When you chat with those within soccer that know Zach Scott something becomes quickly apparent - everyone respects him. Their respect for Mr. Sounder grows out of a few things - he treats everyone well; he works harder than anyone else; he dedicates himself to family; he sacrifices everything for his team, the Seattle Sounders FC.
Zach Scott will not be in training camp next week. This will be the first time since 2002 that the small-for-a-defender, aerial expert isn’t attempting to make the Sounders roster. He retired, ending a story that players with World Cup experience respect.
Herculez Gomez played with Scott in 2003 and then rejoined the Sounders for an MLS Cup run in 2016.
“Zach is the same, he hasn’t changed,” the recently retired forward said. “He’s a hard-nosed defender, consummate professional, one of the nicest guys you’ll come across. He’s always treating everybody that I’ve seen with respect.
“Guys like that are hard to come by in this trade. He’s definitely a guy that you can see why he’s lasted so long. He’s a team-first type of guy, his mentality is about whatever it takes to win. It takes a different type of breed to have that mentality where he puts everything behind and focuses on the team. Winning is everything to him, and the team is his sanctuary. That’s the type of guy he is, and I respect the hell out of that.”
Respect, it keeps coming up. It comes from players who Scott surprised when he made the USL Sounders roster in 2002. Back then Viet Nguyen was a speedy forward-winger (now he’s a coach at PAC NW), a seasoned veteran of a team in ownership transition trying to climb back to the heights of the 90s. In practices and scrimmages Nguyen would face off against the mostly fullback, sometime center back.
“He was athletic, strong and his timing in the air was very good for his size, but he technically struggled in tight spaces,” Nguyen said. “He was always tough to play against in training because he competed and gave his best. Over the years, Zach would consistently arrive early and stay after to work on his technique.”
Scott worked hard. What he lacked in technical skills he made up for in harsh tackles, an endless motor and spatial awareness. From 2002 until 2014 his play on the field improved. It is an unusual career arc that ends, by choice, closer to his best years than not.
There was little reason to think that Scott would make an MLS roster back in 2009. Leighton O’Brien, like Viet, was on the 2007 USL Championship side with Zach (they also won it in ‘05, as well as a couple Cascadia Cups). In 2008 many on that team focused on trying to become MLS players for the Sounders.
Ask O’Brien, now the Technical Director at PAC NW, when he thought Zach Scott would be an MLS player and the first answer is a quick joke: “I am still waiting for that moment.” The longer answer is what everyone says about Zach.
“I would say early on because of his dedication to getting better,” O’Brien said. “Whether that was coming early to train, working out extra, eating right, etc. All the small stuff players do to become a good professional. Over the course of time he became tactically a great reader of the game and A LOT cleaner technically on the ball. And of course as a person and teammate he was excellent.”
Hard work, dedication - it’s a simple phrase. It captures a particularly American psyche that ruled US soccer for decades. If you work hard enough and dedicate yourself to your chosen cause, you will succeed. Matt Gaschk, who covered Zach in the USL and MLS with Seattle P-I, Sports Radio KJR, SoundersFC.com, and is now with Real Salt Lake at RSL.com, talked with Sounder at Heart, saying:
“I think the best thing about the Zach Scott story is that nobody at any point during his USL career could have seen eight MLS seasons,” Gaschk said. “And I don't mean for that to sound disparaging. He has earned every minute he has played on the field.
“That he has ridden it this far is a real testament to his work ethic, his desire, his ability to adapt and I think as much as anything else, the support system he has in his family.
“Him starting the inaugural match was a nice story. Starting the opener the next year was improbable. To do it three years in a row and be even better in Year 14 than he was in 2009 ... if you were to see that in a movie, you wouldn't believe it to be realistic.”
Scott’s last several years were playing for a movie producer. Joe Roth tends to focus on retold fairy tales. In many ways that is Zach’s story, but without the magic.
People at every turn of Scott’s stunningly long career say the same thing. He trained with joy and passion. At the vast majority of practices he was the first out of the locker room and the last to return. He would work with the youngsters, and his words would be harsh.
Aaron Kovar was the target of some of those harsh words, but he also told Sounder at Heart that as soon as practice was over Scott would turn into the most respectful and kind person on the team.
Scott’s love of the game and treatment of his teammates is why so many are coming back to the field to play for him at his testimonial match. So far there are two United States National Team keepers - Kasey Keller and Marcus Hahnemann. There’s Cam Weaver and Roger Levesque who both played with him in the USL and MLS.
A list of people willing to praise Scott would be too long. Gathering quotes is easy. People who are normally quiet gush when it comes to the Hawaiian defender who played at little Gonzaga University.
Former Sounder, and MLS Players’ Union Manager of Career Development, Mike Fucito told Sounder at Heart, “way way back in 2009, I remember first seeing Zach and thinking, ‘This guy is raw, but man is he a competitor.’” Fucito was just a rookie trying to make the team. Scott was a seven-year pro trying take the step from the lower divisions into MLS.
“Zach is the embodiment of hard work, toughness, character, sacrifice, a leader, a teammate, and a friend,” Fucito said. “This guy is an absolute beast. I think what always impressed me with Zach is that he only got better as time went on. He is a great example of someone who did everything in his control to work to continue to improve, year in and year out.
“He was usually the last one off of the practice field. And when it came to game time, there are very few people I'd rather go to battle with. Zach would run through a wall for his teammates and that Sounders crest. I am grateful to have been able to play with him and call him a friend.”
Scott is the Man Marker - the destroyer of hopes and dreams if you make the mistake of playing against him. For those playing with him he is the loyal friend, a man who brings you happiness. He will never fail for not trying. He will not accept failure, but treat it as a challenge to get better, and he did for more than a dozen years.
“I’m very happy and very glad to have played with him for a lot of years,” Osvaldo Alonso said to Sounder at Heart.
Someone else will need to carry his mantle now. Zach Scott has moved to “Always a Sounder” rather than current Sounder. He is a symbol to kids throughout their catchment area, but particularly here in Seattle on the fields of Starfire where they know him best. Whether at Starfire Stadium or on the training pitches, Scott treated the confluence of the Black and Green Rivers as a castle that he would defend against all comers. He did so in the USL, in the Open Cup and in practices.
“He's a perfect story that I tell my players I coach,” says Viet Nguyen. “Here's a guy that graduated from Gonzaga and worked hard for everything and made the most of his opportunity.”
There’s someone who knows Zach Scott better than anyone not in his proper family and that is his coach. Brian Schmetzer won six trophies while Zach’s head coach and another five major honors while the First Assistant with Sounders FC.
It will be Schmetzer’s first training camp without Zach Scott. Back in 2002 Brian Schmetzer was just hired to coach the USL team. Scott earned his way from open tryout to regular during that first preseason.
“To me, he represents what a lot of the qualities are that the Sounders are all about,” Schmetzer said. “He's a hard worker, he's a smart worker, he's a good athlete, he's a gifted soccer player. He's had moments. This is what we all forget. We all talk about Zach as being Mr. Sounder and some of the hype, and you see some of the stuff with his kids and his family and he's really a good person. Like a really good human being.
“But he really has had some impact on the field as well, which we're very happy for over the course of our time together. The penalty kicks down in Portland, the Open Cup game in Philly in 2014 - everybody talks about Oba and Deuce and scoring that goal in overtime, but Zach had half a leg in that game, and he persevered and was able to help us win away from home against a very good Philly team. There's plenty of soccer moments that make all of this stuff worthwhile. He's been a part of a lot of the success from the USL days and into MLS.”
In remembering Zach Scott the player it’s easy to think that there were better defenders on the MLS side. But, we also have to remember that Scott played through pain and injury. Scott sacrificed and earned playing time over hot prospects. Then, after games where he made mistakes he talked. He owned his errors.
Over the next week he would enter Field 12 out at Starfire and try to fix them. At the age of 36 Scott never stopped trying to learn more about the game that brought him, and he brought us by playing, so much joy.
It is fitting that Zach Scott’s career ends with an MLS Cup. It’s fitting that his final appearance on stage after the victory march wasn’t in team gear, but in plain clothes leading us all in “Jingle Bells.” Scott is one of us now. He’s a fan. He’s a Sounder by choice, by hard work and by dedication.
There’s one last chance to honor Zach Scott as a Seattle Sounder. On March 1 at Memorial Stadium a collection of Seattle’s greatest players will gather to kick a ball for 90 minutes as a testament to their friend and teammate.
Seattle soccer has many eras. There is the pre-professional period before the NASL. There’s the NASL, FC Seattle Storm, the A-League, the USL and finally MLS. But there’s another delineation - before Zach Scott and after Zach Scott.
January 2017 is the start of the post-Scott era. It is a year defending a Cup and a star. It is a year when someone else will be the hardest worker. It is a year when someone else will bring their kids onto the field after the game.
Mr. Sounder has retired. The next Mr. Sounder is probably on an area field now.