More than once this season, Seattle Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer has praised FC Dallas Technical Director Fernando Clavijo for the work he’s done down in Frisco. This turns out to be about more than just professional courtesy. Schmetzer’s praise is the fruit of a longtime friendship born out of soccer that turned into much, much more.
Their relationship dates back to 1984 when both Schmetzer and Clavijo were part of a fierce San Diego Sockers team that won the Major Indoor Soccer League title in three of the four years that the duo were on the squad. They were inseparable, not just on the Sockers’ backline, but off the pitch as well. I’ve heard both men tell the story of living next door to each other in San Diego, and how they would have coffee and a cheese danish together every single morning. I spoke with Clavijo before the second leg of the conference semifinals between Dallas and Seattle, and he said back then, soccer — and Schmetzer — were just “funny.”
Clavijo admits that things are a bit more serious now than they were in San Diego in the 1980s. His professional journey has taken him all over the world, and to his current home in Dallas, as of 2012. Even though life has changed for he and Schmetzer, Clavijo proudly says their friendship is stronger than ever. Their kids grew up together, and Clavijo said he was excited for the entire Schmetzer clan when he found out about Brian’s new job.
Clavijo said that it wasn’t just excitement for a friend, but also pride in a man that he knew to be more than ready for the job. Clavijo should know, as he was the one who gave Schmetzer one of his first assistant jobs back in the 1990s with the indoor Seattle SeaDogs.
“He’s a good coach,” Clavijo said, expressing no surprise that Schmetzer performed so well that the Sounders effectively had no choice but to remove the interim tag. “I knew him as a player, I knew him as an assistant coach. He has integrity, he knows the game, he’s well-liked by players.”
In Clavijo’s mind, after all Schmetzer had done for the Sounders, there was no one more deserving of the top coaching job in Seattle. “How [much] better can it be for someone that has been in Seattle forever?”
Talking to Clavijo just hours before his team was about to try to overcome a massive 3-0 deficit in the conference semifinals was interesting, because he clearly cares about his team — but he’s able to separate those emotions from his friendship with Schmetzer.
“It feels good to see him here,” Clavijo said. “At my age, I’m very much able to separate myself from the playing time and relationships.” Even though Schmetzer is his “dear friend,” Clavijo said that “for 90 minutes, I’m going to try and beat him and have my coach win it.” With a wry smile, he added “but as soon as the game is over, depending on how the score goes ... well, then we’ll see.”
As two competitive players who carried that same level of intensity into their coaching and management careers, it’s notable both men can separate the soccer from the friendship so seamlessly. Clavijo thinks time has a little bit to do with it.
“Maybe when I was younger, I prolonged the feelings a little bit longer than just after the game.” He said he still wants to win and is as competitive as ever, but time has helped him appreciate and be thankful for all that the game has provided him — including his friendship with Schmetzer. “I appreciate what the game has done for me, I’m very happy.”
Schmetzer shared a similar sentiment last week, after meeting with Clavijo prior to the first semifinal leg against Dallas. “I’m at the age where I get it. As much time as I can spend with people I like, I’m going to do it.” This was especially poignant for Schmetzer and his relationship with Clavijo after the latter was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer in 2014, and announced that he was in full remission earlier this year.
As I was asking Clavijo about what Schmetzer was like as an assistant, the Sounders staff were walking into the facility. As soon as the Seattle coach was in earshot, Clavijo said loudly, “I was always better looking.” The two embraced warmly and shared a brief moment before Schmetzer headed into his team’s locker room to mastermind the defeat of his friend.
As he watched the locker room door close, transforming his friend into his 90-minute enemy, Clavijo smiled and scratched his chin. He turned back and paused for a second to think about his friend and everything they’d been through together. “We have a good history together, a very good history together. You want to see good people getting awards in soccer, and he’s been around the game for a long time. He deserves it, that’s all.”