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Postgame Pontifications: Success through accountability

Brian Schmetzer’s newfound fondness for early subs suggests he expects everyone to meet rising standards.

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3 min read
Kayla Mehring / Sounder at Heart

SEATTLE — One of the consistent criticisms of Brian Schmetzer over the years has been his reluctance to use his bench. This is a largely overstated concern. Historically, the Seattle Sounders rank in the middle third pretty consistently when it comes to both how many subs they use and how much time those subs are given to impact the game.

But last year, that seemed to change. Only five teams used fewer subs than the Sounders and only the Columbus Crew allowed those subs to play fewer minutes on average. Through the first 17 games of this season, we were seeing a similar trend. The Sounders were usually bringing in their first sub around the 65th minute and only giving their average sub less than 20 minutes of playing time.

Starting with the Minnesota United match five games ago, that started to change. In that game, Alex Roldan went down with a head injury in the 1st minute and Schmetzer opted to use Paul Rothrock in his place. In three of the next four games, Schmetzer made a halftime substitute and in the other game he made a sub in the 60th minute. Not so coincidentally, the Sounders have gone 4-0-1 in those matches with substitutes playing a significant role in delivering the results.

Against the New England Revolution on Saturday, Schmetzer made a halftime sub even though the Sounders were winning 1-0 but had a tenuous hold on the game. Reed Baker-Whiting replaced Léo Chú to help spark a much more complete second-half performance as the Sounders went from getting out shot 8-4 in the first 45 minutes to outshooting the Revs 10-3 the rest of the way.

Asked about the sub and what it was meant to convey, Schmetzer said “People who want to be here and play for the fans at home are going to be on the field. I did the same thing last game (when he replaced Alex Roldan). I need guys to understand that when I put them on the field, they’re going to work for their teammates, they’re going to work for the fans. That’s the message.”

Schmetzer later clarified that the comment wasn’t directed entirely at Chú, but rather was more of a broad sign of how his philosophy seems to be changing. For much of his coaching career, Schmetzer has operated under the broad belief that when he haa his full compliment of players, he trusts the starters. Even earlier this year, he made a comment about needing his veterans to be the ones who guided the Sounders out of their malaise.

Now that he has about as close to a full roster as he’s had all year, though, Schmetzer is leaning into internal competition. There are now viable options off the bench at virtually every position, all the way from goalkeeper to forward. In Chú’s case, there didn’t seem to be anything he did egregiously wrong, but he just wasn’t particularly effective. A year ago, Schmetzer might have given him another 20 minutes in the second half to see if anything changed. That’s no longer the case.

“The standard he set for himself last year, that’s his standard,” Schmetzer said. “I know he’s a good player. When he doesn’t play to his standard, guys are going to come out. Now we have competition. What we have now is almost a complete club where everyone is healthy and playing time is going to be dictated by who’s in form.”

Sometimes that means rewarding a player like Paul Rothrock for working hard in training and then riding his hot hand. Other times that might be having the courage to bench a veteran like Raúl Ruidíaz when his form dips.

Another key to Schmetzer’s philosophy is finding ways to keep players engaged even when they’re frustrated. A week after they were effectively suspended, Nouhou was back in the starting lineup and Ruidíaz was given 30 minutes off the bench. Nouhou responded with one of his vintage shutdown performances while Ruidíaz looked energetic and dangerous.

With a U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal on Tuesday and then what is effectively a six-pointer on the road against Austin FC on the weekend, Schmetzer realizes he can’t afford to have anyone checking out if the Sounders are going to accomplish their lofty goals.

“Everything is about them,” he said. “They don’t have to play for me. They don’t have to play for Adrian [Hanauer] or Craig [Waibel]. What they have to do is play for their teammates. They have to understand that the work they do from January to November as a collective means something. That’s the standard I set as a coach. I need to make sure they understand that. If one guy lets them down, they’re not hurting me, they’re hurting their teammates. That’s the message that needs to be heard loud and clear and players need to buy into that.”