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Postgame Pontifications: A culture of winning

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Thursday’s win was something special.

MLS: Seattle Sounders FC at Austin FC
“It’s about the relationship between the team and the fans.”
Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

When Brian Schmetzer first assumed the “interim” role as Seattle Sounders head coach in 2016, the organization was at a low point. Sigi Schmid had just been fired, the team was languishing near the bottom of the table, and the run of playoff appearances seemed to be all but over.

Still, claiming the title of Sounders head coach — interim or not — was the fulfillment of a longtime goal. Schmetzer had, of course, been a highly successful head coach during the USL days, but he’d mostly been in the background during the organization’s MLS era. This was the chance he’d been waiting for.

On the day he was formally introduced, Schmetzer went out of his way to pay homage to the line of coaches who had helmed the Sounders through the various eras. He called himself just the latest steward, merely hoping to continue what people like Jimmy Gabriel, Bernie James and, yes, Schmid had all helped build.

Schmetzer also spoke about wanting to further strengthen the idea of what it meant to be a club, as opposed to just a team.

“The club is always going to be here,” he said. “The club is basically the players and the fans – and include myself in that group – and their relationship. That is the club.”

In the years since, Schmetzer has expanded on that idea. He’s turned it into more of a conceptual ecosystem that includes everyone from media, to the ticket office, to the coaches, trainers, Tacoma Defiance and the Academy.

It’s this idea that the Sounders are bigger than the 11 players on the field or even the 20-odd players who make up the roster. We all play our parts in making the Sounders what they are, a sort of living and breathing thing that evolves and changes and exists beyond the field.

I was thinking about that a lot watching the Sounders put on one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen from them on Thursday, a 1-0 win on the road against Austin FC. I just don’t think a performance like that is possible without this bigger concept, and getting everyone to buy into it.

Schmetzer, as you probably know by now, put out a lineup featuring five teenagers, something no previous MLS coach had ever done. That group included 15-year-old Obed Vargas and 16-year-old Reed Baker-Whiting, two of the six youngest players to ever appear in an MLS game. Combined, they only had about 1,100 minutes of professional experience.

The three other teen-aged starters — Josh Atencio, Ethan Dobbelaere and Danny Leyva —were only marginally more experienced with 13 starts among them. They were joined by 22-year-old Sam Adeniran, who was only a few days removed from his MLS debut and wasn’t even signed to a full first-team contract and 21-year-old Abdoulaye Cissoko, who had never played at a level higher than USL Championship as recently as last season and only made his first Sounders appearance last month.

Despite all that inexperience, the group never looked overwhelmed. Austin FC dominated possession, but rarely looked dangerous. The Sounders often found space in the midfield and constantly put themselves in dangerous attacking positions. Throughout the first half, Baker-Whiting was especially attack-focused, repeatedly looking to spring Adeniran on counter-attacks and nearly scoring a goal himself.

It was telling that when Schmetzer made his first big change in the 53rd minute that the teams were basically even on Expected Goals and that none of the teenagers came off the field. All five of them would end up logging at least 77 minutes, three of them played the full 90 minutes, and Baker-Whiting only came out during stoppage time when he started cramping, replaced by fellow teenager Alex Villanueva.

Sure, the winning margin was provided by an absolutely amazing strike by Raúl Ruidíaz — who has to be considered one of the great goal-scorers in MLS history — but the foundation for the win was built through the hard work of those youngsters.

Performances like Thursday’s don’t just happen in a vacuum, they’re the product of years of culture-building.

“We didn’t come down here to play a bunch of young kids, have a good story and not win,” Schmetzer said. “I don’t care who we put on the field. We expect them to outwork the opponent, execute the tactics. We believe we can win. The culture is about winning.”

For almost any other coach in any other organization, those words would come off hollow. They might look good on motivational poster or sound good coming out of Ted Lasso’s mouth, but it’s at best aspirational in a league like MLS where rosters are almost always top-heavy and winning on the road is something even veteran-laden squads find exceptionally difficult.

Yet, the Sounders seem to be buying into the idea that it’s not only realistic, but the genuine standard.

I know Schmetzer still doesn’t wow people with his tactics or impress them with sound-byte filled press conferences, but he has managed to curate a real culture. He’s managed to get buy-in from kids who can’t yet drive and from world-traveled veterans who are literally driving those kids to training. It’s an amazing thing to watch and I can’t wait to see where it goes.