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Brian Schmetzer's character helped push Sounders to MLS Cup

Trying to better understand what has made the Sounders coach so successful

Seattle Sounders v Colorado Rapids - Western Conference Finals - Leg 2 Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

One of the first things you notice about Brian Schmetzer is how well he listens. Lots of people in leadership do a wonderful job of making it seem like they care what you’re saying. Heck, a lot of them get into these positions exactly because of that skill. It’s very few who give a genuine impression that they are not only hearing the words coming out of your mouth, but attempting to understand what it is you’re trying say.

Schmetzer does this in a way that feels natural, yet still doesn’t seem normal for a head coach of a professional soccer team. If he doesn’t think he entirely understands a question, he’ll make sure he does before answering. During the course of an interview, he’ll take notes — NOTES! — and often come back to something you said previously. In press conferences, he makes eye contact with everyone who asks a question and will often address reporters by name.

Even though Schmetzer doesn’t tend to wow you with intricate explanations of tactics, regale you with tales of his soccer past or go out of his way to provide insight into the inner-workings of the Seattle Sounders locker room, he manages to make you feel valued. When he gives you a compliment or — as is unfortunate in my case — tells you he’s missed seeing you at training, you don’t question the sincerity. Schmetzer is the kind of coach you can’t help but root for.

Photos: Sounders vs. Earthquakes Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

As the Sounders aim to complete what may already be the most amazing turnaround in MLS history — they were in last place as recently as July 8, at one point were 10 points out of a playoff spot and now find themselves playing in a MLS Cup final on Saturday — any number of explanations have been offered. Nicolas Lodeiro’s addition is a big part, as was the return to health of Roman Torres. But don’t underestimate the importance of Schmetzer’s leadership.

The Seattle native has his dream job, and he has not put a single step wrong. Despite knowing that this may very well be his one and only shot, he’s freely spread responsibility to not just the players but to fellow coaches. Instead of clinging tighter, he’s handled the team with a loose grip and finds himself more secure than ever.

Sounders remove interim tag, announce Schmetzer as permanent h...

Sounders remove interim tag, announce Schmetzer as permanent head coach

Posted by Sounder at Heart on Wednesday, November 2, 2016

There was a time not so long ago when the idea of Schmetzer ever becoming a MLS head coach seemed a bit far-fetched. At 54, Schmetzer was both somehow too old and too inexperienced to be seen as a particularly attractive hire. Sure, he had been one of the most successful head coaches in the USL when he led the Sounders to a pair of league titles (2005 and 2007) and to a third title game. He’d also been undeniably successful as a MLS assistant coach, helping the Sounders to seven straight playoff appearances and the second best record in the league from 2009-2015.

Unfortunately, there just wasn’t anything sexy about hiring him. There aren’t many assistants with a better resume, but he’d only been formally interviewed for two other head coaching jobs (for the Montreal Impact and FC Dallas, both of which were helped by personal connections).

Even more cruel, the possibility of him assuming the Sounders’ job seemed predicated on a near perfect series of events. Maybe if Sigi Schmid retired after the Sounders won MLS Cup, then Schmetzer could be brought on as a way of keeping continuity. But if Schmid were fired after another season coming up short? How were the Sounders going to justify promoting Schmid’s top assistant, someone who presumably had a significant hand in whatever failure created the opening in the first place?

There was, we now know, a third option: Schmid being dismissed during the season, Schmetzer being hired as an interim and performing so well that the Sounders had no choice but to give him the job.

The irony seems to be that what makes Schmetzer so easy to root for is probably at least part of why he waited so long to get his first MLS head coaching job. Schmetzer is the rare personality who is quick to give others credit, while unceremoniously accepting blame.

Getting Schmetzer to talk highly of himself is basically pointless. At every turn he’ll talk about the coaches that helped him get where is, how the players are the ones doing the hard work, how the organization has made it easy to succeed. Just as predictably, after a bad loss — like the one the Sounders suffered against the Portland Timbers — he talks about how he needed to do a better job preparing the players.

It’s not hard to see why players like him or why his bosses seem genuinely happy for him.

But when you’re a team looking to make a hire as important as a head coach, you want to be wowed. You want someone who’s going to make you question how well you really know the game, who’s going to make you feel lucky to even be interviewing them. Teams are looking for a flashy chef whose career is either on an upward trajectory or the equivalent of a Tom Douglas, not a sous chef who’s spent the last two decades proclaiming what a treat it is to learn from geniuses and work with such exquisite ingredients.

Even after he got the interim job — by his own admission a dream job — Schmetzer described himself as nothing more than a caretaker. Other qualified men had preceeded him and others would eventually follow. All he could do is make sure he did right by the club.

Seattle Sounders vs. Sporting KC: Photos Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

There’s nothing iconic about the way Schmetzer carries himself on the sideline. He’s not yelling, constantly telling players “quickly, quickly.” He’s not out there bending and swaying, in an attempt to will the ball around the pitch with body language. After a good play, he’s not running up and down the sideline high-fiving players. The suits Schmetzer wears are nondescript, nice enough but nothing that will get people talking. It’s no wonder why he’s often likened to a high school science teacher, despite the fact that at 54 he’s still capable of showing off some impressive soccer skills.

It’s tempting to consider the attitude, watch him on the sideline and hear his postgame press conference and conclude that Schmetzer is just sort of along for the ride. A million articles have been written about the Sounders’ turnaround and while Schmetzer’s hiring has been mentioned, it’s often considered a bit of an afterthought. There was no amazing tactical turn or shocking lineup change to credit him with. The Sounders were just playing ... better.

Schmetzer may not be willing to talk about it, but he deserves a ton of credit for this amazing turnaround. The stat that most clearly articulates his contribution is that the Sounders are +13 in the second half of their 19 matches under Schmetzer. They’ve only been outscored in the second half twice in that time and only one of those times did it actually cost them points. Their second-half performances are a huge part of why the Sounders have come from behind to grab points on six occasions and registered four wins in games they’ve surrendered the first goal.

What, exactly, he says may only be known to those in the locker room, but it’s very clear that whatever advice he’s giving his players at halftime is having a positive effect.

It’s often said that a winning locker room is a happy locker room. There’s more than a shred of truth to that. The opposite is often just as true.

Through most of July, the Sounders locker room wasn’t much fun to be around. After many games, it would empty out so quickly that only a few hearty souls were there by the time the press was allowed in. Even after wins, no one really seemed excited to talk. There were few jokes, almost no music.

There certainly wasn’t any dancing.

That all changed around the time Schmetzer was named the interim head coach. Among his first orders of business was effectively empowering his players to save themselves. They were the only ones that could turn the season around, he told them.

From the outside, it didn’t sound like a message that should resonate. Aren’t players always the ones who ultimately decide how well a season goes? The players responded, anyway. Almost immediately, there was a spark that seemed to be missing. That Schmetzer’s hiring coincided with the signing of Lodeiro and was followed soon after by the return of Roman Torres surely helped, but Schmetzer was willing to be the chaperone watching from a safe distance as his players were allowed to own the literal and figurative dance floor.

After big wins, Schmetzer gives his players a few, simple words of encouragement, then backs away and allows them to take over.

Seattle Sounders vs. Real Salt Lake: Photos Mike Russell/Sounder at Heart

About a month after becoming the Sounders interim coach, I had an opportunity to have a sit-down interview with Schmetzer. The Sounders were playing well and were in the midst of a five-game unbeaten run, but the playoffs still seemed like a bit of a longshot.

As it turned out, I couldn’t get out of bringing my infant daughter along on the interview. I knew it was far from ideal, but I figured I’d try to make it work as this interview with Schmetzer was something I’d been trying to line up for several months.

Schmetzer was informed my daughter would be tagging along and was perfectly accommodating. Before formally starting the interview, he invited me into the Sounders cafeteria where we had some lunch where players and other coaches seemed to marvel at the idea of a reporter bringing a baby along on an interview.

Schmetzer, though, took it all in stride. He told me how he was a father too and did his absolute best to normalize what was admittedly a patently ridiculous situation. We twice attempted to conduct the interview — once by asking a very nice, but clearly overmatched Sounders staffer to watch her and again with my infant daughter in my lap — to totally predictable results.

We got maybe 10 minutes of usable audio, nothing at all like what I had hoped to get. But in a way, I felt like I got to see a much more interesting side of Schmetzer than I otherwise would have. In between the formal interview, while I was trying to calm and feed my crying baby, Schmetzer talked to me about his overall philosophy and his own family. At one point, he started explaining a drill the Sounders were doing and how after every session he’d meet with his assistant to go over what they felt went well and what part of the session could have been better.

It’s tempting to give Schmetzer the “players’ coach” label — which seems to imply that he might go easy on them. Our conversation showed me that he’s just as much of a coaches’ coach, that his philosophy is really about getting buy-in from everyone involved in the team. That includes the players, the coaches, the front office, the back office, the fans and, yes, the media. Schmetzer sees all of them — all of us — as a complete ecosystem. We won’t always agree with every decision, but he wants there to be give and take. He wants feedback. He relishes constructive criticism.

The worst-kept secret heading into the Sounders Alliance Annual Business Meeting was that Brian Schmetzer would formally have the “interim” tag removed from his title. As he made his way up to the stage, he seemed to stop at every row as fans wanted to pose for pictures and congratulate him. At each stop, Schmetzer made sure to shake hands, make eye-contact and make the person feel like he was stopping just for them.

When the announcement was finally made, the crowd erupted in cheer and gave him a standing ovation.

Schmetzer made sure to thank the fans, ticked off the name of seemingly every coach he ever worked with and made sure to talk about everyone except himself. Schmetzer seemed to be fighting back tears for much of the speech, knowing that he had finally gotten the job he had wanted for as long as the possibility existed.

We’re still less than 20 games into Schmetzer’s MLS coaching career, and he now has the chance to bring Seattle its first-ever top-division soccer title. In many ways, the biggest challenges he’ll face are still to come. Until now, this has been an almost unimpeded climb up the standings and to MLS Cup. The breaks won’t all continue to go his way. There will be times when people question if the Sounders acted too quickly. At some point, everyone’s dream job becomes just a job.

But Schmetzer has already left the Sounders in a better place than when he started. As someone who started out calling himself a “steward of the club”, that’s about all you can ask.

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