After nearly eight seasons, the Seattle Sounders are making one of the most gut-wrenching moves in their MLS history: They are changing head coaches. The announcement was made on Tuesday, officially deemed a "mutual parting of ways" with head coach Sigi Schmid. Longtime assistant coach and former USL head coach Brian Schmetzer will take over as the interim head coach.
"Sigi Schmid has been an invaluable member of Sounders FC since the club's MLS launch, leading our organization to numerous trophies and a consistent winning culture for seven seasons," Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer said in a team release. "Sigi departs the club with our utmost respect and gratitude for his years of service. Ultimately the club and Sigi agreed that a change was needed at this time, but Sigi's legacy will always be a part of our history. He has my sincere appreciation for all that he committed to our team and community."
Although the Sounders made the playoffs in each of Schmid's first seven seasons, amassed a regular-season record better than all but one team during that time, won four U.S. Open Cups and claimed a Supporters' Shield, the one prize that eluded them was a MLS Cup. This was largely seen as a make-or-break year for Schmid in that regard. But instead of challenging for that trophy, the Sounders are on the precipice of missing the playoffs for the first time. They are currently stuck in ninth place of the 10-team Western Conference, and are coming off a listless 3-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City that may have been the worst performance in franchise history.
The loss left the Sounders with just 20 points through 20 games, by far their worst record at this stage in any MLS campaign. They are also 10 points out of the final playoff spot with a -7 goal-difference that is worse than all but one of the league's 20 teams.
"I want to thank Seattle Sounders FC for the opportunity to lead this club over the past eight years, with particular gratitude to Adrian Hanauer, Joe Roth and the rest of the club's ownership group. I'd also like to thank my coaches and technical staff for the support they've given me, and most importantly I want to thank my players for their tremendous effort throughout the years," Schmid wrote in a farewell message. "I'm proud of the success we've achieved in winning five major trophies in Seattle, qualifying for the postseason for seven-straight seasons. My only disappointment is that we were unable to bring home an MLS Cup to our tremendous fans, who have always been supportive through good times and bad. In closing, I want to thank the Sounders FC organization, the club's fans and the city of Seattle for this amazing run."
All of that isn't just Schmid's fault, of course, but when you're the head coach of a franchise with such lofty expectations this is often what happens.
Even before the struggles of 2016, there had been signs of distress. The 2015 season was especially trying for Schmid. After a blazing start that saw the Sounders open the season 9-4-2, a rash of injuries, suspensions and international call-ups contributed mightily to a 3-points-in-nine-matches swoon that actually put the team out of playoff-position for a few weeks. But after some key players returned to health and a few high-profile additions were made, the Sounders were able to recover enough to reclaim the Cascadia Cup for the first time since 2011, win their CONCACAF Champions League group and claim the No. 4 seed in the playoffs.
After beating the LA Galaxy in the Knockout Round and jumping out to a 2-1 lead over FC Dallas in the Western Conference semifinals, it was really starting to look like Schmid and the Sounders would win that elusive trophy.
The struggles this year -- and failure to win last year -- aren't the only reasons Schmid is out. Rather, it's the reality that for all his success Schmid has gone just 2-7 in two-legged series and that 2015 was the fifth time the Sounders had failed to make it out of the conference semifinals.
At the same time, going in a new direction will not be without risks. Schmetzer will be a steady hand for the time being and will likely get significant consideration for the permanent gig, but whoever follows Schmid has big shoes to fill.
Not only is Schmid a Hall of Famer with an amazing resume, but he's been an integral part of the Sounders organization every step of its MLS existence. His ultimate successor will likely need near instantaneous results to calm a fanbase whose nerves are collectively frayed.