Steve Clare, Editor of Prost Amerika, has been writing about the Seattle Sounders since 2007 and has been present when they have won all their major trophies, the USL title in 2007, Open Cups in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and the Cascada Cup in 2011.
by Steve Clare, Editor Prost Amerika
If we were having a pint in Seattle, and you asked me what I thought of the Sounders’ current state and the demands to sack Sigi Schmid, this is what I would say:
Over the years, many readers will have read editorial pieces being fairly critical of Sigi Schmid on Prost Amerika. This site has railed against his constant dispersal of blame for defeats onto referees, the weather, packed fixture lists, empty fixture lists, his opponents, the football and any other factor he thought he could invoke.
In particular, his abuse – often personal – about individual referees; men receiving a fraction of his money and who cannot answer back, has attracted our criticism.
You might be tempted to conclude that I’d be firmly on the fast-rolling bandwagon calling for his dismissal. But I’m not.
That, which is bad about Sigi Schmid, he can fix by accepting a little personal responsibility and by telling the truth even truths some in Seattle are not ready to accept; namely that “football teams lose games” occasionally.
Between 2000 and 2003, his LA Galaxy side won 53, drew 25 and lost 38 games. He didn’t carry the burden of being an expansion side either so this was correspondingly more difficult than his Sounders years. He knows how to lose as well as win.
For some inexplicable reason though, the ability to congratulate the opponents, admit they played better and vow to fix things largely escapes him after a setback.
Two recent matches exemplified this. His side drew 1-1 in Los Angeles at a venue where they have traditionally struggled. They played well. They worked hard. LA were the better side but Sounders FC held firm and took away a point, firstly by displaying the correct fighting spirit. Two appalling refereeing decisions also assisted them and were the second factor saving them from defeat.
Eddie Johnson’s headed goal could have been ruled out for either foul on Omar Gonzalez, who was prevented running with the forward who is several inches shorter than him. However both Johnson’s shove and Hurtado’s welcoming embrace of the LA defender went unwhistled.
At the same end, there was very little to whistle for when the official ruled out what should have been LA’s second goal, ostensibly for a light contact by Todd Dunnivant on a defender.
Post-match though, Schmid’s remarks focused solely on the injustice of Zach Scott’s two bookings (both totally merited) and how his side were victims.
After the last game a 1-0 defeat in Portland, when asked his thoughts on the match, the traditional open ended first question, he answered:
“The early foul on [Clint] Dempsey with [Diego] Chara fouls him, and he ends up with an AC joint sprain/dislocation that he tried to play on and play through it. Chara commits I think four fouls in the first half and never gets carded; I think that was a key turning point in the game.”
Does he really expect us to believe that Diego Chara NOT getting a yellow card is the “key turning point in the game”?
Not the goal, or Osvaldo Alonso being sent off when Sounders were pressing hard for a leveler? Nope, his side lost because the referee did not card an opposing midfielder.
We’ve been highlighting this for some years and this season have noticed many Sounders fans beginning to agree that they are sick of the referee blaming and excuse making.
Many combine that with a conclusion that Schmid has lost his grasp on both the team and the answers needed to improve it.
However if you want to have a serious discussion as to what is wrong, if anything, at the club; it may be wise to swim a layer deeper. Why does he do this and who is the intended audience for these remarks?
It surely has to be one of two targets; there are media outlets wanting to ‘do soccer coverage’ where no-one watched the game, or doesn’t understand it. They will cut and paste though never question Sigi’s analysis.
That doesn’t help grow the game but is reasonably harmless. It is the other audience that troubles me, and I believe takes us further into the catacombs of discussing this franchise.
It is not uncommon for some MLS owners to attend the post match press conferences that coaches give. It doesn’t always happen. Outside Cascadia, owners can be largely invisible anyway.
In Seattle, Joe Roth and Adrian Hanauer always attend. Joe Roth sometimes even participates; on one famous occasion offering to pay the fine if Sigi told the room ‘what he really thought of the referee‘.
Schmid adultly but somewhat wearily declined.
More than anyone though, even beyond those fansites unable to cope with the fact that the club is not run by demi-gods, it often seems that the audience for the excusathon is Roth and the Seahawks PR staff whose job it is to cherry pick his comments for the email blast to the press core.
It certainly isn’t Hanauer. For all the bewildering stuff he has occasionally said since 2009, Adrian Hanauer knows his Arsenal from his Malmo and what is offside and what is not.
Joe Roth, not being a football man first, is no Adrian Hanauer. But Roth is a very powerful and persuasive leader. It is almost wholly to Seattle’s benefit that he chose to invest in soccer in the Emerald City, not in the other cities of the Northwest which he also originally considered.
But being a film producer, he has a desire to write the script and control every aspect of the game day operation. This has been married with the Seattle Seahawks’ years of experience of doing just that.
The script runs like this: Sounders FC is the greatest thing every to happen to a previously unambitious and underperforming league. It’s not wholly untrue. Sounders have lifted the bar for expansion sides, ticket sales broadcasting deals and in many other areas.
There is one factoid Roth and the PR men cannot control however, and that is the scoreline. Draws and defeats do not play into the mantra of an all conquering organisation winning trophies due to their own internal excellence.
The PR answer has been to blame conspiracies and injustices, a mantra that Schmid – under intense pressure – has now bought into. It was mildly amusing initially when the side admirably exceeded expectations and there were more highs than lows.
Year Two was tougher but the tragic injury to Steve Zakuani united the Sounders family in a common cause. The atmosphere was pretty close to communal grief in the Seattle soccer community. Besides, the side improved marginally on 2009 and on the business side records continued to tumble. Criticism was rare and there was little cause for it.
The PR gaffes remained amusing rather than anything else. On one occasion, the club sent out an email blast informing the press that Sounders FC had been eliminated from the CONCACAF Cup group stages. They hadn’t. They could still qualify. A hurried correction was sent out with the word ‘eliminated’ replaced by ‘dwindled’ after I informed them. (Its author was handed to Sounders FC direct from the Seahawks.) One can only imagine the morale flattening effect on any players that read it.
It was perhaps the 3-0 ‘edging’ in Salt Lake in the 2011 play-offs that began the more adventurous minds asking the serious questions. That 90 minutes in Utah exhibited such a difference in the levels of preparedness between the two sides that tough questions were inevitable.
The history books will record that Seattle won the second leg 2-0 and went very close to achieving an amazing turnover but not that they slaved away against a stuffy RSL side for an hour to no avail. When a ‘consolation’ penalty showed them some sunlight, RSL underwent an immediate psychological collapse which turned into a comeback.
On the bright side, they completed a remarkable three-peat of Open Cup triumphs with the gate sales for the two home finals being quite incredible. They also won the first Cascadia Cup in MLS.
With that arrival in 2011 of the noisy neighbours, a new voice had arrived on the scene. Sounders fans were now reading the ‘opinions’ of fans of other sides, who had TV access to Sounders matches. The engaged fan had to get smarter to win those enjoyable internet slanging matches.
At first, Sounders fans became more externally protective of their side, but internally, they were asking more questions about the team’s flaws among themselves.
The Freddie Ljungberg and Blaise Nkufo debacles had been hard for a fanbase who had been spoonfed a diet of how privileged anyone would be to play in front of such wonderful fans for three years. Sounders had to explain that without maligning the players involved, whose agents they still worked with.
2012 was tougher for Schmid.
Philadelphia Union’s improvement and Vancouver being less dreadful made the league tougher. Montreal were a decent expansion side. A coin toss denied the Sounders home advantage in the Open Cup final and they were defeated very harshly after an unsuccessful penalty from Kansas City, was ordered retaken. They didn’t play well in the final but the penalty retake call was more discussed than anything.
A 6-1 thrashing in the CONCACAF Cup exposed wholly the myth about the Sounders march to a place on the world stage, and no amount of superimposing the home attendance figure on a chart of EPL clubs’ attendances could disguise it any longer.
The play-offs were reached for the fourth year running, an incredible achievement by Schmid and his men but the LA Galaxy proved to be far ahead in the first leg .
The knives came out for Schmid before the second leg even started. He had played too attacking a formation in an away first leg where common sense told you to park the bus and play for a 0-0. Schmid took the brunt of the criticism for the selection.
Once more though, the exit provided reassurances about the team’s quality.
Sounders played magnificently to fight back to a 2-3 aggregate. A harsh, though correct, penalty call ended it all when Swedish right back Adam Johansson forgot to keep his arms by his sides when blocking a Robbie Keane cross.
By the ‘making yourself bigger’ rule (the one Markus Holgersson broke in the recent 1-1 draw in Seattle), it was a penalty kick. The sense of injustice and grievance though was palpable among the management, team and fans nonetheless.
Schmid talked in the post match presser of there being no LA forwards in the box when Keane crossed the ball as if that was a factor that should have been considered before the call was made. In truth, it’s irrelevant to the call of a PK and Schmid knew it. It was a plea to be the victim again and explain elimination away one more time. It worked.
Under the surface, trouble was brewing however in the locker room. Jeff Parke, probably still the best centre half in club history, had fallen out with Schmid after the 6-1 loss in Torreon and was dropped for much of the early part of the season despite Jhon Hurtado’s loss of form. He left the club at the end of the season. Fredy Montero also left, on loan, after management concluded he and Eddie Johnson were incompatible.
Fans stewed over the summer as no replacement for Montero arrived. When one came, it was a calibre signing, Obafemi Martins. Like Johnson, the man had had ‘issues’ with his previous teams but the club had laid out money for a big time player, a key demand of the fans.
He has disappointed though and played in the humiliating 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay in the Open Cup, following which more and more fans were posting ‘MLS Cup or goodbye’ posts about Schmid.
Yes, Schmid is ultimately responsible for the team on the pitch. And, yes coaches are frequently fired when the season is a failure. His excuses have been pathetic, with the exception that injuries have made his best XI hard to field.
But the question is more nuanced than, “will firing Schmid be a panacea for the club’s problems?”, assuming one believes three Open Cup wins, the play-offs five years running, and five winning regular seasons to be an insufficient return.
The answer is No.
Removing Schmid for a new coach only tinkers at the edges of the institutional issues that bedevil this club.
We ask fans to mull the following questions before they consign Schmid to the history books:
- How responsible is he for a PR machine that creates unrealistic expectations?
- How much will his removal fix the chronic lack of depth in the squad?
- Is the track record of bad overseas signings going to improve when he is no longer selecting the side, even assuming his son Kurt also leaves his scouting role?
- If Schmid is under fire, surely questions about Adrian Hanauer and Chris Henderson’s performance are also legitimate?
- Will his replacement have anymore leeway to field an ultra-defensive side when Sounders FC need that, regardless of self-serving proclamations of Sounders always playing “offensive soccer”?
- What calibre of a man will put up with Joe Roth walking into the locker room post game and voicing his opinions in what should be the coach’s time?
- And finally, will firing Schmid move Sounders FC one step closer to being, thinking or acting like a soccer club in MLS, rather than a particularly profitable sideline for the Seattle Seahawks, and an additional employment opportunity for their staff?
My answer to some of these questions is ‘no’ and to others is ‘I don’t know’.
I do not think removing the one man who is aware of the institutional problems at Sounders FC, and then replacing him with a rookie, will fix things.
No-one is saying the status quo must remain however.
Maybe we should see Schmid given more control over who works around him, and not just be forced to accept the staff the NFL throws at him. On the flipside, that has to be an open process and Schmid has to accept that the hiring of his kid makes him slightly implicit. New blood may be needed additionally there but the overriding interest from now on has to be the good of Sounders FC, nothing else.
On that score, I’d like to see Adrian Hanauer take more control of that side of things and start to make soccer knowledge, experience AND YES passion, a factor in employment at Sounders FC, rather than just have successfully emerged from the Seahawks recruitment process. There are plenty of Sounders fans currently working in the corporate world who would appreciate knowing their application for employment is being considered along with that of ‘whoever is currently doing the same thing for the NFL club’.
That part may not be what Adrian enjoys the most about the game, but he is the person Sounders fans should trust the most with the task of leading the club internally.
Chris Henderson can scoop up some of Hanauer’s work, and a new hire should be made to assist him; either use Kasey Keller’s global knowledge of the modern game; or a new hire – one that is presented to Peter McLoughlin as a ‘fait accompli’ when the soccer boys have decided.
Failing all that, take the money the club saved when Don Garber paid for Clint Dempsey and hire the best GM in the business, Mr Garth Lagerwey of Real Salt Lake who has created the best working environment for any head coach in the league.
Look at any interview with RSL head Coach Jason Kreis and he will credit Lagerwey and the club with giving him the tools to do the job. Merely transplanting Kreis into the current environment is not the same thing, even assuming he would come.
Sigi Schmid, Chris Henderson and Adrian Hanauer are all decent people whom I personally like (although there’s no cause to believe that’s mutual – and nor should any decent journalist really care).
They are good for this club but have been hampered by an environment that no man could realistically be expected to flourish in.
But don’t fire Sigi Schmid and conclude that everything has been fixed. He’s not wholly the problem, and removing him is not wholly the cure.