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Two local legends leave, but Sounders feel as ‘Seattle’ as ever

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Having Brian Schmetzer helps, but creating a culture is the key.

Sounders player Jordan Morris and head coach Brian Schmetzer accept the 2016 Sports Story of the Year Award for the Seattle Sounders during the MTRWestern 82nd Annual Sports Star of the Year Awards, Feb. 8, 2017, at the Paramount Theater. (GENNA MARTIN, s Photo by GENNA MARTIN/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Over the course of a few days, the Seattle Sounders were dealt significant blows on and off the field.

First came news that Chris Henderson would be joining Inter Miami. As much as anyone, Henderson was the architect of the Sounders’ MLS success, one of the key talent evaluators from the 2009 roster through the 2020 MLS Cup finalists.

A few days later, Jordan Morris’ loan to Swansea City became official. Over his five years with the Sounders, Morris had established himself as arguably the most successful Homegrown Player in league history. He helped lead the Sounders to four MLS Cup finals, delivered two titles and fulfilled just about every dream fans had for him when he first signed.

These were genuine hometown heroes, kids who grew up playing locally and even watching the Sounders. They are probably the two most accomplished men’s outfield players — Henderson was a national-team quality player prior to retiring in 2006 — the region has ever produced and were a constant source of pride. That they were able to deliver such positive results made for an easy story to sell.

Their departures are understandable. Both deserved the chance to move on to bigger and arguably better opportunities, Morris in Europe and Henderson as the chief soccer officer of another MLS team.

That doesn’t make the losses sting any less, nor does it help salve the wounds quickly.

What’s remarkable, though, is despite this very real drain of local talent from the organization, the Sounders don’t feel any less “Seattle” than they did prior to the departures.

A big reason for that is the continued presence of Brian Schmetzer, who like Morris and Henderson, is a genuine local-boy-done-good. Schmetzer’s story is well documented by now — he grew up in Lake City, the son of a local soccer-shop owner, who then played for the NASL Sounders before signing on to coach the USL version of the team. Schmetzer’s more recent history is even better documented, taking over for Sigi Schmid midway through the 2016 season, leading them to their first MLS Cup that year and then taking them back to the finals three more times.

Schmetzer’s new contract with the Sounders was announced on Monday, though it had been essentially agreed to before the end of the year. Retaining Schmetzer surely goes a long way in shoring up the Sounders’ bonafides with a certain subset of fans.

It’s important to note that while he may be the most visible, Schmetzer is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to locals in the organization. From Majority Owner Adrian Hanauer to Director of Scouting Sean Henderson to Director of Soccer Analytics Ravi Rameni to Club Director of Goalkeeping Tommy Dutra, you don’t have to look far to find people who were Seattleites before they were Sounders. Beyond any potential marketing advantages, there’s certainly some value to the culture that people like this help build inside the organization.

But to hear Schmetzer tell it, being from here is not the important thing. No, it’s really the idea that you can be from anywhere and still understand what it means to be a Sounder. You can’t change where someone was born, but you can teach them to love a region. That’s why players like Cristian Roldan or Stefan Frei are just as important to creating and maintaining the Sounders culture as is someone like Morris.

“What I’d say is getting young players, whether they’re from Seattle or Tacoma or Eastern Washington or California or Vegas, they can still come to this club and be indoctrinated into what we feel is important,” Schmetzer said during a recent interview with Sounder at Heart. “Winning, working hard, working smart, understanding the history of this club, there are a lot of things you can teach a 13-, 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kid.”

Schmetzer has also always been adamant that what makes a club like the Sounders special is not so much the owners, the coaches or even the players, as much as it is all of those things as well as the fans and the media and how all those various parts interact with one another.

“The people are the ones that make me feel I’m just a steward of the club,” Schmetzer said. “The club is always going to be there. The fans will always be there. That’s what will perpetuate. I will, at some point, leave.”

And when he does, sad as that will be, the Sounders will still be here. If Schmetzer is doing his job right, his departure won’t be any more problematic than Henderson’s or Morris’. If ownership is doing its job right, whoever replaces him will have just as much appreciation for what makes the Sounders successful and will work just as hard to keep the cycle going.