Armchair Analyst: The bell tolls for Sigi Schmid as Sounders make a move

Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Sigi Schmid did not get the Seattle Sounders to the promised land. He just took them everywhere else.

Schmid’s tenure as head coach in Seattle came to a not unexpected end on Tuesday when the Sounders announced, via press release, that the club and the only man who’d guided it during the MLS era were parting ways. During Schmid’s tenure the Sounders won four US Open Cups and a Supporters’ Shield, competed in the CONCACAF Champions League multiple times, and sold players to teams in some of the biggest leagues in Europe.

The one thing they did not do, however, was win MLS Cup. And as much as anything else, that’s why — for the first time in a decade — he’s looking for a job today.

Schmid knows it, and didn’t shy away from it.

“I’m proud of the success we’ve achieved in winning five major trophies in Seattle, qualifying for the postseason for seven straight seasons,” he said in a statement released by the team. “My only disappointment is that we were unable to bring home an MLS Cup to our tremendous fans, who have always been supportive through good times and bad.”

The failure to win MLS Cup was the subtext of every story about the Sounders since roughly the middle of 2013, when they went from “consistent winner with big ambitions” to “high-spending SuperClub with guys like Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins on the roster.” A team that spends big should, it was reasoned, win big. And to be fair to both Schmid and the Sounders, they came oh-so-close to one of the best seasons in league history in 2014, when they won the Shield/USOC double, and nearly knocked out perpetual nemesis LA Galaxy in the Western Conference championship.

It wasn’t to be, of course. And though 2015 started off well — few seem to remember how good the Sounders were in the spring before losing about half the team to international duty and injury — the regular season ended miserably. 

That misery has carried on and intensified in 2016, then came to a head this past weekend in a listless 3-0 loss at Sporting KC, a game in which they managed just one shot (which was off target, and in the 88th minute, and sounded like this).

The biggest criticism of Schmid over the years, including at previous stops in Columbus and LA — he won a Shield/MLS Cup double in both spots, by the way — was that his teams were always too reliant upon their best player, and lacked a Plan B. It was Carlos Ruiz or bust in LA, and then Guillermo Barros Schelotto or bust in Columbus. I don’t totally buy into that, but I don’t totally not buy into that.

However, it’d be unfair to reduce his Seattle tenure to that, since there were two distinctly successful runs under his guidance: One centered around Fredy Montero in the pre-Martins days, and then one centered around Dempsey and Martins starting in 2013.

“Their gameplan,” one Western Conference front office-type said to me late last season, “is to just get the ball to those guys and let them do [expletive] that no one else in the league can do. When that happens, they’re good. If you can stop them from doing that, they’re not.”

Thus, when Martins was sold to a team in the Chinese SuperLeague this offseason, the result was predictable:

Sounders with and without Martins starting 2013-16

With/Without Goals/Game Shots/Game Points/Game Win %
With 1.8 9.5 1.9 59.1%
Without .9 8.7 1.1 30.6%
2016 1.0 12.75 1.0 30.0%

The arrival of Jordan Morris has cushioned the blow only marginally, as he’s bagged seven goals. But Morris and Dempsey have the on-field chemistry of two cats meeting each other for the first time, which means those thrilling 2-vs-5 forays that defined the Sounders from 2013 through 2015 are no longer part of the equation. Nor has there been any subsequent injection of creativity from the midfield (yet), which has stunted the team’s ability to turn possession into penetration.

While “Plan B” and “tactics” are usually the first things mentioned by Schimd’s detractors, they must come to terms with this: The raft of new, veteran signings added last summer have proved to be more of a hindrance than a help. Roman Torres got hurt and has yet to play this season; Andreas Ivanschitz is a part-time starter who serves a nice dead ball, but has been a liability from open play; and while Nelson Valdez is by all accounts a great locker room presence for a team that needs much, much more of that, the 32-year-old DP forward has 1 goal and 1 assist in just over 1000 regular season minutes.

Those guys were supposed to keep the window of opportunity open for the Dempsey/Martins core at least through 2015, a roll of the dice to give an aging core one last shot at glory. Instead, they helped slam 2016’s window shut before the season ever really got started.

Schmid paid the price.

A few more scattered thoughts:

• Seattle were lucky to have Sigi — stability in the world of sports is a gift, especially for expansion teams. Given Schmid’s ties to LA, I’m going to assume LAFC will be thinking about that very thing. And given Schmid’s ties to Carlos Bocanegra, who’s the technical director at Atlanta United and who played for Schmid at UCLA… well, I don’t think Sigi will be out of a job for long.

He may not be the sexiest hire to make, but expansion teams need stability above all.

• It’s never been clear to me who made the push to sign Valdez, Ivanschitz and Torres last summer. Perhaps it was Schmid, or perhaps it was GM Garth Lagerwey, or perhaps even owner Adrian Hanauer. Seattle’s front office has always presented a united front on those types of moves.

• You could make a decent argument that Schmid, at the very least, deserved a month or two of coaching imminent arrival Nicolas Lodeiro before making a final judgement on his continued employment:

I’ve maintained that Seattle are more “talented team missing one or two crucial creative pieces” than “bad team, no hope.” Lodeiro should provide a lot of answers for this team over the next half-decade no matter who’s coaching him.

• Speaking of, Sounders assistant Brian Schmetzer will be Schmid’s interim replacement. Schmetzer’s been a major presence in Seattle soccer for nearly four decades, and the team will be in good hands with the former USL coach of the year. Folks connected to the club, however, don’t expect him to become the fulltime boss.

• Who, then, is on the shortlist for replacements? I can only offer rank speculation, so here goes:

  • You’d have to assume that Toronto FC assistant and former Chivas RIP head coach Robin Fraser will receive one of Lagerwey’s first calls
  • Former Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke should put his name into the hat
  • Rio Grande Valley (USL) head coach Wilmer Cabrera, who also coached Chivas and spent time as an assistant under Oscar Pareja in Colorado, is a name that will come up
  • Ezra Hendrickson, head coach of Seattle’s own USL team, deserves a look
  • Jeremy Gunn at Stanford could be an interesting darkhorse candidate, though his teams are a little too direct for my taste
  • My personal favorite is current New York Cosmos head coach Giovanni Savarese. He’s handled big stars and big egos, and also helped guide a nascent academy and shown confidence in younger players
  • Schelotto would be the perfect candidate if he wasn’t already at Boca Juniors, which is the best job in the Americas and a launching pad toward worldwide managerial superstardom

That said… this is Seattle, and it wouldn’t shock me if they still wanted to do something high profile. Marc Connolly, take it away…

The other option in the “high profile” category? USWNT head coach Jill Ellis, assuming her squad wins Olympic gold next month in Rio. At that point she’ll have won back-to-back World Cup/Gold, and there’s not much left to prove once you put those two together. There’s also no reason to think she couldn’t make a fair go of it in MLS, and “coach who has experience winning the biggest games” is a pretty relevant bullet point in Seattle, all things considered.

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