When the Seattle Sounders announced that Sigi Schmid would be the team's first coach in December of 2008, it was rightly seen as a coup. Schmid was fresh off a double-winning season with the Columbus Crew, a team which he had rebuilt from the ground up in just three years. It was the second double of Schmid's career (the first coming with the LA Galaxy in 2002) and given the scale of the rebuild and the relative lack of resources at his disposal in Columbus, his stature as one of the biggest names in American soccer was unquestioned. The Sounders managing to bring him on board was a very powerful statement of intent by the club's ownership.
It's now been five years, and in many ways it's difficult to view Schmid's time in charge as anything but a success. The team exceeded all expectations in its first season by contending for the Supporters Shield, making the playoffs and winning a US Open Cup right out of the gate. The team has added two more Open Cups to the trophy case, made the playoffs five straight years, were legitimate Supporters Shield contenders on three occasions, and progressed to the CONCACAF Champions League knockout stages twice. In just five years, the Sounders have become one of the biggest clubs in MLS-and by some measures unquestionably the biggest-and it is undeniable that Sigi Schmid has played a massive role in their success. There have been failures and disappointments along the way, but in the larger sense it's undeniable that the decision to hire Sigi was one of the best decisions Sounders ownership has ever made.
It's important to mention all of these things because the discourse surrounding Schmid's future is so often vitriolic. Many of those that wish to see the team part ways with him try to classify him as a failure, to paint him as some manner of incompetent buffoon and to downplay his accomplishments both before and during his time in Seattle. Such assertions are quite clearly absurd; Sigi Schmid is the winningest coach in MLS history with a resume that sets him apart as one of the giants of American soccer history. If this is the end of the Schmid era in Seattle and he wishes to continue his coaching career, he'll have no trouble finding another job and the smart money will likely be wagered on him succeeding. Coaches of his caliber quite simply do not become incompetent overnight.
But there are times when even the greatest coaches run their course with a club, and that time has arrived for Sigi Schmid and the Sounders. While the stated goal of the club is to win an MLS Cup, Schmid's failure to do so in Seattle is not an indication of an innate inability to do so in the future, and in isolation playoff failure should never be the sole catalyst for a team to part ways with a coach. Making important decisions based solely on results is an excellent way to mess up important decisions in a big way. But in the case of the Sounders, it's not just that they've lost in the playoffs, it's how they've lost in the playoffs, and their failures in the postseason are in many ways illustrative of a larger trend of losing big games in lopsided fashion.
Perhaps even more damning is the fact that after reaching their peak in 2011, the Sounders have regressed in two consecutive seasons. Seattle finished just four points behind an LA Galaxy team that was arguably the best in the league's history and ten points clear of third place Real Salt Lake. Complaints of being a defense-first coach have (often unfairly) dogged Schmid throughout his career, but in 2011 the Sounders led MLS in goals scored and played some of the most attractive soccer in the league. While the disaster in the first leg of the playoffs was certainly painful, there was undeniably a feeling that it was a mere blip on the road to glory and that in the larger picture, the 2011 season was just a glimpse of what was to come.
Clearly, it hasn't worked out that way. The 2012 regular season was a significant step back, with the team falling to 3rd in the West, 7th overall, and generally looking far less formidable than they did the season before. The Sounders did manage to win the first playoff series in the club's history, but four days later they found themselves in yet another 3-0 hole following yet another first leg disaster. 2013 saw Seattle post its lowest PPG total in club history, collapsing down the stretch in spectacular fashion and being unceremoniously dumped from the playoffs by their fiercest rivals after once again falling apart in the away leg.
There are certainly explanations beyond Sigi Schmid that help to explain the Sounders' decline over the past two seasons. The depletion of the allocation funds the Sounders received as an expansion franchise has led to a tightening salary cap situation, and the 2013 season in particular was marred by significant injury problems and a lack of continuity due to national team callups. Still, these are problems that all clubs must endure, and given the fact that the Sounders played some of their best soccer while missing some of their best players and some of their worst soccer at their most complete, it's an excuse that rings somewhat hollow.
Certainly, not all of the blame falls on Schmid, something made clear by Adrian Hanauer in the end-of-season conference call. But there are problems that can be largely or wholly attributed to coaching that have had a significant impact on the team's fortunes; while the late-season switch to diamond was the correct decision given injuries and available personnel, Schmid's refusal to change the team's shape for the second leg of the Portland series and going so far as to start Shalrie Joseph at forward was indefensible, and somewhat reminiscent of his decision to play both Fredy Montero and Christian Tiffert out of position against the Galaxy in the 3-0 playoff loss in LA in 2012.
Seattle has also shown an increasingly worrisome tendency to collapse under pressure in recent years, with the disastrous four-game losing streak during which they were outscored 12-2 the clearest example. Seattle weaknesses were exposed during that stretch, and though Schmid adjusted in enough time to avoid falling out of playoff position or losing to the Rapids in the knockout round, the Cascadia Cup and Supporters Shield slipped from reach and the team's confidence was clearly in tatters. The response from the team to Portland's first goal in the away leg says it all; there is a panic that seems to grip the team when faced with adversity in crucial games, and it isn't a new phenomenon. One of the only constants has been Sigi Schmid.
The reality is this; given their financial resources, the size of their fanbase and the talent on the roster, the Sounders should expect to be one of the league's elite teams. After two consecutive middling regular seasons and four consecutive playoff disasters, it's incredibly difficult to make the case that they are. The team is clearly a power in many respects, but in terms of on-field success they haven't lived up to expectations. And while the parity of MLS makes it unrealistic to expect every season to be an unqualified success, the Sounders aren't a team that should be moving backwards.
None of this is to say that Schmid is incapable of fixing these problems, or that retaining him for another season is in any way a guarantee that the Sounders will not take a step forward. Ownership may well feel that he has earned another chance to show what he can do with the current roster once it has had a full offseason together and-hopefully-is able to stay healthy. If that's the conclusion that they reach, it is at least defensible. But just as there is risk in making a change at the top, there is also risk in waiting to long to cut ties; the pressure on Schmid will be enormous, and if things don't start well it could mean a mid-season firing and a fair amount of turmoil. It's far better to make a clean break now, giving a new coach a full offseason to have a say in the way the team is constructed and work to implement his system.
Ultimately, there's a series of questions that must be asked; have the Sounders met expectations over the past two seasons, or have they regressed? Can major factors in their failure to meet said expectations be attributed to coaching? Have there been consistent themes in those failures? There are of course other factors which individuals outside of the club are unaware, such as locker room dynamics and Sigi's role in scouting and player acquisitions, but it's hard to make the case that the overall trend is negative and that he has to own a great deal of that. If ownership feels as though they can find a replacement that can help them take the next step forward, they have a pretty compelling reason to move forward without Sigi.
In many ways, that's a somewhat scary prospect. Sigi Schmid is a part of this club's DNA. No matter what happens, he will always be a huge part of what this team has become. He came to Seattle an American soccer legend, and he is now undeniably a Sounders legend. But it's time for a change. The Sounders have the talent, the cachet, and the resources to attract a coach of a very high caliber, and if they fail to act because they're afraid to risk taking the plunge, the potential downside could be significantly worse. Change is always scary, but sometimes it has to happen. It's time to move on to the next chapter in this club's history.