Every year the Seattle Sounders FC invite 12 to 20 trailists into training camp with about a half dozen draftees and all compete for a bare handful of roster spots. They come from four different continents, filtered out of dozens of leagues and colleges and just maybe they can become a Sounder. The club has two men whose primary role is finding talent. Both do other things, and other coaches and front office personnel also scout, but for Sporting Director Chris Henderson and Scout/Assistant Coach Kurt Schmid a suitcase and a hotel room can be a type of home.
While Henderson’s focus is international and Schmid’s is college the nature of talent evaluation is the same. Scout players by word of mouth, stats, resume, video; see them live; relay the results to the First Team coaches and GM; and recommend for signing, drafting, trial as appropriate.
In one year they look at hundreds of players both internationally and in the United States. Roughly 100 of the collegiate players will be at either the Sounders Combine or the MLS Combine. Some of the internationals will get a long look. Other times another player will get noticed at that game. In the end, just a few will sign – this year. They also both scout ahead of time to build their knowledge base for future transfer windows and future drafts.
“It’s not just the six weeks though,” Kurt Schmid explained after a recent Starfire training session. “It’s ongoing throughout the whole year. Our season doesn’t stop when the season ends.”
“It seems to get really busy,” Henderson interrupts.
“It definitely picks up, but throughout the year we’re looking at guys for different signing periods and keeping our eyes open,” Schmid finished.
The type of player they scout is different based on the time of year, but the activity does not shift. Mixed in their scouting trips are regular visits with the First Team to verify what the current roster needs, where its strengths are and get some face time with Head Coach Sigi Schmid and General Manger Adrian Hanauer.
“We usually try to split up, so that we’re hitting different places and different players. We cover more ground that way,” Henderson said. “As this league grows, as this team grows we’d love to have a staff of four or five people and scouts that are everywhere, but we’re doing the most we can with two-three people working on it.”
An issue with multiple people trying to place objective ratings on subjective skills as the soccer scout does is in calibration. In this case the long relationship is a strength. Henderson and the younger Schmid have known each other since Kurt was nine. Their relationship with Sigi goes back quite a bit as well.
“One thing that helps is that we’ve always been pretty consistent with our system and how we play here in Seattle,” Schmid points out. “We kind of know that if we are looking for a guy this particular role and can fulfill the duties for that guy when he takes the field for us.”
There is a challenge with differencing match schedules in the countries, or colleges, being scouted to find a way to maximize their time scouting. Sometimes that means catching training sessions locally, or catching other matches. It can also mean short stops and then another flight to scout the next opportunity. When scheduling they spread the focus out from a primary target to other players who may be of interest in the future.
Both don’t want to miss the Sounders first team games, though. They are most active during those weeks when the Sounders FC is off.
“If we lose touch with what we have here, and how we are playing now and how certain guys are doing,” Schmid explained, “it will affect how we are looking at certain guys. We need to have a good idea of what we need, how we’re playing, how we can get better. We like to look for those players.”
“Scouting on our budget, you have to be ahead of the game at least one window,” Henderson breaks in. “There’s going to be a club with deeper pockets who can pull a player that you’ve been looking at for a year or two. You have to find that diamond in the rough. That’s why we go to some of these countries that not a lot of teams have gone to. We’re trying to find that guy. Whether it is an Eastern European country, or a Central American country, or an African country. It’s not easy. There are so many teams in the world looking for players.”
Part of how to avoid losing those rough diamonds is going to tournaments before the player makes a name. This can mean U-20 World Cup Qualifying tournaments, that’s how they first saw Mario Martinez. It may mean that they know a player well ahead of when they are available.
For both Chris Henderson and Kurt Schmid it is about preparation, budget and grabbing a good player before another team can. From the thousands to the hundreds and down to a couple dozen only a handful will be Sounders – for now.
As camp opened both were at Starfire, working as coaches and evaluators. It is a pause in their normal schedule of packing and unpacking, airplanes, airports and unfamiliar stadia. That will start back up again soon and doesn’t really stop. A suitcase can be home sometimes.