The biggest question facing the Sounders as we transition into the offseason is whether they're going to go into next season under Sigi Schmid, the only head coach the MLS Sounders have ever known. After a fifth consecutive bow out of the playoffs — and a third consecutive drubbing in an away leg (to the Timbers no less) — the calls for his head are impossible to ignore. But I'll make the case that he deserves at least another year.
Schmid's résumé as an MLS coach won't be news to anyone, even those who think he should be gone. But it's worth a summary just to remind ourselves what we have. Sigi is by far the winningest coach in MLS history. On a per-game basis his rate of success is bested only by Bruce Arena. He is one of only 4 coaches to win MLS Cup more than once and only Arena has won more than his 2. Just 5 years ago, before he moved to Seattle, Sigi won the double with Columbus.
An easy retort is that the league has passed him by, but since he's joined the Sounders his 266 points over 5 seasons is bested only by Arena's 281. He is one of only three coaches, along with Arena and Jason Kreis, to make the playoffs all 5 of those years. Clearly he still has it. And just about every other coach in the league has it less.
There are a number of potential criticisms of Sigi, of which I think only one is really valid (and which I'll get to in a bit). But the others tend to get bundled up with the main criticism to try to make the case for his firing stronger, and first I want to deal with those. What they have in common is a comparison of Sigi to the arbitrary and impossible standard of what we want, not what can be reasonably expected in MLS.
He has been criticised for his lack of quality draft picks and failure to develop young players. Even though it's technically Hanauer's responsibility, I will grant that it's almost certainly Sigi who drives the draft. And it's true we haven't had an impact player in the draft since Steve Zakuani in 2009. We've had a few decent role players (David Estrada, Alex Caskey), some occasional contributors (Mike Fucito, Mike Seamon) and mostly busts (Evan Brown, Michael Tetteh). But no consistent starters.
But that's just the nature of being a playoff team every year. There are no reliable starters in the MLS draft after about pick 12. The talent pool just isn't that deep, other than a few diamonds in the rough who end up playing way above their pick number (hi, Graham Zusi). Consider the teams of roughly equivalent record — LA and RSL. Hector Jimenez. . Paulo Cardozo. . Tommy Meyer. . Kenney Walker. . Charlie Rugg. . That's the Galaxy's draft experience the last few years. Not a single regular starter. Credit Kreis with doing a slightly better job with Devon Sandoval and Sebastian Velasquez being productive from the second round. But John Stertzer? Jarad van Schaik? Jean Alexandre? Picking anywhere but in the top of the first round is a crapshoot, and you don't get to pick in the top of the first round unless you do a lot of losing, which Sigi has avoided.
There's also a suggestion that Sigi doesn't properly motivate and get the best out of his players. An easy test for that is whether players flourish when they move somewhere else. There is exactly one player in the 5 year history of his reign over the Sounders that I think unequivocally improved after leaving, and that's Sebastien Le Toux, who went from forward/midfielder/occasional backup right back to a mercurial sometimes Golden Boot contender for Philadelphia.
Try to name anyone else. Mike Fucito? Decent rotational player for Seattle who's now doing precisely nothing after stints with three other teams. Lamar Neagle was among team leaders in goals this season. In Montreal he couldn't get playing time. Alvaro Fernandez? One of our best offensive threats in his time here couldn't produce in Chicago and then couldn't get playing time in the Qatari league. Christian Tiffert didn't have long here but he played well when he was. Now he's trying to not get relegated out of Bundesliga 2. James Riley? Tyson Wahl? Tyrone Marshall? Every one of them played at his best in Seattle under Schmid. Even Fredy Montero, who seemed to never have a comfortable relationship with Sigi and who's now lighting things up under the big lights in Portugal didn't play any worse here. He was one of the top forwards in MLS for 4 years under Sigi. Eddie Johnson came here nearly out of professional soccer and in short order has become one of the best forwards in the league and a national team lock. I think you have a very hard row to hoe if you want to argue that Sigi doesn't get the best out of his players.
PLAYOFFS?! DON'T TALK ABOUT PLAYOFFS!
That gets us to the one criticism that I think is telling and is the elephant in the room — the blowouts in the playoffs. 2011 against RSL was frustrating. 2012 against LA was an ‘are you kidding me?' result. 2013 against Portland was, understandably, the last straw for many people. So the question is whether this is something intrinsic to Sigi.
First, I think it's important to remember that Seattle has had many great results in big games on the road. In our first playoffs in 2009 we took the game to overtime in Houston after not giving up a goal in 180 minutes. And we won the US Open cup in RFK the same year. We beat RSL on the road in 2012 to advance. In the US Open Cup final in KC we lost in penalties due to misses from EJ and Alonso and Salazar's whistle — none of which can be blamed on Sigi. We beat Monterrey in Mexico of all things. The last result of the season is always the one that sticks with you and a big blowout loss in an elimination tournament will, necessarily, be the last result.
And it's important to recognize that the seeming tactical gaffes that have led to those results have largely been driven by injuries. I'm not sure any team has been bedeviled by injuries just before the playoffs as much as Seattle. The reason Montero infamously played alone up top against LA in 2012 was because Eddie Johnson was hurt, and as an added bonus Mauro Rosales was out as well. Rosales was also out before the 2011 playoffs against Salt Lake after becoming our most important playmaker. The reason Sigi made the in-retrospect-dubious decision to start Shalrie Joseph at forward against Portland was that Obafemi Martins couldn't start and Lamar Neagle was suspended. Meanwhile our opponents in all of those series were whole. Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri, Alvaro Saborio, Kyle Beckerman. . all available. In a league with the talent as thin as MLS, an injury means the difference between a superstar and a reserve player. And playing against very good teams with reserve players will inevitably result in some blowouts.
WHAT WE'RE OWED
There is a comfortable narrative we can write for ourselves. . that Seattle is destined to greatness and only the impediment of incompetent coaching is keeping us from years of glory. The problem with that is you'll have to explain why and how exactly Seattle is destined for good results. It's easy to point to our attendance and therefore revenue, but the MLS salary cap does a good job of making that mostly a non-factor. It wasn't until this season that we really took advantage of the revenue to blow out DP signings, so it hardly destined us for success in 2009-2012. And unless you're Arena, there's no correlation between spending and championships in this league anyway, as high priced players hollow out the rest of the roster under the cap. Ask Toronto fans what their once-great attendance and revenue have bought them.
So if our revenue doesn't entitle us to success, what does? We have a good front office that transitioned well from a lower division, but so did Portland and Vancouver and Montreal. And they all reliably acted like expansion teams when they joined the league — they lost. The Sounders are the only real expansion team in league history (and get out of here with Chicago, if you join in year three of a league, you're not an expansion team) to not lose. Why? The team we started with in 2009 was mostly scraps from other teams and we nearly won the Supporters Shield. Our record with signing DPs since Ljungberg has been pretty miserable, and yet still we're the second winningest team in the era. Enjoy this chart, which illustrates that the Sounders have by far the best franchise PPG in MLS history (It's only updated through 2012, but you can be confident we're still on top. The gap is large). Why? Because our fans are so awesome we're just owed it?
Let me offer you an alternative narrative. The reason we destroyed any preconceptions about expansion teams from year one... the reason we're competitive every season no matter how much injuries and roster churn and international callups decimate our roster... the reason we're disappointed that our young trophy case just isn't filling up at our accustomed rate.. is Sigi Schmid, the coach we're talking about firing.
Say you're not convinced and you still want him out. You have to deal with the very important and pressing question of who else should have the job. I've myself been critical in comments here of people who aren't imaginative enough in thinking of candidates. . who only stick to a handful of recycled MLS names (Kreis. . Nicol. . Bradley). But the fact remains that foreign coaches do not excel in MLS. Why exactly that might be is a topic for another very long post, but it's undeniably true. The best effort was Gary Smith, who won an incredibly fortuitous MLS Cup with a mediocre Colorado Rapids team in 2010 and was last seen getting sacked by League One's Stevenage.
Outside of Smith the list of MLS Cup winning coaches is a relentless litany of US Soccer lifers. . Arena, Kreis, Schmid, Kinnear, Sampson. . . And if you want to stick to current MLS coaches, there is exactly one candidate who you could convince me isn't at best a sidegrade and likely a downgrade from Sigi, and I very much doubt Arena will be moving up I-5.
So do you take a flier from the college ranks? That's an enormous risk. Caleb Porter was far and away the best candidate as he was already running a pro system and churning out pro prospects at Akron. And even he was a risk (and by the way, he just got blown out in an away leg in the playoffs). So do you want to entrust a 10 million dollar payroll to someone else who's never coached a pro player? That's a gamble I don't think Seattle should be making.
THE DREADED PLATEAU
It's tempting to think you need to do something dramatic when you fall short of a championship over many years, and firing a coach is often a tempting something. We're not unfamiliar with it in Seattle. In 1998 Barry Ackerley decided that George Karl, who had coached the Sonics to the Finals, had plateaued and wasn't good enough to get a championship and so Karl was fired. The next year they missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years. They made it past the first round of the playoffs only once in the next ten seasons, and then they were destroyed. Now if you want to watch the Sonics you have to find a dusty warehouse in SoDo and stare at memorabilia.
In 2002, after consecutive losses to the Yankees in the ALCS, manager Lou Piniella left the Mariners. Unlike in Karl's case, this was Piniella's decision, as he wanted out of the last year of his contract to move closer to his family on the east coast. But the damage was the same. Despite perennially having an above average payroll, the Mariners have been a perpetual disappointment and haven't returned to the playoffs since.
In 2008, Mike Holmgren left the Seahawks after a brutal lame duck year, but it came after five consecutive playoff years, four consecutive divisional championships, and a Superbowl loss. Again, this was more the coach's decision than the team's. But the team had a losing record for three years after he left, which in the high-parity NFL is a long time. Mercifully the Seahawks didn't wait long to hire Pete Carroll and it looks like they're back to consistent winning. But still, losing a consistently winning coach did not reap immediate rewards. Losing a consistently winning coach almost never reaps immediate rewards. It's a moon shot.
There are similarities between running a soccer team and playing poker. You're making the most of the resources you have — the roster you've assembled or the hand you've been dealt — to navigate the bad beats, the bad bounces, the injuries and outwit your opponents. And in both cases the best way to do that is to be relentlessly rational. . to know the odds and then play them. The best players. . the players who win. . don't let their emotions get the best of them.
Anyone who's been around poker will understand the concept of going on tilt. You've had a run of bad results and/or bad luck and you feel like you need to make ‘something' happen. And so you play aggressively to force yourself into hands you shouldn't be involved in. You ignore the odds trying to force better results. And inevitably it doesn't work. Good players don't do it. It's the death knell.
Firing Sigi would be playing on tilt. You're upset about getting blown out again in the playoffs. I am too. Adrian is too. We all are. But good teams don't make decisions just to make ‘something' happen. They play the odds. And right now this team's best chance to continue winning and to eventually win the Cup is not to replace one of the best coaches in MLS history and one of the best coaches in MLS right now with a question mark.
Hanauer has assembled a very strong (or at least a top-heavy) roster that should be able to do some damage to teams, even in the playoffs. Through various misfortunes, Sigi has barely had a chance to see it on the field. That's not his fault. His track record and our trophy case and the respect of his peers and players have convinced me he's earned a chance to pilot our A team for at least one season.