The winningest coach in MLS history was not about to let his career end with a loss.
Well, a string of losses actually. In half-season stints with the Seattle Sounders in 2016 and the Galaxy last season, Sigi Schmid’s teams won just eight of 34 games combined. So even with the boos ringing in his ears, he could hear the whispers and the calls for the Galaxy to fire him, just as the Sounders had done.
“Has Sigi lost it?” Schmid said this week, repeating the question he knew many were asking. “I knew I hadn’t. But I’m sure people out there thought I did.”
Whatever Schmid had misplaced was apparently found because the team he leads into Saturday’s game in Colorado is unbeaten since May. A win or draw against the Rapids will extend that unbeaten streak to 10, Schmid’s longest in 18 years.
And that renaissance has done more than just burnish his legacy. It’s also revived a franchise that stumbled through the worst season in its history a year ago, lifting it from the bottom of the Western Conference and into the thick of the playoff race.
“Winning is really important to me,” Schmid said. “Losing motivates me; winning sustains me.”
Schmid completely rebuilt what he inherited when he replaced Curt Onalfo as coach a year ago. He began by remaking the roster, trading Gyasi Zardes to Columbus for Ola Kamara, spending more on defenders than any team in MLS, and adding three veteran midfielders in Chris Pontius, Servando Carrasco and Perry Kitchen.
He also expanded the sports science department, adding a director of performance, a strength and conditioning coach, a sports scientist, two dietitians and an athletic trainer. The scouting department was bolstered as well by hiring his son, Kurt, as director of player personnel.
“Last year, behind the scenes, he was looking at 2017 but also looking forward to 2018,” said Dominic Kinnear, a two-time MLS Cup-winning manager and Schmid’s top assistant. “So he came into 2018 with more of what he wanted. I think he’s motivated because he knows what he has.”
The front office added the final piece in March when it signed Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic, then left it to Schmid to make all those pieces fit together, a puzzle that took a while to solve.
The addition of Ibrahimovic meant Schmid had to convince Kamara and midfielder Romain Alessandrini, last year’s leading scorer, to take on additional responsibilities, such as tracking back on defense and taking fewer risks going forward. Neither was happy, but while Kamara adapted quickly it took the loss of his starting spot to get Alessandrini’s attention.
“It wasn’t a rocky road where we were at each other. It was me being honest with him and also him expressing himself to me,” Schmid said. “I never have a problem with that. We talked on the field. He wanted to make sure it was all clearly understood, so he said it in French.
“He was open and I was open back to him. And we ended up working it out.”
Working out well, in fact: In Alessandrini’s last four appearances — two as a starter and two off the bench — he’s scored three goals and added four assists. It’s unlikely Schmid would have achieved the same outcome last season.
“The attitude of some of the players last year, [they] just wanted to give up,” defender Dave Romney said. “No matter what the coach said, even if it was Pep Guardiola, they wouldn’t work.”
“Obviously,” he added “winning cures everything.”
Romney also credits Schmid for switching to a 3-5-2 formation. Although it’s left the Galaxy (10-7-5) more vulnerable on defense, it’s made them far more dangerous going forward, one reason the team has scored a league-high 27 goals in its last 10 games.
Twelve of those goals have come from Ibrahimovic, who is suspended for the match in Colorado (4-12-5) after skipping Wednesday’s All-Star Game in Atlanta.
Kinnear, who coached against the Galaxy dozens of times in his 13 seasons as an MLS manager, says the change Schmid has brought is more profound than just pep talks and formations. He said the coach has restored the team’s confidence and swagger.
“No matter how the game is going, you always think there’s a chance the team is going to win. That has always been a Galaxy trait,” he said.
One that’s back, with the Galaxy rallying from halftime deficits in four consecutive games, winning three and tying the other.
And while the season won’t truly be a success unless its ends with the Galaxy hoisting their sixth MLS Cup in December — Schmid led the team to its first in 2002 — the coach said he’s already made his point: at 65, he hasn’t lost anything.
“Some people felt myself and maybe even Bruce [Arena], that we were old school and we were taboo and hey, it’s passed them by,” Schmid said. “So yeah, proving that it hasn’t passed by was a little bit important.
“It’s just like players. There’s good and bad players, there’s not old and young players. The age doesn’t make that difference.”