alongside each other exactly zero times. Between call-ups and ill-timed injuries, the opportunity to get the three on the same page just has not happened. And while the Sounders were able to scrape together an impressive run even despite missing Dempsey for much of the late summer and early fall, they’ve still yet to show their full potential. Plagued by injuries throughout the whole lineup, the Sounders have been forced to start 32 different lineups in 33 games.
If anything, supporters should be thanking Sigi for even managing to get this team in the playoffs, regardless of how many ups and downs they faced in getting there. The fact that it has happened 5 times in a row shows this is no coincidence.
There is no denying Sigi Schmid’s history or his success with Seattle—ditto for the years he spent prior to the club. But for those that have recently called into question his ability to get Seattle its first major MLS silverware, the practical realities of injuries, salary caps, and the randomness of playoffs just aren’t enough.
On March 19, 2009, the Seattle Sounders set a new standard for MLS. The 32,000 screaming fans that packed then-Qwest Field for a matchup against the Red Bulls were given a show—a 3-0 shellacking of New York. The players on the pitch, however, were in many ways the true recipients of the show. From that day forward Seattle not only expected great support, but great play on the pitch. The Sounders rewarded their supporters with its first-ever trip to the playoffs, led by arguably the best ‘keeper the US had produced, one of the bigger names from the Premier League, and an up-and-coming Colombian kid whose stats were only bettered by his propensity for the miraculous.
Fast-forward to today and you see not 32,000 regularly packing the corners of now-CenturyLink Field, but 38,000 on the weekly and 60,000+ crowds becoming a rather ho-hum affair. The big names of yesteryear—Keller, Montero, Ljungberg—have come and gone. But they’ve been replaced with world class (and most importantly, still in-their-prime) names like Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey. It’s safe to say that expectations surrounding the club have never been higher.
Bowing out of the playoffs during the first few seasons of existence was to be expected of an expansion team. Teams don’t just join a league and win the title in their first year. It hasn’t happened in football, baseball, basketball, or hockey. So when Seattle was booted out of the playoffs in the first round their first two seasons there were moderate grumblings and frustration, but little more.
But unlike those first seasons in MLS, the Sounders now find themselves both established and boasting one of the league’s most-feared lineups. Whether they’re a 3-star or 3.5-star team in FIFA is irrelevant—pundits across the country believe Seattle to be either the best or one of the best teams in the league on paper.
The problem is the Sounders don’t play tic-tac-toe. Soccer is played on a pitch. And given its low-scoring nature and relative fluidity, it is arguably the sport that demands the most cohesiveness, chemistry and interplay involving multiple players. Finding the right combinations and getting the most out of the talent available ultimately falls on the head coach.
The supporters have gone up. The big names and world-class players have gone up. The expectations have gone up. But is the team actually any closer to their first-ever MLS Cup—their outspoken goal for the club—than they were just a few short years ago?
To the more cynically tuned eye, that answer is no. With a few exceptions, the higher the stakes and expectations have been, the worse the Sounders have gotten. One needn’t torture themselves by going back and watching the full lowlights from some of the Sounders’ most spectacular collapses over the years. We all know what happened—they dug themselves into 3-0 holes twice in the past two postseasons. They found themselves with a one-goal edge over the best team in Mexico only to get manhandled 6-1 in the series-clinching match. They found themselves atop the league in points per match late this season and within grasp of the Supporters’ Shield only to go on a 6-game winless streak and square back into mediocrity. And while they miraculously hammered home three straight second-half golazos to become the first MLS squad to beat a Mexican team in a two-leg series, the fact that they needed three goals in the second half to begin with doesn’t exactly paint the rosiest picture.
Outside of the Open Cup and that one 3-0 second-half comeback against Tigres—which involved more luck than superior tactics—Seattle has a tendency to crumble when it matters most. The players have changed. The opponents have changed. The one common theme behind all of those disappointments was the man standing on the sidelines and the guys in suits who pay him.
When skeptics argue that Schmid isn’t a good fit for the Sounders, what they are really arguing is that Sigi doesn’t have a good WAR. For those of you unfamiliar with baseball statistics, players—or in this case coaches—are not valued purely based on their individual stats. They are valued off how well they’ve fared compared to what would reasonably be expected of someone else, in other words their added Wins Above Replacement.
The question is not whether the Sounders have had success under Schmid. It is whether the Sounders would have had more success with a different style, system—and ultimately, coach.
Let me introduce a word that should strike fear into every Sounders-loving supporter: plateau. There is a legitimate fear that as the league has improved over the past 5 years—and only a fool would argue otherwise—the Sounders haven’t really gotten much better. Open Cups, playoff appearances, and Cascadia dominance were enough to satisfy the insatiable beast that is Seattle Sounders supporters during the first few seasons.
But they no longer are. And they are no longer winning Open Cups and dominating the Pacific Northwest, either. If the Sounders don’t win an MLS Cup this year, they will be a collective 0 for 8 in potential silverware over the past 2 seasons. Perhaps ‘plateau’ is putting it nicely.
During their recent 6-game winless streak, the Sounders have looked like a mess. The talent is there, but an engine cannot run if not assembled properly. To be frank, there have been few moments this entire season (even including the 12-game hot streak) where it truly looked like it was running properly. Injuries and call-ups aside, a team with this level of talent should be doing better.
Supporters should be thanking Sigi for his relentless contributions to the team and to the city. However, they should be looking for someone newer, fresher (possibly younger), and with more modern tactics and team management practices to match an increasingly modern game. Perhaps it’s being a bit quixotic, but if anything the hoards of loyal supporters showing up for every game have earned that right.
Both could be right. Both could be wrong. There is no denying Schmid’s consistent success in the Open Cup and regular season, but there is also no denying the fact that the game is changing and as each year goes by, the Sounders look increasingly flat when it matters most. He has been incapable of finding the right combinations and tactics so far this season, but has also been dealt one of the worst cards of team health possibly imaginable.
Both Adrian Hanauer and Joe Roth have recently reiterated their unquestioned support for Sigi amid this poor stretch of results. Whether this is simply lip service or concrete merit remains to be seen. But there is no denying that Schmid is at least on the warm seat, if not a hot one. Should the Sounders finally receive a clean bill of health and slash their way through the postseason en route to their first MLS Cup, Sigi will be laughing at those who questioned his abilities. Should the Sounders flame out of the regular season, drop to the #5 seed, and humbly bow out of the playoffs early again, there will be more of a case than ever to call for something fresh ideas and new perspectives.
Over the past 5 seasons, supporters have been told a Tale of Two Sigis. Over the next 5 weeks, we will find out which one prevails.