Sounders FC has reached the playoffs in five consecutive seasons, yet still the club strives for more entering its sixth season in Major League Soccer.
To address the upcoming season, ripe with changes all over the field and high expectations that come with record-setting crowds and top-flight signings, Head Coach Sigi Schmid talked last week about the team he has assembled heading into the 2014 season.
SoundersFC.com: Throughout your career, you’ve had quality at the goalkeeper position. How important is it to be strong at that position?
Schmid: You make decisions as a coach often based upon what’s happens in your past. When I played, for some reason we got stuck on a number of teams with bad goalkeepers. It’s funny because one of my best friends growing up was a goalkeeper and he was a very good goalkeeper that played in the NASL. When we played club together, he was always good, but on some of my other teams, I always had bad goalkeepers. When I was an assistant at UCLA, our goalkeeping was very average and I promised myself that I would always have good goalkeeping. It’s always been an important position for me because I think those are guys that through making plays can change games.
Q: Bringing Stefan Frei in to compete with Marcus Hahnemann. What did you like about him in Toronto?
Schmid: I liked Stefan when I was first introduced to him. He played club soccer for a mentor coach for me, Lothar Osiander. When I was the coach of the under-20 national team, I asked Lothar if he knew of any good goalkeepers because I was in search and that was the first time that I heard of Stefan Frei. I had seen him play, but I found out he wasn’t a citizen, so I couldn’t bring him in. From that point on, I sort of followed what he was doing and what his career was all about. For me, I always had that confidence. It’s a little bit like when I brought Will Hesmer in to the Crew. I got to know Will because he played at Wake Forest with my son Kurt. They were roommates and I saw him play often when I went back there to visit. He was a good goalkeeper, but I could never get him out of Kansas City in a trade. And then eventually I had the opportunity, so even though he went three or four years where he really didn’t play much, I felt confident that he could really do the job if given the opportunity and obviously we won an MLS Cup with him in goal. With Stefan, it’s the same thing. He was a quality goalkeeper his first three years in the league and he hasn’t lost that. He lost a little bit of confidence in the interim because he hadn’t played, but once that confidence gets restored, I think his quality will come out.
Q: Moving into the defenders, it’s possible that you could change just one of those starting positions, but it looks like the whole face of that back four can change with Chad Marshall. What does he bring and how different is that back four than it was a year ago?
Schmid: We just felt that we, for some reason, gave up goals at the end of last year and we needed to put a stop to that. We also felt that we had guys who had been here now for a while in Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Patrick Ianni and we felt maybe it’s time to make a change. Knowing that Chad was interested in leaving Columbus, we inquired as to what that would entail. I feel good about the fact that we got Chad because I think he’s one of the best defenders in the league. He has consistently, in all his years in the league, done very well and from 2007 on, he’s been one of the better defenders in our league, for sure. It’s not quite understandable why he hasn’t had more national team appearances. He brings a certain calmness to our back line. He has the ability to win balls in the air and that enhances us on set pieces. Jalil Anibaba is another player that we liked because of his athleticism and that makes us a little bit younger in the back because all of our defenders were getting to into their early 30s so for those various reasons we decided it was a good time to switch.
Q: How much have you seen DeAndre grow since late last season when he had the success in the playoffs and he was rewarded with the call with the national team?
Schmid: The growth has got to continue now. It’s got to keep going. I think what happens when you get called into the national team and you have that success early on, you sort of stagnate for a little bit and then you get back to work and you push forward again. Development is never straight up hill. It’s always up a little bit and then plateau before you go up again. This has got to be an up year again for him. He’s got to concentrate on his defending. I think that’s something that was made clear to him in the national team camp that even though he has qualities when he is attacking and can bring that quality to our team, defending is still his number one job. You’ve got to do a good job defending and winning those battles. And I think that’s something that he’s concentrating on. The thing we talked to him about is making sure that when he gets forward there’s an end product to what he does – a quality cross, a shot, a final pass. That’s something he’s working on as well and continues to improve upon.
Q: When Clint Dempsey arrives, what can he add to this group the way it is set up right now?
Schmid: What he really adds to us is in the final third. In the final third, he has the ability to read the clues that the game gives to him and react to it and pull off plays. That’s what he’s got to bring to our team. We’ve got to get him the ball in the final third of the field and let him do his thing in that part of the field. He needs to put others into play and get assists as well as goals. He has that ability to make a play out of nothing and create something when a game is really tight.
Q: The newness of this team, the mix of this team, does that change the importance of a good start because of the confidence it can build?
Schmid: Fans have to understand, it’s not so much how we start. It’s how we finish. Last year we didn’t start well and then we had a great middle phase of the season and we didn’t finish well. A big emphasis for us is that we want to finish well. Historically, we’ve always finished well and we have to get back to that. It might take us, especially with Clint coming in late, three or four games to get a really sharp rhythm to our game as guys get to know each other. There are a lot of new guys. When you’re in the heat of the battle, your instincts take over and people have to learn what other people’s instincts are. But the one thing that we wanted to make sure that we had at the beginning of the season, the middle of the season and the end of the season is that we had a team that would bite, scratch, claw and battle no matter what the circumstances were and I think that is what we have. I think we definitely achieved that in the offseason. I think we’ve become faster. I think we’ve become more athletic. I think we have a younger influence in our team that motivates the older guys as well and keeps them a little bit younger, but I think we added some veteran players who are hungry and excited about being in Seattle to play. When you add all that together, you get a team that really wants to do battle for each other.
Q: How did last season change you as a coach?
Schmid: You learn from every experience and you improve from every experience. There certainly is a frustration in me from last season because we weren’t able to figure out how to turn it around. We tried different formations. We put in different personnel. We did different things and no matter what we did it seemed that it didn’t work out for us. What it made me think about was what did I do and what did I not do. One of the things I wanted to do going into this season was be a little bit more like I was when I was a younger coach, when I was a college coach where I was a little bit closer to my players and talked more to my players. Sometimes as a pro coach and you have so many assistants, you let them do their thing and you step away a little bit. I wanted to step closer again and wanted to make sure that I knew who my players were.
I had a lunch that I really didn’t want to go to. It was with three older coaches and one guy had been a coach in the old North American Soccer League and I knew he was involved with Detmar Kramer who I got my first coaching school license from and I wanted to talk to him because he really stepped away from soccer for a bit. I wanted to ask him what he would do a little different over his years of coaching and he said it took him a while to really understand that he had to know his players. Not knowing if he’s good with his left foot or if he’s fast. How many kids are in his family? What does his father do? What does his mother do? Really know your player and what makes him tick. As a college coach, you learn that because you’re recruiting guys, but as a pro coach, you don’t. It was interesting to hear him say that and I was so happy that I went to the lunch. Just walking away with those things is invaluable. Getting closer to the players and being more engaged with them on an individual basis is important for me this year.
Q: What are your personal goals for this season?
Schmid: They never waver. I want to win MLS Cup. I want to win the U.S. Open Cup. I want to qualify for CONCACAF Champions League. I want to win the Supporters’ Shield. I want to finish first in the West. Those are all the things I want to do.
Q: What has you most excited about this season?
Schmid: What I’m most excited about is getting after it every game and be a better team than we were last year. That’s got me really, really excited and rejuvenated in a way. Seeing some of the young players and the development of a Dylan Remick and watching Sean Okoli get better as we’re in training camp here is really important. Seeing that gleam in Chad Marshall’s eye and that fire that he wants more again. Those are things that get me excited.