SEATTLE — As his team prepared for a first-place showdown last week, Seattle Sounders coach Sigi Schmid thought his players could use a little extra motivation.
So when Chris Henderson, the team’s sporting director, passed along an article to Schmid, the coach felt compelled to post it in his locker room. The article, amongst other things, pointed out that the Sounders’ recent hot streak was built upon beating mediocre and bad teams. With then-first place Real Salt Lake coming to town, Schmid thought his players might like to read about their inability to beat the league’s top teams.
Then on Friday, the Sounders dominated Salt Lake from the opening whistle on the way to a 2-0 victory that puts Seattle in the driver’s seat in the Western Conference. It wasn’t a motivational ploy Schmid had tried this year, but his gut said to do it. It turned out to be just the latest good move in a season full of them for Schmid, who just might be doing his best coaching job in five seasons in Seattle.
“You just follow your instincts,” Schmid said. “… After reading the article, I thought, ‘This was probably a good one to throw in there. If guys want to read it they can read it.’ It was just the instinct; felt like the right thing to do.”
The reason the 2013 season might be Schmid’s most impressive is not just that the Sounders could end up winning their first Supporters’ Shield — the trophy given to the team with the best regular season record, an accomplishment that carries a lot more weight in soccer than it does in other American sports — it’s how they’ve gotten here.
Midway through the season, the question surrounding the Sounders was, ‘What the heck is wrong with them?’ Now, they look like they’re the best team in the league. At one point early in the season, the Sounders were in last place in the nine-team Western Conference, and halfway through their schedule, they were 7-7-3 and in seventh place.
Injuries were a big culprit as were the absences of key players like Eddie Johnson, Brad Evans and Obafemi Martins, who were away on national team duty at various times. Those issues haven’t gone away, but the Sounders have found a way to turn things around anyway. Since the halfway point of the season, Seattle is 8-1-1, and its current five-game winning streak is the longest in MLS this season.
“He’s the best,” Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer said of Schmid. “That’s why we hired him, and why he’s been here five years and will probably be here longer. He is first a super-hard worker, he surrounds himself with good people, he listens to all types of opinions. He’s positive, he manages the players well, he’s very good at assessing talent. The list of his qualities goes on and on.
“He knows this league so well, he’s just able to find the magic formula and put the pieces in the right places to be successful.”
Obviously, the postseason will be the ultimate measure of this team and Schmid’s performance this season. The Sounders have made it clear that an MLS Cup is their goal, and falling short of that would be a disappointment.
However, what we already have seen this season, regardless of how things turn out between now and December, is Schmid’s masterful job of handling challenging situations. Yes, he has loads talent to work with. That was true early in the season, and then the roster became even more loaded this summer when the Sounders added U.S. national team captain Clint Dempsey. But having good players and winning with them are two different things, and Schmid has been very good at balancing lineups, massaging egos and finding the winning formula even when a lot of those talented players are unavailable. For instance, the Sounders’ lineup against Salt Lake was the 31st Schmid has used in 32 games across all competitions.
Any coach wants to have talented players, but having them doesn’t make a job easy. Schmid had to know how and when to limit Mauro Rosales’ playing time, even with the veteran midfielder, one of the team’s three designated players, not hiding the fact that he was unhappy with his playing time. Yet rather than go into the tank, Rosales has improved his play of late, picking up four of his team-high seven assists and a goal in the past nine games since making his frustration known.
Schmid also is dealing with a star forward, Johnson, who feels like he deserves a raise, and made those feelings very clear by mouthing the words “pay me” and making an accompanying gesture after scoring a goal in Columbus last month. Johnson’s right, he does deserve a raise, but the way he handled it is exactly the kind of thing that can be disruptive for a team on a roll. Yet the Sounders are 3-0 since that victory and Johnson is still performing well even if he feels like he is underpaid.
Most importantly, Schmid was a key figure in keeping the team, and his bosses for that matter, from overreacting when the Sounders got off to a franchise-worst start.
“He’s steady, he’s an absolute rock, and that helps me, too,” Hanauer said. “He helps keep me and the rest of the ownership in check. When you’re losing, it’s easy to turn on each other and point fingers and make knee-jerk reactions and bad decisions. Sigi’s really, really good at keeping things even. … He knows that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
That ability to keep a level head rubbed off on the players as well as ownership, which is why the Sounders have been able to turn things around in a big way without drastic changes. (Dempsey was a massive signing, but he has yet to make a big impact because of national team duty.)
“Sigi’s a guy who knows the ropes,” said midfielder Brad Evans, who also played for Schmid with the Columbus Crew. “He’s seen it all, so the biggest thing was not to panic. Always, even in losses, whether we’d lose 3-0 or whatever it was, he was like, ‘I believe in this group, I believe in these players. You’re here for a reason and I know that we can win a championship.’
“That came with all the losses. Even though he’ll rip into us and say what we do wrong, it’s like, ‘here’ a little confidence boost to think about. You’re here for a reason and we believe in you.’
“He’s definitely evolved. There were times in Columbus when he’d come in screaming, come in hot, laying into players. I think as he’s gotten older he’s realized that he can still have the same influence without being the brash yeller that he was.”
So no, Schmid may not be as fiery as he was in his younger days. As he put it: “When you get older you get better about that. When you’re young and impetuous, you react and get more emotional and get into things a little bit sooner. When you’re older you figure out a way to deal with it.”
Considering, however, where the Sounders were a few months ago and how they’re playing now, this more even-keel approach might be producing his best coaching job to date.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.