The clock never struck midnight for Brian Schmetzer and his Seattle Sounders. The coach never turned back into a pumpkin, the glass slipper fit perfectly and so did the crown after a penalty-kicks 5-4 win over Toronto FC in the MLS Cup final Saturday.
Do you believe in fairy tales? Because there’s no other way to describe the remarkable four-month drive Schmetzer directed to get the team its first title. Second-to-last in the Western Conference when Schmetzer took over last July, the Sounders finished the season No. 1 in the league.
In between came a frantic dash to the postseason in which Seattle lost just twice in its final 14 regular-season games, followed by playoff victories over Kansas City, Dallas and Colorado.
“At no time did I think it was going to end up this way,” team owner Joe Roth, whose Hollywood film company has produced a number of more believable fairy tales, said last week. “We were just in a terrible place.”
Actually, terrible would have been an improvement. The Sounders had 20 points after 20 games, had won just two of their last 11 and had been shut out four times in seven tries when they made the decision to fire Sigi Schmid, the winningest coach in MLS history and one who had taken Seattle to the playoffs in each of its first seven seasons in the league.
“It’s no knock on Sigi,” Roth said. “Sometimes you have to change the vibe in the room.”
The change also gave Roth a chance to make good on an 8-year-old promise to Schmetzer, who had coached the Sounders for seven seasons in the third-tier USL before the franchise jumped to MLS for the 2009 season. When Roth hired Schmid to coach his team, he made Schmetzer, who is also a former Sounders player, Schmid’s assistant with the pledge he would get another shot at the top job at the first sign of trouble.
Schmetzer took Roth at this word, declining invitations to interview for coaching vacancies elsewhere in the league. However, when the promotion finally came in July, it wasn’t the one he had hoped for. Schmetzer, the press release said, was just an interim coach; the team would conduct a search for a permanent replacement.
“It didn’t bother me. It wasn’t ‘what are you guys doing?,’ ” Schmetzer said last week. “I was happy to get an opportunity. And the flip side of that [is] I know I can do a good job.”
If the opportunity was long in coming, the timing, as it turned out, couldn’t have been better. Days after Schmetzer took over, the team landed Uruguayan midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro after months of negotiations with the player’s club in Argentina.
Lodeiro would go on to become the league’s newcomer of the year.
Then a month after Lodeiro’s signing, center back Roman Torres returned from an ACL injury, solidifying a back line that gave up just eight goals in the 12 games he started, including 120 scoreless minutes in the championship game. Then he topped that by delivering the title-winning penalty kick Saturday.
Those additions helped make up for the subtractions of Obafemi Martins and Clint Dempsey, the team’s two leading scorers last season.
Martins jumped to Shanghai of the Chinese Super League on the eve of the MLS season while Dempsey hasn’t played since mid August because of an irregular heartbeat.
So while Schmetzer’s message may not have differed much from the one given by the man he replaced, the way he gave it, and the players to whom he gave it, were. And that made all the difference.
“The words are less significant than the optimism and the drive and the way in which the words are delivered,” said Roth, who removed Schmetzer’s interim tag early in the team’s playoff run. “There’s no question … it’s not one thing. Brian got Lodeiro and he got a healthy Torres. [Osvaldo] Alonso is now playing the best soccer of his life, which is saying a lot too.”
Some, in fact, have pointed at the signing of Lodeiro and the return of Torres to lessen Schmetzer’s impact, overlooking his strategic acumen and knack for making smart substitutions, both of which played huge roles in getting Seattle to the MLS Cup.
And that’s OK with the coach.
“That’s actually by design,” he said before Saturday’s game. “I don’t mind that the narrative is ‘Seattle’s a good team.’ I have absolutely zero problem with that because the team does come first.”
But Schmetzer, 54, admitted there’s also a certain sadness to his success. Over the last 7½ years, Schmid had become more than a boss; he was a mentor and friend whose son Kurt remains an assistant on Schmetzer’s staff. Yet, the new coach would never have gotten his chance if the old one hadn’t been pushed out.
“Yeah, I thought about it those first couple of days and weeks. Sig lost his job,” he said. “So on that human side, we still think about that.”
That shouldn’t be surprising. Most fairy tales have a moral element and Schmetzer’s conflicting emotions — cheering a win and feeling bad for a friend — are at the center of this one. But when his Cinderella Sounders left the ball Saturday, they had a crown on their heads.
“None of it,” Roth said, “makes sense.”