The question of what makes a good head coach is one with no single correct answer. That same question has echoes in just about every other part of life or industry. One particularly compelling parallel, at least for me, can be seen in the restaurant industry: what makes a good chef? Both a chef and a head coach are responsible for the success of an institution, they have to manage a staff, a group of individuals, in order to get the best out of everyone to put out a quality product, and often the real labor and skills that go into that success go unnoticed by the public or the people who evaluate them and hand out awards.
This idea has been top of mind throughout the first half of the MLS season as Brian Schmetzer, Head Coach of the Seattle Sounders, has gone from being dismissed as little more than a “player manager” by a large portion of the people who cover the league to now being included in conversations about Coach of the Year.
Sounders fans have a well-earned love and appreciation for Schmetzer. Unsurprisingly, there’s a fair amount of outcry or backlash from the Emerald City when Schmetzer’s consistent success is overlooked in favor of more fashionable names when it comes time to hand out awards — whether that’s Coach of the Week or Year. He’s been in charge for all or part of six seasons, and taken the team to the MLS Cup Final in four of those seasons, won it twice, and currently has his team second in the Supporters Shield race through 17 games. Despite that steady, dependable excellence, he’s only been named Coach of the Week a total of four times, with two of those coming this season.
In the restaurant world it’s not been uncommon for awards to be reserved for chefs and restaurants using the newest, most fashionable techniques like molecular gastronomy, or spots boasting “farm-to-table” menus or the finest of fine dining. In some cases it’s the high-priced fine dining establishments putting out extravagant and intricate plates made possible by a complex system and a kitchen brimming with cooks executing to exacting specifications. The chefs who are celebrated have often been loud — even abusive — but that was supposed to just be what it took to make a kitchen run. Similarly, in soccer the coaches who are elevated to exalted status are the ones who achieve anything that even smells like success while leaning heavily on academy products, or who play clearly defined “systems” with intricate and precise passing patterns.
What gets lost in all of this is the value of “soft skills,” the traits that get Schmetzer pegged as a “player manager” while ignoring the skill involved along with the actual soccer knowledge required to implement them. A soccer coach still has to understand soccer the way that a chef has to understand food. Just about anyone who’s spent any time in a kitchen can take high quality ingredients and churn out a good meal, but it’s still easy enough to cook a $100 steak poorly or turn beautiful fresh asparagus into stringy mush. A talented chef knows when to use a light touch and let the ingredients shine, as well as how to take cheap ingredients and scraps and through technique and seasoning transform them into an incredible dish. Similarly, it’s a special blend of skills and knowledge to not only be able to know to let a star player like Raúl Ruidíaz simply be himself and do what he does best, but to be able to work with him to foster a kinship with the people around him so that he is invested in their success as well as his own. Not just any coach in MLS could, with the list of injuries and international absences Schmetzer had to manage, go into Austin FC’s shiny new stadium with a starting XI that included five teenagers, a third-choice goalkeeper and an emergency call-up forward, and come away with a shutout and three points.
Even following a loss like the one against Sporting Kansas City, Schmetzer showed what sets him apart: an understanding of his players — particularly the young guys — as humans first, which almost certainly comes from his experiences both as a coach and a parent. His team was second-best on the field, and were ultimately undone by a collection of individual mistakes. He could have railed against those errors, uncharacteristic though they may have been, and told the team they’d be doing a double-session at training the following day, but that’s not what his team needed. Schmetzer was understanding of the circumstances and recognized that in the moment what the team needed most was rest. Dad Schmetzer stepped forward in that moment, knowing that screaming about a broken glass and spilled milk won’t clean up the mess.
Schmetzer isn’t just a loving, fatherly figure, though, he’s also a consistent winner. While he sits just outside the top-10 in MLS regular season wins and is tied with Bob Bradley and Dominic Kinnear for most postseason wins (15), Schmetzer is the only coach to win multiple MLS Cups without also earning Coach of the Year. He’s in the conversation for Coach of the Year this season for a number of reasons: his team is in serious contention for the Supporters Shield and has been since the first week of the season, and he’s done it without several of his stars while utilizing a new, fashionable formation and while also giving significant minutes in important games to young players. He’s been able to lead his team to success this season for the same reasons he’s always done so, though: he knows his players and their strengths and weaknesses intimately, he knows how to put players in the best position to succeed, and he knows his own limits and trusts his Assistant Coaches to fill in the gaps and make him and the team better.
Brian Schmetzer may well win his first Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year award this season. His team has the potential to achieve incredible things, and he’s had a lot to do with that. If he does win it will be as much for the things he’s always been great at as the new things he’s done in 2021. Regardless of what happens, I’m excited to see what he cooks up in the second half of the season.