Two days after Sigi Schmid was fired as coach of the Seattle Sounders last summer, dozens of the team’s most fervent supporters packed a sports bar a few blocks from the Sounders’ stadium to thank him for putting the city on the MLS map.
A couple of hours into the emotional evening, the fans asked the media to leave so they could talk to the coach privately. And while much of what was said that day has faded from memory, Schmid said the gesture remains vivid in his mind.
“That was something I’ll never forget,” he said Friday. “It was something that has a very special place in my heart.”
So does Seattle, where Schmid served as midwife for an MLS expansion team he guided to 109 wins, seven playoff appearances and four U.S. Open Cup titles in seven full seasons, only to see the Sounders win their first MLS Cup 4½ months after he was pushed out.
“I had some great years in Seattle. I really enjoyed myself,” he said. “Being part of the group that established the foundation of the club . . . I’m very proud of that.”
But being the first coach hired meant Schmid would eventually become the first coach fired. That happened 14 months ago, halfway into Schmid’s eighth season with the Sounders, after a listless loss to Sporting Kansas City left the team stuck near the bottom of the Western Conference standings with 12 losses in 20 games.
Some people close to Schmid say the change was needed, if not for the Sounders then for Schmid, who had become drawn and exhausted by the team’s struggles.
Schmid remembers things differently.
“I was happy — maybe I didn’t look happy, but I was happy — because I felt we had hit rock bottom,” he said. “I knew once you hit rock bottom with a team, then there’s only one way to go. I felt very confident that that was about to happen.”
And he was right: With Brian Schmetzer, Schmid’s longtime lieutenant, in charge, the Sounders would lose just three more times in their next 20 games en route to a league title.
Still, Schmid insists there are no hard feelings or any vengeance to be won on Sunday. This game is more about bragging rights and who buys the first round of beers in the offseason.
“I was let go and that was disappointing for me. But it was what [the organization] felt needed to be done at the time. So fair enough,” he said.
“It’s not revenge or ‘show them’ or anything,” he continued. “I have a lot of friends still within the club. So you’d rather win because when you have a beer with them in the offseason, you’d rather be the guy that came out on top.”
Both Schmid and Schmetzer, who were friends long before the MLS came into being, insist there is no animosity between them either. Both are the sons of German immigrants, with Schmetzer’s father Walter even having gone so far as to give Schmid the shoes on his feet — for a price.
“As a player at UCLA, I would drive my guys to his soccer shop,” Schmid said of Walter Schmetzer’s sporting goods store. “You could find the best cleats on the West Coast there.”
Schmetzer’s soccer pedigree in Seattle goes far beyond his father’s cleats, though. After winning state titles with his father’s youth team, Schmetzer, 55, played and coached in eight professional leagues over 37 seasons, most of them in the Seattle-Tacoma area.
And while that made him a popular choice to succeed Schmid, Schmetzer admits he’s now looking forward to matching wits with his former mentor.
“Is there a little bit of extra spice there? Yes, I would admit that,” Schmetzer said. “I wouldn’t say that I wake up and ‘ah . . . this is Sigi week.’ That’s not how I do it. Because I want to measure myself against all the coaches here.”
That these coaches are heading in different directions — the playoff-bound Sounders (11-7-9) are unbeaten in a club-record 11 straight games while the Galaxy (7-14-5) have won one of the last 11 and have little hope of making the postseason — will take nothing away from the matchup.
“You can bet your butt that Sigi told them, ‘Hey look, things are possible.’ I’ve heard enough of Sigi’s speeches prior to games where he said, ‘You know what? This is possible. We can do this.’.”
Schmid chuckled at his friend’s prediction.
“Maybe I should have him give our talk. We’ll bring him to our locker room and I’ll talk to his team. I’ll tell the [Sounders], ‘You don’t need the points. You’re in a good position. Just don’t get injured,’ ” said Schmid, 64, who joked about striding confidently into the Sounders’ locker room and asking for help finding his way to the visitors’ side, where he’s never been.
He quickly decided against that. The Sounders, after all, aren’t his team anymore. But he does hope the fans who once held a goodbye party to thank him will show up Sunday to welcome him back.
“Well, I hope they don’t boo me,” he said with a laugh. “The fans have always been great up there. I’ve always had a special relationship with them.”
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11