Unless you're a grizzly bear that overslept the past several months and are just now emerging from your now sauna-like cave, you've probably heard that Sigi Schmid is no longer the head coach of Seattle Sounders FC.
Given the way the season has gone so far, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Nonetheless, many of us were understandably in shock when news first broke. Up until Monday, Sigi was the only MLS coach we've ever known. While Adrian Hanauer and, more recently, Garth Lagerwey held titles that slot in atop Sigi's in your typical corporate pyramid, one can't help but think this has always been Sigi's team since he jumped ship in Columbus and catapulted an expansion franchise into the MLS elite.
The extent of his role and influence is hard to pin down. It's fairly well known that he was far more than just a coach—his fingerprints could be found on scouting, player acquisition, and overall team management to a degree few coaches around the world typically operate under. The club did not make big decisions without him playing at least a prominent role in the discussion chamber.
As of Tuesday, that has ended.
So what led to his ultimate downfall? It clearly can't be pinpointed to a single thing—it was a culmination of events, differing philosophies, and a magnification of previously-overlooked limitations, all converging with a ninth-place status and historic skepticism among supporters that made 2016 Sigi's last year at the helm of Sounders FC.
Our inability to generate goals on a frequent basis, or even quality looks, is well known. Our missed marks, miscommunications, and mental lapses on the defensive end have been well documented. The same can be said about our struggles to finally bring an MLS Cup to Seattle. Few coaches would survive such a turbulent season, much less their eighth coming short of the ultimate prize even despite relative success outside of it.
Rather than strike a horse long deceased, let us examine some of the potential factors behind his departure that won't show up in stat boxes, standings pages, or Wikipedia entries on MLS Cup history.
Ask the Sounders faithful what the team's overall style was preceding this year and they're likely to tell you it's a possession-based squad that wears you down over 90 minutes and punishes you with a few incisive through-balls or 1-2s when you've been nearly lulled to sleep. Ask that same person today and they'll tell you it's a possession-based squad that thinks whichever team completes the most square balls and back passes wins the game.
For a long time now we've been adept at possession. However, even during the good days we were still prone to a lack of ideas in the final third when opponents packed the box or pressed us high up the field with energy and erased any comfort we had on the ball.
In essence, we often looked clueless when Plan A broke down. While the telepathic connection between Obafemi Martinsand Clint Dempsey splitting apart 2v3s masked this to an extent, we struggled mightily when one went down with discomfort or was called up by his country. During these stretches we resorted to the most primitive form of attack: We hoofed the ball up to forwards who could rarely control it or we sprayed the ball out wide for crosses into a box where we were clearly outnumbered.
Tactics overlap heavily with both style and system (the latter is discussed below). For the sake of avoiding redundancy, we will address it here. Sigi's Sounders are historically stout on the defensive end, often maintaining organized blocks of four capable of extinguishing even the whiff of a counterattack.
At the risk of hyperbole, that is where the tactics end. Perhaps no quote sums it up better than this one courtesy of a front office member from a fellow Western Conference squad:
"Their gameplan...is to just get the ball to those guys and let them do [expletive] that no one else in the league can do. When that happens, they're good. If you can stop them from doing that, they're not."
In the same column, analyst Matt Doyle extends it even further by contending Sigi has always relied heavily on star players to bear the burden of leading an attack, noting that beyond the Oba/Clint combo and Montero before them, players like Schelotto in Columbus and Ruiz in Los Angeles were tasked with carrying heavy loads within their teams' offenses.
And even when it was working, we seemed to abandon our attack-minded approach come playoffs. It didn't matter if we led the league in goals; we typically played to zero in the first legs of two-game series—whether reflected in formation (think 4-5-1 to add an extra midfielder) or through a general lack of urgency getting forward. The phrase "defense wins championships" exists for a reason, but you still need to score at some point to win. Our conservative approach even came back to bite us in the ass on more than one occasion when after wave after wave of attacks we found ourselves facing a 3-goal hole. When you come out of the gate resembling a dog with its tail between its legs, don't complain when your goalposts get peed on. The departure from what was working up until that point was notable, and part of the reason—at least in my opinion—why we've struggled so mightily in the playoffs.
In a world of black and white, you're either a system-based team or you're not. In the real world, you're probably somewhere in between.
It is fairly safe to say that Sigi erred heavily on the ‘not' side of things. Although he was criticized at times during the early years of being too rigid in running out what we often referred to as an empty bucket 4-4-2, the reality is that a lack of a CAM and how the players were projected on our televisions as starting lineups were really the only evidence of such. Montero was listed as a forward, but often dropped into the space a No. 10 would provide (playing more like a 4-2-3-1). When Dempsey and Martins came to town, they would take turns dropping back into that space with guys like Pappa occasionally sliding in centrally from time to time.
My suspicion is that our style—safe possession and hoof-ball or aimless crosses when it didn't work—was confused a bit with system when he was accused of being too rigid.
We never really had a system. Sigi commonly dismissed questions about formations, stating that how the players play is more important than where they line up at the outset. This is heavily linked to the dependence on individual creativity noted above. When it worked, we looked like a multi-headed serpent capable of striking from any number of angles. When it didn't, we resembled an aimless amoeba tripping over its own untied shoes. It's a free market type of thinking that manifests in boom and bust results.
There is something to be said about letting the players play, an ethos Sigi publicly ascribed to. But this approach comes with serious limitations and risks.
First, it can make roles confusing. One week you may be asked to hold tight near the backline to swallow up any potential counterattacks while the next you're asked to attack the flank with a vengeance. You don't need a Ph.D. in sports management to see how this can limit peak potential and, in the case of younger players, growth.
Second, and perhaps a continuation of the first, it makes your team highly susceptible to the impact of injury or uncertainty. Obviously any team that sustains injuries to key players is going to be affected, but when there isn't a clear role that a bench player has been understudying for weeks or months, stepping in and replacing a starter becomes all the more difficult. Players around said replacement are used to working off the starter, but now a guy with a completely different style, way of thinking, and skill set is suddenly there (or not there, in the case of space) and it often results in a lack of chemistry and understanding.
Finally, it frequently puts players outside of their best positions. While this may be more Sigi than a lack of an overarching system, we have historically acquired players that we deem high in skill who can play multiple positions. On paper this seems novel—it allows you to get your most highly skilled players on the field at the same time. On the field, however, it can become problematic if not everything goes exactly as expected. The result is players being put in positions that don't maximize their greatest strengths (think of center midfielders being played out wide or forwards being played as wide midfielders) and, when applied to a starting lineup that features 11 players, the result is that the sum of its parts is not greater than the whole. It's also led to frustration among players on some occasions, with rumors alluding to Christian Tiffert wanting to play out wide rather than in the middle and Blaise Nkufo never fully embracing the dirty-work type of target forward Sigi asked him to be.
This season we were a 4-3-3 until we were not. It was almost comical seeing how the lineup was submitted to the broadcast stations despite not really playing like a 4-3-3, potentially to stave criticism from the FO who potentially wanted this to be adopted across all levels of the Sounders platform.
There is no such thing as a perfect coach. The closest thing may be a near-perfect fit for a specific team. That being said, there are some general qualities that tend to appear in the best of the best.
Let there be no doubt that tactics and assembling the right combination of players to execute those tactics is likely the most important. However, getting the most out of individuals and getting them to play cohesively as something larger than themselves is not simply a matter of scribbling a few Xs and Os on a chalkboard with lines and arrows dancing around them.
Energy, passion, and collectivism do not win you championships. But they sure as hell can go a long way toward maximizing your chances when nurtured in the right way. Prototypically stoic and even-keeled players such as Brad Evans might not require a motivational speech to get up for the game, but other players and personalities can benefit highly from it despite not necessarily needing it.
While the society-wide benefits of trickle-down economic theory are up for debate (not on this site, hopefully), trickle-down tone is very much real. When players see a coach who is actively participating in training with them (even if poorly), talking to all of the players individually about how they are doing outside of soccer, but most importantly constantly reminding them as a team of what their mission is and why they're fighting for what they are, they respond.
Unfortunately, much like all of these segments there is no statistic we can use to measure this. However, from an outside perspective it often felt like Sigi relied on veteran players (whether it be Evans or, in the case of rivalry games, Zach Scott) to provide that mentorship role and establish the tone within the locker room. While the quote isn't readily available that I can find, someone once mentioned Sigi stating something to the effect that it shouldn't be a coach's job to motivate professional-level athletes. If course it shouldn't, but it is.
We saw toward the end of 2013 what can happen when there is a lack of team-wide identity and buy-in. We saw it again when results started going against our way here in 2016.
How much stock you put the previously bombshell-riddled Soccerwire article is up to you. Some of the most shocking quotes have since been edited out—ones that stated multiple veterans were regularly storming off the field in frustration of late and that Clint essentially refused to even talk with Sigi (there are still mentions of these even if not to the same degree). In the most recent Nos Audietis, Jeremiah mentioned that while he didn't want to publicly share his thoughts as to who the source may be, he leans toward trusting at least the general takeaway of the piece given the author of the piece, if not the specifics within them. He also mentioned that recently the Sounders had installed obscuring shades on the fences to provide more privacy during practice, which was "one of the more bizarre things that's happened" given Sigi historically enjoyed fan engagement even on the training grounds.
Regardless, we can see this lack of chemistry and trust on the field. The effort just isn't there, players are pointing fingers at each other, and frustration overshadows skill. Is there anything Sigi could have done differently, or is it simply all on the players? My guess is that it's a mix of both—the more you proactively cultivate a collectivist spirit and lead by example the less likely your team is to splinter and hang their heads when the soccer gods douse you in rain.
In a game as fluid as soccer where chemistry and trust is critical, and where fractions of a second or inch can be the difference between winning a ball or losing a ball and scoring a goal or striking the crossbar, the role of mentality and emotional buy-in cannot be overstated. The longer he remained with Seattle, the more it became clear Schmid was not the type of coach that could keep a locker room together during dire times.
Struggle over power
I must admit I feel slightly like I'm walking a bit on eggshells on this one. I remind you that I am not an employee of the Sounders and do not have access to the front office—the following is simply a combination of gut sense combined with subtle clues dropped in recent interviews.
To begin, Lagerwey was hired when the Sounders weren't doing particularly poorly. It was largely a shedding of the phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," knowing that even when something isn't broken it still could potentially be better. Perhaps they were worried that a) they had begun skating dangerously close to the stereotypical mold of ‘groupthink', or b) Hanauer recognized that he simply didn't have time or capacity to be as hands-on on the soccer side of operations and that Sigi had too much control for any individual to have. The former was at least directly supported when Hanauer stated "We're a club that has had seven years of basically the same group intact." The latter is speculation, but not a stretch of the imagination.
The contrasts between Real Salt Lake and the Sounders are great. Salt Lake was as close to a system-based team as we've seen in MLS, operating mostly under a diamond structure that spanned their first team down to their academy. The Sounders, as noted above, were not. Both proved to be consistent and successful, with the Claret and Cobalt hanging up there with the Sounders just under the LA Galaxy in terms of the league's elite.
Garth was clear when he came aboard that he wasn't looking to step in and shake things up immediately: "I am not coming in here to make this my team—that would be beyond foolish of me. I'm coming in here to work with all the talent that we have here."
He did, however, offer some thoughts as to things he thought he could provide in terms of building a more sustainably-constructed team: "What I'm focused on is be disciplined in how we use our resources, and I mean that from a salary cap perspective as well. Don't just go out and sign a good player, go out and sign the right player that you need to make the team better in the spot where you're perhaps the weakest." System or no system, it was clear he thought we could improve the strategic research behind player acquisitions in general rather than just signing highly skilled individuals and assuming they'd help us out on the field.
He brought with him a longer-term approach, and one that spills far more widespread than simply the first team. On what could improve: "And then long term ... an organizational depth chart of having a 3- to 5-year plan where we have kids at the academy level, the S2 level, and then pushing players into the first team level actively over the period of the next couple of years..."
While the front office had alluded to scouting players several offseasons in advance, there didn't appear to be an overarching infrastructure across all platforms of the Sounders organization to define what types of players fit the needs of the team specifically.
Halting plans to expand Starfire due to a lack of long-term strategy and planning was the most notable influence of Garth's reign, but it still seemed that when it came to the first team, he was content to let the powers that be continue doing things the way they had given the historical success of the Sounders in MLS.
A commonly cited argument against the decision to let Sigi go was that our front office (Garth) simply didn't provide him with the resources (players) required to sustain success. There are two nuances that complicate this argument, however. First, we don't know how much Garth actually advocated for the signings we now consider busts. It's widely believed that players like Valdez and Ivanschitz were on the Sounders' wish list far before Garth even arrived. Given the window of our existing core, it is very likely Sigi and others essentially wanted to go all-in on MLS Cup last season and Garth was simply complicit, not trying to rock the boat too quickly. This was more or less confirmed when Garth remarked "I did my best to be deferential over these 18 months."
Second, although our roster pre-Lodeiro and Fernandez may not be a clear favorite to win the Cup, it is surely not a ninth-place roster. Waiting to replace Oba with what we now know was our #1 target on their board was a good long-term strategy, but it affected us in the short-term. However, can we realistically say that Sigi had little to no control over making us a team better than the second-worst in the West and second-worst in the league in goal differential? I certainly can't.
What we don't know is if there was an active power struggle between Sigi and Garth. What we do know is that Garth was hesitant to imprint his presumably opposing philosophy on the team immediately. We also know that the approach we had been taking for the past few years, despite being successful, essentially resembled a house of cards, especially when considering we had heavily banked on using allocation and TAM money on veterans to go all-in on getting the Cup with our existing core. Our lack of team-wide identity or system created a fragile environment that could easily turn sour with a few unanticipated events, Oba's departure being one of them.
Based on following the team and hearing some of the quotes provided over the past week, my best guess is that although Adrian brought Garth in both for better long-term strategic planning and to offer a bit of devil's advocacy within the front office, Garth either a) took too long and was too polite in not agitating egos, or b) was asked by Hanauer to let Sigi continue doing his thing given his previous success and asked to expand his scope of influence gradually, starting first with the academy and S2.
When Sigi's approach was working, it made sense not to shake things up. But as we can see now, that house of cards inevitably tumbled, and Garth was the one trusted to pick the pieces back up and reassemble them in a more sustainable manner rather than Sigi.
As much as we don't like to think of the Sounders as a business—they often refer to the team and the supporters as a family—it is one. While the chances of this hypothetical scenario happening are low, it makes better business sense to operate a mediocre team that has high levels of support than a successful team with mediocre support.
The Sounders, as we all know, broke the record for average attendance in our very first year. While results weren't the only factor behind the continued increase from 2009 to 2012 (the spreading of word of mouth given the energy of the stadium was arguably equal to if not more important), there is little doubt they played a significant role. Outside of a lack of an MLS Cup, one couldn't really identify anything substantial to quibble over.
Then in 2013, something happened: attendance plateaued. Since 2012, we have more or less been stuck around the 43,000-44,000 mark. The dreams of filling the entire stadium in a decade were no longer viewed as inevitable; they were beginning to appear impossible.
The saturation of the local soccer market, the ceiling of which is sometimes exaggerated, was part of it. But seeing the same thing year in and year out—the Sounders cobble together a good record only to be jettisoned in the playoffs yet again—surely didn't help. Questions over Sigi's ability to maximize the potential of what was always considered one of the best rosters in the league began before 2013, but reached a boiling point when the locker room essentially crumbled apart and we barely scraped into the playoffs despite leading the league a few short months before it. As always, the Sounders saw that elusive Cup fade into darkness, exacerbated by being knocked out by our despised rivals to the south.
Joe Roth faced a decision: "So I've either got to fire him or fire the players. So I fired the players — because obviously they just weren't jelling."
In 2014, this appeared to be the right move. Despite ultimately being knocked out of the playoffs once again, we won the Supporters' Shield and the Open Cup for a fourth time. This success renewed hope in Sigi among supporters and to a degree quashed logical arguments for firing him. But as discussed above, these successes were almost exclusively reliant on two individual players doing things no one else in the league could do.
In 2016, when the Sounders couldn't score for the life of them, we spiraled down near the bottom of the standings, and the locker room appeared to be in turmoil yet again, they fired the coach. While 2014 bought some extra time for Sigi, 2016 clearly was the last straw. This was proof Sigi's management style wasn't immune to large holes and that the locker room had essentially turned either on him (or each other, at minimum) for a second time in four years, it was clear there wasn't enough leadership at the top to hold it all together.
The Sounders' supporters are smart. These things are noticed and likely spread throughout the stadium and bars via word of mouth. Between a perceived lack of high-level tactics, knowledge of his hands-off player management approach, the historic woes of our team in the postseason (we are 2-7 in advancing in two-leg series in the playoffs with Sigi in charge), and now the essentially rudderless team flailing on the standings page, it reached a tipping point.
People who were adamantly #SigiIn began switching sides. Those that were #SigiOut found more vigor behind their cries. Coupled with several off-the-field factors that have strained relations with supporters over the past few years (which is for another article), optimism in the team was at a historic low.
While I do not have access to season ticket renewal rates, I do know that I was called out of the blue to ask about my interest for the very first time the same day that Sigi was fired, and have heard similar things among other people in comments sections. While ultimately speculation, it's not outrageous to think that frustration over the state of the team, and especially a lack of transparent acknowledgement prior to Tuesday, was hurting renewal rates. Many people on here have said they're more willing to either watch on television or even do other things with their Saturdays.
It would be inane to fire a coach upon the first whiff of supporter skepticism. However, if the end of his tenure appeared inevitable regardless and his continued employment was seen as a barrier to renewing faith in the team, it is far more important win back the confidence of the team's supporters now than it is to provide the coach with a symbolic sendoff at the season's end.
As we can now see, there were multiple layers behind why Sigi was ultimately let go. How prominent each component was in relation to the others isn't known, but the culmination of events all met at the eye of a perfect storm on Tuesday morning.
Some will never relent from their position that Garth set Sigi up to fail. Some will insist we should have let him go years ago.
Regardless of where you stand, hopefully we can all agree with Garth's forward-looking approach: "The club is to some degree in crisis. With every crisis comes an opportunity. An opportunity to turn the page and hopefully get better."
We have new shiny recruits. We have a new coach with a 40+ year history with the club that bleeds Rave Green. We have a renewed spirit in practice—something that seemed impossible just one week ago.
If we've learned from our mistakes, the future will be bright.