For Seattle Sounders assistant coach Djimi Traore, soccer has always been about fighting for a purpose -- whether it's for a coach or a trophy or even for himself. "I’ve been at clubs where we were playing for the title, I’ve been at clubs where we were just trying to reach a cup final, and I’ve played at a club where we were fighting to not go down."
The French-born former defender played for numerous clubs in France and England before making his way toSeattle, his last destination as a player and his first destination as a coach. But of the ten clubs Traore suited up for during his 18-year professional career, the one at which he earned the most honors still matters deeply to him -- Liverpool Football Club.
Traore picked up some of the most prestigious winners' medals in all of world soccer during his time on Merseyside, most notably from Liverpool's legendary comeback to defeat AC Milan in the 2005 UEFA Champions League final. As Liverpool heads into the Europa League final next week, Traore reflected on what it was like to step out of the tunnel for such a big club in a prestigious cup final. "It’s massive because the fans love it, for them it’s like the best thing. In the cup finals I played in, the atmosphere in the stadium was buzzing like crazy." Traore says that it's not surprising to see Liverpool make it to such a big game, that being in the final of such a distinguished tournament is business as usual for such a decorated club. "They always find a way to go to a final because that’s the story of the club, that’s the way it is."
Now a coach himself, Traore has a better understanding of that side of soccer and feels comfortable pointing out what he thinks does and doesn't work for a manager. Since he still follows and cheers for Liverpool as much as he can, Traore has some keen observations about the club and its management. He's a big fan of current manager Jurgen Klopp, noting how impressive the German was with Borussia Dortmund. "The atmosphere that he brings, the energy he brings from the bench, it brings something," he said, "and you can see that all the players love him."
Fresh off his own playing career, Traore knows what it's like to be inspired -- or discouraged -- by a manager. He contrasts Klopp's style with that of a manager he played under for a couple years -- Rafa Benitez. "He was always so focused and kept a straight face. Even when we scored, he never would celebrate or smile, he was always thinking about the next play." Traore sees the pros and cons to both styles, but admits that as a player and as a fan, he prefers Klopp's style.
Traore's own coaching style is apparent when observing him at Sounders training sessions. He is often seen kicking around with the players, occasionally showing off his still-exceptional technique; a few weeks back, Traore wowed everyone when he scored a bicycle kick goal during a post-training kickabout. He loves teasing the players and never lets them off easy for, but he also knows when another approach is needed. Before I talked with Traore after one session, I saw him quietly take young forward Oalex Anderson aside for some personal advice. His rapport with the players was pretty clear when Sounders defender Tyrone Mears sidled up to Traore during our interview to tease the coach; Traore playfully bemoaned having to "work with that guy" as the two traded fake punches.
Since joining the Sounders coaching staff in 2015, Traore credits Sigi Schmid and the other coaches with being welcoming and helpful since day one: "you want to work with the best in MLS and we have that here." As for what he's learning from Schmid, Traore points out his "composure as a coach" and says that "he’s a good speaker, he knows how to motivate in the locker room." So while Schmid might not have the exuberance and energy on the touchline that Klopp has, Traore says that his boss's ability to inspire and lead is without question. "For me, he’s one of the best coaches in the league, and I’m pleased to work under him -- every single day I learn something."
A typical day of training for Traore includes working with the defenders (and sometimes goalkeepers) by facilitating position-specific exercises and putting players in specific match situations to help improve certain areas. It also includes plenty of film watching: "We go back and watch video a lot, usually go through the previous match, talk about certain clips and talk about how the team can improve—show what we do very good and what we do very badly." He's pleased with how the team has progressed so far this season, and he knows that the Sounders' improved defense reflects on him as an assistant coach. Traore sees the team's general improvement as being rooted in the shoring up of the defense, but admits that "of course we want to start scoring more goals now."
Despite the vast improvement he's seen in MLS since he first joined Seattle in 2013, Traore wants to see the league continue to grow. It helps that more high quality players are joining the league every year, but he says that MLS is going to need to be "more open" if it hopes to truly compete with the top world soccer leagues. Traore says that teams need to start bringing in more non-American coaches, especially from Europe and South America. He notes that the English Premier League probably wouldn't be as successful as it is today if nearly every team was managed by an Englishman. Having foreign coaches "brings something different, because different coaches bring different ways to look at soccer and different styles of play," he said.
Traore also brought up one of the most contentious subjects in all of American soccer -- promotion and relegation. Having played for teams that had to fight to stave off relegation, Traore says that "I think it makes it more exciting, because you’re playing for survival and for the sake of the fans and people who work for the club." He says that it gives teams something to fight for, even when they're not able to compete for titles and trophies. He says that such a system could not only improve the entirety of American soccer, but that for individual players, "it makes you stronger and a better person and a better player."
Always a student (and fan) of the game, Traore still finds time to watch as much soccer as he can -- especially Liverpool. He'll be watching intently as the Reds head to Basel next Wednesday to take on Spanish side Sevilla in the Europa League final, probably remembering the moment he stepped out onto the pitch in Istanbul on that memorable night in 2005. As for a prediction? Traore says that Liverpool's relatively inexperienced squad may have a hard time against a Sevilla team in their third Europa final in a row, but that "Liverpool have fans that can push their team to do great things." Either way, Traore says that "I’ll be crossing my fingers and hope that next week they can win it." His son's birthday is the same day as the final, so he said that "hopefully we can celebrate two things."