SEATTLE — After what Seattle Sounders majority owner Joe Roth called a “horrible” end to the 2013 season, he faced a decision: fire coach Sigi Schmid, or fire some players.
“It was close,” majority owner Joe Roth said. “I called Sigi down to Los Angeles with (general manager Adrian Hanauer). It was after we won one of the last 10 games, (survived) the play-in game and lost to Portland. I was upset. And we sat for a couple of hours. And I sat there and I thought, ‘You know, I could fire this guy, who I think is one of the two best coaches in the league. But he’s won the championship in LA and Columbus. So I’ve either got to fire him or fire the players.’ So I fired the players — because obviously they just weren’t gelling.”
This season, the new combination gelled. The Sounders won their fourth U.S. Open Cup, their first Supporters Shield, and on Sunday will begin the Western Conference final series at Los Angeles with hopes of advancing to their first MLS Cup.
That failure to make an MLS Cup final remains the top blemish on the Sounders’ resume since joining Major League Soccer in 2009. However, Roth said he believes his decision to retain Schmid was correct, regardless of what happens over the two or three games ahead.
“I’m a little bit of a realist,” he said. “There are 19 teams in the league and only one can be the champion. We’ve already won two (trophies). And the team we’re playing in the next round is awfully good and has been playing awfully well. … So it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be exciting.”
Schmid has more MLS wins than any other coach, and he has won MLS Cups at each of his previous stops. Still, he knows the ups and downs of the business, because while he rode the crest of Crew success to a new job in Seattle, his time at Los Angeles ended with a pink slip.
Not surprisingly, he was glad to be given more time with the Sounders.
“First off, I think it was an excellent decision that they decided to retain me,” he said. “I was very much in support of that decision.”
However, Schmid stops short of saying that he was a better coach over this 20-10-4 regular season than he was in the 15-12-7 nosedive of 2013.
“You coach,” he said Monday. “… I don’t look at it as, ‘Well, this was a better coaching year than last year,’ or anything like that. We always strive for the same goals, and this year we’ve been able to keep our focus and go forward with it, and guys have fulfilled their goals and have bought in, and it’s been a good year because of that. Sometimes injuries get in the way. Sometimes things that are outside of your control get in your way as well.”
Roth believes the roster got in the way in 2013. He said he always wanted the Sounders to be a “working-class team,” and he believes there were too many “dancers” in 2013.
So while the nameplate at the door of the coach’s office remained, several of the names above the team lockers changed. Out went goals-leader Eddie Johnson, starting goalkeeper Michael Gspurning, captain Mauro Rosales, and a pair of central defenders who had been in Seattle since the expansion season: Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni.
In came low-drama veterans such as Chad Barrett, Chad Marshall, Gonzalo Pineda, Stefan Frei, Kenny Cooper, and Marco Pappa.
Roth calls the acquisition of central defender Marshall as “probably the most important thing we did” over the offseason. But when it comes to lunch-pail-toting work ethic, he pointed to forward Barrett as “exactly that guy.”
“I think that’s why they brought me here,” Barrett said. “Joe came in at the beginning of the year, and he gave a speech to the entire team in preseason (at Tucson, Arizona), and he just said that we changed the locker room. We don’t know if we got worse at soccer, we don’t know if we got better at soccer, the one thing that we did change was the attitude of the players that we brought in.”
After three days off, the Sounders returned to training Monday at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila. Defensive midfielder Osvaldo Alonso (upper leg) was limited to inside work, but Schmid said his recovery appears on schedule and he is expected to be ready when the LA series begins at 2 p.m. Sunday. … Pappa was named Monday as winner of FutbolMLS.com’s Latino del Ano 2014 award, given annually to the best Latino player in MLS as voted on by fans. Pappa, a Guatemalan, had six goals and five assists over 29 games in his first season with the Sounders. … Right back DeAndre Yedlin was back with the Sounders on Monday after playing 85 minutes Friday in the U.S. national team’s 2-1 loss to Colombia in London. He said he recovers from travel quickly and will be ready for the Galaxy.