By John Boyle Herald Columnist
With the Sounders poised to either pull off a memorable postseason comeback in Portland or see their season end in disappointment, I set out for a local soccer-friendly pub to take in an atmosphere that, regardless of the outcome, was sure to be memorable.
And when the Sounders walked off the field having lost to their bitter rivals, TV cameras landed on Sounders coach Sigi Schmid just long enough to draw boos from the crowded bar.
“Bye, bye, Sigi,” one disgruntled fan jeered.
“He’s done,” another said.
You could hardly blame any fans for being emotional after seeing their team complete an epic late-season collapse with a postseason loss to the hated Timbers. But a week later, after letting emotions cool and after meeting with Schmid in Los Angeles, Sounders majority owner Joe Roth and minority owner/general manger Adrian Hanauer made the right call.
Schmid will be back for a sixth season as the only head coach in franchise history.
With all due respect to fans who wanted Schmid fired — yes, Dad, you, too — canning the winningest coach in MLS history was not the answer. Well, it might have been the answer if, after five years Schmid’s message had grown stale and he’d simply lost the locker room. But short of that, making change for change’s sake wasn’t going to make things better, not when it meant firing one of the four coaches who has won multiple MLS Cup titles.
Schmid didn’t suddenly forget how to coach after decades of success at the collegiate and professional level. So if the team was still listening to and respecting its coach — and you’d better believe Hanauer took the temperature of his locker room before making this call — reacting to an admittedly horrific slide wasn’t going help the franchise in the long run.
“I think Sigi is a great coach,” Roth said on a conference call. “I’ve been down here in L.A. and I watched him coach UCLA for a long time and at the Galaxy and at Columbus, and we kind of went out of our way to bring him to Seattle.
“The five years he’s been here with an expansion team, he’s made the playoffs all five years. We just haven’t had a slide like that and it was so shocking and discouraging that we all needed to talk about it.
“Nobody has won more MLS games than Sigi — he’s a great coach. I just wanted to get more understanding about it and make sure we can do the steps, whatever they are — whether they’re in training or in the locker room or whatever — to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
And Roth’s endorsement doesn’t mean he wasn’t as angry as you about how the season ended. Yes, he’s the team’s owner, and a very successful Hollywood producer, but he’s also a passionate fan, so it killed Roth to see the Sounders go from the top of the standings to backing into the playoffs with a seven-game winless streak to end the regular season.
“Anybody who has a business that’s kicking ass October 1st and out of business November 1st, if they’re not worried about it, they’re remiss themselves,” Roth said. “I was horrified by the late-season slide. … As a sports fan and a fanatic Sounders fan and an owner and a businessman, I was terrified of that slide, particularly because the previous 22 games we had gotten 47 points. If we stunk, we stunk, but this was totally unexpected. I think the job that Adrian and I have in front of us is to evaluate every single piece of the team — coach, coaches, medical staff, players, ball boys, you name it. I just wanted to hear from Sigi and at the same time have him hear what my expectations of the team are.”
What they heard from Schmid was the same commitment and message that made them want to steal the coach away from the champion Columbus Crew after the 2008 season. Schmid was handed a challenging season this year, one full of injuries and absences due to national team call-ups, but he also had one of the league’s most talented rosters, and in the end, the Sounders underachieved, there’s no getting around that. But the league is also full of examples of teams and star players who struggled after a midseason signing, then blossoming a year later, which is what everyone is expecting out of Clint Dempsey next season.
Reports surfaced a day earlier that Eddie Johnson is being shopped by the Sounders, and while Hanauer said he could not comment on that report, he did admit that there could be significant turnover this offseason, though he expects the team to be built around a leadership core that includes Dempsey, Osvaldo Alonso and Brad Evans.
“We love Clint Dempsey,” Roth said. “We’re super happy that Clint Dempsey is with us. We look forward to the transition into the next three years of his contract and think he will end up being an MLS superstar.”
Can Schmid help build a team around Dempsey a season after the Sounders collapsed down the stretch?
The Sounders are betting on it, and it’s hard to argue with too much of what the franchise has done so far, both from a performance and business perspective. Would it be nice if Seattle had won an MLS Cup or two by now? Sure, but the Sounders have made the playoffs five straight years dating back to their inaugural season, and have established league attendance records in each of those seasons, with Schmid being a huge part of that success.
As Mike Gastineau, author of “Sounders FC: Authentic Masterpiece” and former Sports Radio KJR host, points out, Seattle teams have in the past moved on from coaches who had a lot of success, but couldn’t win a title. And neither the Mariners nor the Sonics ever improved on the success they had under Lou Piniella and George Karl.
The truth is, there’s enough talent on this Sounders roster that a new coach might have succeeded next year, too, but the Sounders best bet at finally getting that title, even after this year’s late-season collapse, is still Schmid.
“For much of the year, we were playing certainly well enough to be highest scoring team in the league in terms of points,” Roth said. “Then, we just fell apart. It’s uncharacteristic of the Sounders of the five years, it’s certainly uncharacteristic of Sigi’s career, and frankly, it’s uncharacteristic of almost any sports team I’ve ever seen.”
Schmid deserves a share of the blame for that collapse, but he also deserves a lot of credit for getting the Sounders to where they are. He deserves a chance to see where he can take the team next year with a full season of Dempsey and Obafemi Martins and whatever additions — perhaps some defensive reinforcements — come this winter. In all likelihood, Schmid is coaching for his job in 2014, but that’s an opportunity he’s earned, and it’s also Seattle’s best chance at earning its first title.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.