Sunday, October 23. Decision Day. The Seattle Sounders had finally clinched a spot in the MLS Cup playoffs by beating Real Salt Lake 2-1, capping off their historic three-month climb up the Western Conference standings. In the hubbub of celebration and chaos on the pitch and in the stands at CenturyLink Field, interim head coach Brian Schmetzer felt a hand on his shoulder as Sounders General Manager Garth Lagerwey pulled him aside and spoke just a single sentence: “you’re my guy.”
Back during the first week that Schmetzer was at the helm of the club, he walked into Lagerwey’s office and said “look - I’m the new coach, we gotta start that relationship over, it’s different than when I was an assistant.” This may have taken a fair bit of humility on Schmetzer’s part, to go out of his way with someone who is still relatively new to the club, and recognize him as both a boss and a partner. Schmetzer didn’t directly say this, but his olive leaf to Lagerwey seems to be an acknowledgement that he didn’t want to repeat the past.
The relationship between Garth and Sigi Schmid was rumored to have been rather fractured for some time, but the truth (or the closest thing to it) didn’t really come out until the weeks and months following Schmid’s departure. Lagerwey called their relationship “cordial,” and possibly let slip the true relationship between the two when he said that he tried his best to be “deferential” to Sigi over the course of their 18-month working relationship.
Lagerwey was clearly brought in to build a team in his own image of success to help the team win trophies. His blueprint and Sigi’s execution never quite seemed to be on the same page, and as Lagerwey said at Wednesday’s business meeting, “this was the second time that the team collapsed in 18 months; what we had gone through this summer and in ’15. I felt like we were repeating the same movie, which is what led me to think we need to do things a little bit different.”
When Schmetzer first got the gig, he knew what he needed to do to be successful —both for himself and for the team. He and Lagerwey got on the same page, and according to the latter, it went pretty well: “With all the stuff we had to do to get new players and create a new attitude in the locker room, we developed a really good working relationship.” Once that relationship was established, and Schmetzer bought into Lagerwey’s plan for the Sounders, the interim coach completed the first step in the path to getting that “interim” tag removed.
Both Lagerwey and Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer made it pretty clear that, even though they stressed that they were starting a coaching search, they had hoped that Schmetzer would be the man for the job. Hanauer’s decades-long relationship with Schmetzer formed the backbone of his hope, but he admitted that “once [the team] were headed in that good direction, I think Garth and I both assumed and hoped that Brian would be the head coach.” As for Lagerwey, he seemed to at least initially hope for Schmetzer to get the job for sake of consistency: “I’d rather not to through a 5th coach in 5 years.”
So while it seems that Schmetzer had both of his key bosses’ votes from day 1, he still had to prove that he could lead the team in the right direction. Luckily for all, Schmetzer did just that, compiling an 8-2-4 record to close out the regular season and clinch 4th place—and a spot in the playoffs—despite taking over a team that was in 9th place and 10 points out of the sixth spot. Lagerwey said that those results absolutely sealed the gig for Schmetzer, “at the end of the day, he earned it. He was lights out.”
Since it seems the decision was truly made the moment the Sounders made the playoffs, Lagerwey said while the playoffs were a loose bar set for Schmetzer, it wasn’t “black and white like that.” Lagerwey instead focused on the team’s entire shift during Schmetzer’s tenure, “we went from our team getting one point a game to our team averaging two points a game, and that’s just an undeniable distinction.” He attributed the turnaround in part to Schmetzer’s coaching style and his creation of a locker room culture that puts the onus on the players, who responded with their blistering form in the last three months.
That popularity in the locker room and with the community was just another reason to add to the list for the Sounders ownership. Hanauer noted that “it was pretty obvious early on that [Schmetzer] had garnered the support and gotten the locker room and everybody, in the same direction.” Schmetzer’s popularity became undeniable, both amongst the players and the fans. His reception at the Annual Business Meeting on Wednesday was evidence enough that the fans and the city were backing one of their own.
I don’t know what Garth Lagerwey’s long-term plan was for the Sounders when he took over. He clearly had ideas that clashed with the existing coach’s, and the team’s performance on the field suffered because of that clash. Even though Lagerwey probably had some names in mind he thought could best execute his plan in Seattle, Schmetzer’s tenure as interim head coach forced his hand in the best possible way. Schmetzer developed an excellent relationship with Lagerwey, he produced magnificent and successful soccer on the pitch, and he won over nearly every single fan in Seattle.
Immediately after the club made the announcement at the Annual Business Meeting, Matt Johnson asked Lagerwey in front of the crowd, “why Brian, why now?” As if it were the simplest decision in the world, Lagerwey simply answered, “duh.”