The Seattle Sounders are going to their third MLS Cup final in four years.
For the pocket of fans in L.A. that saw Seattle secure their spot in the final, this was another chapter in what has been an exhilarating few seasons.
The Sounders joined MLS in 2009, and by 2015 they had won several U.S. Open Cups and a Supporters’ Shield, but MLS Cup remained elusive.
Something needed to change. No one could have predicted that one of the catalysts for that change was already at the club, and his name was Brian Schmetzer.
The 57-year-old’s association with the Sounders dates back to the 1980s when he was still a player. Schmetzer played for the Sounders in both the NASL and APSL, as well as the nearby Tacoma Stars.
He later coached the team in USL (winning two league titles), and when they transitioned to MLS, he took up a role as an assistant to Sigi Schmid. It wasn’t until Schmid’s mid-season departure in 2016 that Schmetzer got a chance to take the reigns. Initially appointed on an interim basis, by December he had guided Seattle to their first MLS Cup by beating favourites Toronto FC on penalties.
The clamour for a successful interim coach to stay on is feverish, and this was no different. Often, however, the decision to remove that tag is motivated by obligation. Before long, the new head coach loses both the steam and optimism that propelled the team during their time as interim.
That hasn’t been the case for Schmetzer, although he has sailed through choppy waters, with the team starting slowly in both 2017 and 2018. Schmetzer inherited a veteran roster that contained senior professionals like Nelson Valdez, Andreas Ivanschitz, Erik Friberg, Román Torres, Ozzie Alonso and Zach Scott.
“I really didn’t have to do much managing. I had to communicate, but I didn’t really have to manage,” Schmetzer told the Athletic. “That team was almost on autopilot because those guys were all such good pros. They fuckin’ just did their jobs, and they were motivated.”
Those vocal leaders slowly drifted away, however, and that forced more responsibility onto Schmetzer. Curiously, the 2017 season felt like a replay of the previous 12 months. Seattle started the season poorly, but a turnaround sparked during July propelled the club into the playoffs and then MLS Cup.
They once again met Toronto FC, only this time the Canadians emerged victorious, finishing the game in regular time with a 2-0 win.
Schmetzer’s second full season in charge was a little more bumpy, however. The off-season saw stalwart Brad Evans and talented left-back Joevin Jones departure for pastures new. To compound matters, there was also Clint Dempsey’s abrupt, mid-season retirement.
Seattle began the 2018 season in poor form before turning it around to make the playoffs, but this time they were eliminated in the first round by fierce rivals the Portland Timbers.
Interestingly, Schmetzer believes that 2019 has been his hardest season in charge. Seattle started and finished the regular season strongly to put themselves in the playoffs, but Bob Bradley and LAFC have dominated the conversation in the Western Conference. The team in Black and Gold broke the MLS points record, with Carlos Vela finishing the regular season on a combined 49 goals and assists.
When the two sides came together in L.A. for the playoffs this week, there was a quiet expectation LAFC would win. After 17 minutes the hosts were 1-0 up, by half-time they were 2-1 down. Raul Ruidiaz added a third in the 64th minute during what was an ultra-efficient away performance from Schmetzer’s men.
Seattle clogged the middle of the pitch, double-teamed Vela, and when the ball did come into the box, there was often a man in Rave Green ready to head it clear. At the other end, they proved clinical, and before Bradley had time to adjust his team had slipped out of the playoffs.
A third MLS Cup final in four years is something special, “We still have one game left,” Schmetzer said. “I need to make sure and remind everybody; this wasn’t the championship. I’m gonna go in there and tell them that they’ve got training on Friday. We have to get back to work. We’re not done yet.”
It is that focus and humility that makes Schmetzer so endearing to fans and players alike. He candidly admitted that he doesn’t think that he’s a “great” coach. And yet, here he stands, 90 minutes away from delivering a second MLS Cup to his hometown team. Schmetzer has never been about self-praise. He entered the job quietly and will likely leave the same way, but that shouldn’t stop us acknowledging his role in making Seattle regulars in MLS Cup final.
Will the Sounders win the MLS Cup? Shop the latest odds here.