German born Sigi Schmid is the most successful head coach in MLS history. Although he has never played professional football, he has acquired trophies and honours throughout his managerial career.
While coaching the LA Galaxy, he won the MLS Cup in 2002, MLS Supporters’ Shields in 1999 and 2002, the US Open Cup in 2001 and the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2001. After being fired from LA despite his side being top of the league, he joined the Columbus Crew in 2006 and took them to the MLS Cup and Supporters Shield in 2008, turning the club into a MLS powerhouse. He has won more MLS games than any other coach.
In December 2008, he left the Crew for the Pacific Northwest to take over the reins at the expansion side Sounders FC.
In Part I of this landmark interview, Prost Amerika asked him about his early life as an immigrant in the USA, growing up as a German in the immediate post war era, managing the USA against his native country and about how his educational background in accounting assists him as a coach. Sigi also talks about managing legends, his ‘nice and nasty’ routine with players and finally sheds some light on that emotional outburst during his arrival press conference.
PROST AMERIKA: Your family moved here from TÃ¼bingen when you were nine. Do you remember anything of your early life in Germany?
SIGI SCHMID: Actually, no, that always gets sort of misconstrued. We moved to Torrance when I was nine, but we actually came to America when I was four, so I was four years old when we came to America. So the first time I went back to Germany after being there when I was four is at the age of seven. And then from seven on it was pretty much every summer or every other summer at the worst, that we would go back to Germany. So I really did grow up on California, not really in Germany in that regard, except I was there for summers because often times I would go over say with my father at the beginning of summer and come back with my mom at the end, so I would oftentimes spend two months, three months, over in Germany.
PROST AMERIKA: When you were doing that, did you feel like an American kid on holiday in Germany or a German kid growing up in America?
SIGI SCHMID: Felt more like a German kid growing up in America because when we came to America we lived with my grandparents and we only spoke German at home, so when I went into first grade here I really didn’t have any English background or very much English, a little bit of English from the street, but we only spoke German at home so I thought Manchester was pronounced like “Mahn-chester.” I didn’t know it was Manchester (laughs), things like that. But then I have two female cousins in Germany that are very close to me in age so we always hung out, so I always had friends to play with, and I was from a very small town so you knew even at the age of seven, eight when you were there in the summers that at 3 o’clock you went to the sportplatz and there’d be kids that would show up and you’d play soccer.
“15, 20 very noisy supporters started to chant Nazi Nazi Go Home“
PROST AMERIKA: Growing up at that time in the world’s history, obviously memories of the Second World War were quite fresh. Did you experience any racism as a German in America?
SIGI SCHMID: There were times. There were times I remember as a kid being called a kraut and a Nazi; it was even one time when I was coaching UCLA when we were playing a Cal State school that will remain nameless and they actually had a group of about 15, 20 very noisy supporters who started to chant “Nazi Nazi go home” and stuff like that – so that was already in the ’80s, but – I was aware of it but it wasn’t something that derailed me or affected me.
PROST AMERIKA: I just have one final question on this that I thought you were leading up to. I was hoping you would talk about international management and this would have segued perfectly. It’s going to sound a bit clunky now. But can I take your mind back to Enschede in 2005. You were manager of the U.S. Under-20s and you managed United States against Germany. How did that feel managing a side against your native country?
SIGI SCHMID: It felt great. My family in Germany certainly saw it and noticed and a few of my relatives said you’re on the wrong side to me, but no it was great, coaching against (German coach Michael) Skibbe and having our team be able to hold its own and actually realising that they made tactical adjustments to try and contain us I thought was a tremendous honour. That’s something that always gives you a chill, being able to be in the international arena and coaching in the international arena is something that I always enjoy and being able to coach against Germany in that tournament, being able to coach against Argentina in that tournament was something that I won’t ever forget.
PROST AMERIKA: Moving on, you have a good academic background in economics and accountancy, more than the average club coach. Do you find that helps you understand the concerns of the powers that be when managing a soccer club that you already know what they’re talking about when they come to you with these constraints?
SIGI SCHMID: It definitely helps with the salary cap and trying to think up ways to make the contracts work and make the salary cap number work and so forth. I remember I did a contract for a player in Columbus and in the next year when his contract was up for renewal and we picked up the option they gave me his cap number, and I called the league and I said, no, his cap number’s too high, it should be this, and they saw what was done, and the response from the league was never ever again will we allow a contract like that to go through. So at that point it helps sometimes in those regards but just the whole thing of being able to get a college education and completing that task and though I haven’t worked in the business world for five years and haven’t had my MBA, just all of the organisational standpoint, those principles are really the same if you’re managing a group at work or if you’re managing a group of soccer players. A lot of those principles are the same so a lot of them I’ve been able to carry over.
PROST AMERIKA: Talking of large amounts of money, you left the LA Galaxy in 2004. Would you have liked the challenge of managing somebody like David Beckham?
SIGI SCHMID: Oh, definitely. I think it would have been a great opportunity and it would have been an interesting situation as well. I always thought when I was coaching the Galaxy I’d be like Ferguson, I’d be there forever, but that’s just a belief I always have in myself so I was a little disappointed when it didn’t happen that way, but certainly I would love to have had the opportunity to coach a Beckham, I would love to have the opportunity to coach a Juan Pablo Angel. I think any manager would love the opportunity to coach great players.
PROST AMERIKA: How would you have handled the dressing room disharmony between Beckham and Landon Donovan and the other players?
SIGI SCHMID: That’s hard to say when you’re on the outside looking in–I’m a big believer in your instincts are what guide you the best so when you’re in the situation you sort of get a feel for the situation and then you can make a determination and you establish a direction based upon what you see. But when you talk to somebody and it’s not face to face you don’t get the full extent of their communication because you miss out on all the body language so being in that locker room, seeing what was going on – hopefully it would never have gotten to the point that it got to and hopefully it would have been able to have been changed or turned into a different direction much earlier.
PROST AMERIKA: Now you have of course managed legends before – Guillermo Barros Schelotto, described in the Columbus website as an Argentine legend, and I think it’s fair to say that Kasey Keller and Freddie Ljungberg fall into that category as well. How much pressure does it take off of a coach having players of that calibre in the clubhouse?SIGI SCHMID: It certainly helps. I mean, but each player brings something different and something unique. Guillermo is a tremendous competitor in games. Training is not necessarily his favourite exercise and early on when he came I could see some quizzical looks from some of the players and I even had to call a couple of players into my office and say, look, he’s going to get four or five games and if he doesn’t do the business then we can sit down and talk but I don’t want to hear anything until then. And obviously once he got into the games he showed what he can do.
Somebody like Kasey is just very workmanlike, very businesslike, he goes out, he does his work, he sets his example, he shows you how a pro needs to act all the time, so that’s an easy one obviously because he sets that example and that tone. But he’s not one to slam his fist into the table and scream at guys or something like that.
And Freddie Ljungberg is another one who, when he gets on the training field he works very hard. He’s demanding of himself within the games and he’s also taken the time to talk to some players as to how they’re playing within the game, so all those guys make it easier for you as a coach because they all bring something to the table that if the other players are observant and are paying attention and are listening – if their eyes and ears are open they’re going to be able to learn.
PROST AMERIKA: So on the current Sounders squad do you have any screamers, people that will yell at their colleagues if they’re not doing the business?
SIGI SCHMID: On the Seattle team, no we’re not really a screaming team. I’ve had some screamers in the past, Simon Elliot is definitely one who would raise his voice and have a go at people, as would Alexi Lalas, so there have been some guys like that, Frankie Hejduk is a little bit the same in that regard. We’re not really a screaming team but we are a team that demands things from each other and guys will speak up, not necessarily in a scream or loud voice but they’ll speak up.
“There’s some people that don’t know me and think I’m very cold-hearted “
PROST AMERIKA: You mentioned Sir Alex Ferguson before. He tends to rule the roost through fear. Is that ever a tactic you’ve used with players?
SIGI SCHMID: (Laughs) One of the players I’ve coached the longest is Peter Vagenas, and Peter said “you get more out of us if you’re the mean Sigi than if you’re the easygoing Sigi.” So I don’t know if I have to be the mean Sigi sometimes but it’s just over the years, I always feel coaches need to coach from the base point of their personality. You need to be comfortable. If you’re trying to coach in a manner or act in a way that is outside your normal way of doing things, then you’re not going to be comfortable and players are going to sense that. So if you’re an intimidating sort of guy and you rule the roost that way as Alex Ferguson does, then that’s what he feels comfortable doing. For me, I think it’s a little bit of a mix.
There’s some people that don’t know me and think I’m very cold-hearted and, I guess, Germanic in a way but then I think when people know me they realise, well wait a second, he’s not quite like that at all. And so, it’s most important to be comfortable, and I try and react to every situation in as natural a manner as I can, so if something happens and it makes me angry, I’m going to let the players know it makes me angry and if something happens that I think is a laugh, I’m going to laugh with them. But the thing is for me I have to react to what I feel inside.
PROST AMERIKA: I think a lot of us who were present at your press conference when you arrived here know that you are an emotional guy that doesn’t hide his emotions. A lot of us recall that you did actually break down in tears when talking about your brother. Are you in a position to tell Sounders fans now what was going through your mind at that moment?
SIGI SCHMID: It was just a combination of a lot of things. There were a lot of things that entered my mind. Certainly I hadn’t lived in the same city with my brother for a while and my brother and me had sort of a different bond in the sense that we were ten years apart, so when I was 16 and he was 6 I took him everywhere with me, and so there was a little bit of a different bond there but it was also – I was thinking of my mother because my mother always told me to follow my dreams and she died much too young, and I know she would have been so proud to see what’s going on in Seattle and to see that I was able to follow my dream as soccer coach and accomplish quite a bit. And it was also happiness of truly being in Seattle because I really have a lot of respect for our ownership group.
I have a lot of enjoyment working with Adrian Hanauer; I think he’s a very very good person to work with and work for. Joe Roth has been great, Todd Leiweke has been superb, Drew Carey keeps us all laughing and there was — Chris Henderson was there with somebody I coached, Grant Clark as the team administrator, was one of the first players I recruited to UCLA, he was there, it was like –it just felt like I was at the right place at the right time and that became a little overwhelming.
In Part 2 of the interview, Sigi talks about life in Seattle as the manager of Sounders FC, the frustrations of the salary cap, working with the NFL side of the operation, who he’ll be scouting during the World Cup and his ambitions for both self and club.