There’s a cliche you probably heard at a high school graduation ceremony on at least one occasion: “If you do what you love, you’ll never work another day in your life.”
As anyone who has done what they loved for a living can attest, this is bullshit. No matter how much you love your job, it is an inescapable reality that there are times when it is just ... a job. Maybe not all the time, but every job has its drawbacks.
No perfect cliche exists for the situation that faces Brian Schmetzer as he gets ready to embark on his first full season as a head coach, but the problem is similar. Schmetzer admits this has been his dream job for at least as long as the position has existed. He bided his time and made the most of it when presented with the opportunity. He put in seven years as the head coach of the USL team and then seven-and-a-half more as the top assistant with the MLS team before being granted the interim tag. We know what happened next.
In many ways, though, that was the easy part. Getting players to believe that every game was a “must-win” when you’ve got 10 points to make up and just 14 to play isn’t that hard of a sell.
During a conversation he and I had at one point late in the season, he told me that he was simply thankful that he was given enough time to plausibly turn the season around. In fact, he may have been given the perfect amount of time. Imagine if his first game had been that listless 3-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City. How much of that “must-win” mentality would have been undone? Or if he had been hired a few games later? Who knows if the team plays as well as they did in that first home match against the LA Galaxy (a tie, but a quality performance).
Combined with Nicolas Lodeiro’s arrival, Schmetzer’s hiring was a near perfect confluence of timing and opportunity. There was nothing preordained about where it would lead, but the message and ethos that defined Schmetzer’s first 20 games in charge will have to evolve.
Schmetzer knows this. He alluded to this very fact in a story from The Guardian:
“I can talk until I’m blue in the face. ‘Every game is important’” – here, Schmetzer claps his hands for emphasis – “all of that coach-speak. We say that anyway. But finding that real connection, that real message that gets them to believe, that’s always the trick. I think that will be an ongoing process.”
Teams now have 20 games worth of tape on his tendencies. They’ve seen exactly what Lodeiro can do. They know how Roman Torres and Chad Marshall work together. There’s a reason that only three teams have ever repeated as MLS Cup champions in the league’s 21 seasons, after all. Can he get buy-in from players when the season isn’t literally on the line?
No other coach in MLS history has had such success so quickly. Only two other coaches since 2000 have won a MLS Cup in their first season at the helm and no other coach did it after being hired during the season.
Throughout Schmetzer’s reign, he enjoyed an endless wave of positivity. He and the Sounders were basically playing with house money, with nothing really to lose as most had already left them for dead. Slip-ups, like that 4-0 halftime deficit against the Timbers, were almost brushed aside.
The same benefit of the doubt is unlikely to remain much longer. The Sounders don’t have to get off to a blazing start, but they can’t suffer through anything like what Sigi Schmid provided last year, either.
This is the year that Schmetzer’s dream job turns into a real job. Mistakes will be heavily criticized and every decision is going to be closely examined. He may still love it, he may still enjoy going to work every day, but he’s going to have to work even harder to keep it than he did to win it. He’s probably just fine with that.