Made in Seattle: How Brian Schmetzer's unlikely journey led him to his dream

New to the matchday experience in 2017 is Sounders Monthly, a 40-page magazine full of long-form articles, full page photography and illustrations from local artists. Available free-of-charge at The NINETY, GuestLink Services locations, Soccer Celebration and Membership Central, this is a must-have on Sounders Matchday! This is the feature article from the inaugural edition. (CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD MARCH 2017 EDITION)

You can never quite see the full scope of the whirring machinery at work behind Brian Schmetzer’s glasses. The more you hear him talk, the more the vault doors to his mind crack open to reveal the endless gears grinding through tactics and theory and player relationships and his ethos on work ethic and everything else.

But it’s only ever a brief glimpse.

When Schmetzer was officially named the Sounders’ second coach in their MLS history late last year at the age of 52, he brought the modern history of soccer in the Puget Sound with him. He is unique in this; a sort of resident regional coach-historian with spindly roots reaching into area youth clubs and neighborhoods and soccer facilities. Schmetzer was raised here, played here, coached here, started a construction business here, raised his children here, won championships - plural - here, all before the Sounders’ MLS adventure had even started.

“We’ve been calculating but lucky in that we’ve been able to preserve that connection (to the past),” said Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer. “I don’t think there’s a person on the planet who embodies that more than Brian.”

Schmetzer is sitting across a table from me in his office overlooking the Sounders’ training fields at Starfire Sports Complex, a grizzly gray late-winter day dropping its thin streams of drizzle onto patches of green. He thinks back on all this for a moment, a lifetime of experience washing over him like waves, and leans back.

Schmetzer, the son of first-generation German immigrants who came to Seattle chasing opportunity, is an MLS champion at the club of his youth. What does it mean? And there’s the brief glimpse inside the machinery again before the doors close.

“Every time I get asked the question I think about it a little bit deeper,” Schmetzer said. “It’s certainly, I live with the memories I have. I don’t know if I’ve processed them all, but I certainly think about them. It always puts a smile on my face because those are happy memories. Then reality smacks you in the face and it’s preseason, and you have to get back to work and figure out a way to get the team to start winning some more games again.”

Schmetzer’s second season in his second stint as the Seattle Sounders head coach, which just began this month, still feels like something of a gauzy dream. After playing understudy to then-head coach Sigi Schmid from the club’s MLS foundation in 2009 through the midway point of the 2016 season, Schmetzer was handed the keys on an interim basis with the directive to rescue a flagging season. In late July, the Sounders were ninth of 10 teams in the Western Conference and 10 points out of the final playoff spot with more than a half of the season gone.

All Schmetzer did was reorganize the locker room, sort out the team’s unique tactical puzzle and guide the Sounders to their first MLS Cup championship in eight MLS seasons. It was perhaps the most stirring and improbable midseason turnaround in the league’s history. And it happened at the behest of Schmetzer’s tutelage.

Schmetzer was essentially coaching to have the interim tag removed for much of 2016. He could have done no better.

Schmetzer insists he was calm in the moments before Román Torres hit the fateful penalty to seal the Sounders’ championship. Perhaps it’s because he’d been in a similar situation before, like in 2005 when the Sounders beat the Richmond Kickers in the USL title game in penalties with Schmetzer leading the team as head coach. Whatever the reason, after the match Schmetzer let the moment engulf him. It had been a long road here.

“I do reflect,” Schmetzer said. “There are moments when I reflect. But the job is such that I have to keep moving.”

Spend an afternoon watching Schmetzer direct a practice these days on those Starfire fields and you get the sense he’d be an excellent if overtly aggressive chess player. There is his cerebral edge, of course, which he says carried him through his 17-year playing career that wound around the NASL Seattle Sounders and Tulsa Roughnecks as well as professional indoor stints in San Diego, Tacoma and finally St. Louis. By his own admission Schmetzer was never the most talented player on the field, but he covered for it by thinking a step ahead of his teammates.

There’s a story Schmetzer likes to tell about his time spent playing with former Tacoma Stars legend Preki in the late 1980’s. The Yugoslav goal-getter was prodigious in the area but rarely did much in the way of defensive spadework. Schmetzer was fond of prodding Preki and reminding him why he was able to poach so many goals and not negatively influence the midfield by staying so high.

“‘The reason you score so many goals is because I’m defending my guy but I’m also watching your guy because I know you’re not going to defend,” Schmetzer told Preki. “So I’m taking these two so you can go do your thing.’ He actually respected me for that.”

It often went like this for Schmetzer, who tended to see the game reflected in a different light than his teammates. It’s a vital part of the cerebral underpinning that guides his coaching ethos today. But he’s also doggedly competitive. In everything.

“I would hear stories about the soccer tennis they’d have at the San Diego Sockers,” said Sounders Vice President of Soccer & Sporting Director Chris Henderson, who first met Schmetzer as a nine-year-old when the two played against one another at in indoor tournament in Everett. “They would play non-stop, and it was like, ‘One more game, best out of three.’ They’d just keep going. He’s just super competitive.”

To find the genesis of this, you’d have to delve deeper than his coaching career, deeper even than his playing career and eavesdrop on his childhood as a precocious child of hard-working immigrant parents in the sleepy Seattle neighborhood of Lake City.

Schmetzer was raised to work. At 10, he can remember pulling gnarled nails out of used timber and dropping them into a Folgers coffee can so his father, Walter, could reuse them to build their own garage. At 12, he worked a paper route and spent hours a week in the back room of his father’s sporting goods store in Lake City, Sporthaus Schmetzer, using turpentine and paint thinner to clean silkscreens for t-shirt printing. Not long into his professional career, he saved up enough money on his own to buy his first car, a speedy 1980 Volkswagen Scirocco.

In the interim, Walter raised his son on soccer threaded through with this notion of work as a central pillar of life. Walter, who played lower division soccer in Germany, started the Lake City Hawks, and Schmetzer and a group of neighborhood buddies would often walk to the broad playing fields down the street at John Rogers Elementary and play pick-up until the street lights crackled on.

It was at this intersection that Schmetzer collided with the Sounders for the first time.

In 1980, Schmetzer’s Lake City Hawks had a game in Georgetown, and then-Sounders coach Alan Hinton happened to be there scouting for talent. Hinton was immediately impressed with Fred Hamel, the Hawks’ most technically able player, but another player caught his eye, a spindly left winger who wowed him by cutting onto his right and smashing a goal into the upper corner with his weak foot. Soon thereafter, Hinton drafted both Hamel and Schmetzer, who, at 17, had to have his father sign his contract.

“I probably owe some of my career to that goal,” Schmetzer said.

Schmetzer spent the next 11 years sticking to the winding path so many pre-MLS pros in the U.S. experienced in that hazy part of American soccer history. He played in the Kingdome under Hinton in the early 1980’s and then in Tulsa through the NASL’s collapse, then threaded his way south to San Diego and east to St. Louis to play indoor soccer before seemingly calling it a career in 1991. It was a fraught time in professional soccer in the U.S., and it imbued Schmetzer not only with a sense of impermanence, but that work in the face of adversity can carry the day.

“It was like survival mode,” Henderson said.

In 1991, Schmetzer and his family returned home to Seattle from St. Louis, and Schmetzer completely shifted gears on his career. He decided to delve into the construction business in Seattle, remodeling homes full time while coaching youth soccer on the side. Schmetzer spent the next three years in this pattern, knocking out walls and redesigning kitchens while organizing midfields and advising wingers in whatever free time he could find.

That kept the fire burning until the Sounders returned in 1994. Schmetzer briefly revived his dormant pro playing career after 11 years away from the Sounders, and the intersection of his two professional lives was never more apparent. He’d roll up to Sounders practice at 60 Acres Park in Redmond in his truck, still wearing his construction gear, and change into his training clothes in the parking lot.

Schmetzer kept up his work in construction through 2008, until the MLS Sounders arrived and he joined Schmid’s team as his assistant. His construction career informed his coaching style in a way unique not only to the MLS coaching fraternity, but probably to any top-tier coach anywhere in the world.

“When you’re coaching, you’re problem-solving,” Schmetzer said. “I was a good remodeler because I could problem-solve. When I opened up a wall in a house, I could see the problem and I could fix it. I think some of that translated over to the soccer. Sometimes I’ll see things and say things and it seems like common sense at times, but there are always solutions to a problem.”

By 2001, Schmetzer had been coaching off and on in some capacity for the better part of a decade. The Sounders, at that time in the slowly-growing USL, parted ways with longtime coach Bernie James and were seeking a replacement for the 2002 season. And it is at this point in Schmetzer’s life story that his relationship with Hanauer began.

At the time, Hanauer was serving as the Sounders’ general manager, and when he initially reached out to Schmetzer, Schmetzer didn’t call back right away. Schmetzer, who was the coaching director at Emerald City Football Club at the time, didn’t even know who Hanauer was. When they did finally connect one gray afternoon in November, Schmetzer dropped his kids off at school and headed to meet Hanauer at the Tully’s in Capitol Hill across from St. Joseph Catholic Church. Seated next to Hanauer was Neil Farnsworth, then the Sounders’ CEO and managing owner. Once Schmetzer walked in the door and assessed the scene, the meeting took on a deeper gravitas than he expected.

“I think most people would’ve said yes first and asked questions later,” Hanauer said. “He had a lot of questions and really wanted to understand the role and the responsibilities and the position before committing. When I started, I was completely green in terms of being involved in soccer and sports and locker rooms. It probably wasn’t until a few years on that I appreciated the quality that Brian brings in terms of his management and communication style with players.”

The move to ultimately hire Schmetzer turned out to be a prescient one. He spent the next seven seasons in the trenches as the Sounders’ wildly successful head coach, a run that included USL titles in 2005 and 2007 and the famed run to the semifinals of the 2008 U.S. Open Cup that featured back-to-back wins over MLS teams. And when the MLS gig for which he was a candidate ultimately fell to Schmid, Schmetzer dutifully went about his work for the next seven years as Schmid’s right hand.

In hindsight, Schmetzer thought it was the right move, even if he wasn’t ultimately the one who won the head gig. But after spending seven years as an assistant formulating his own MLS approach, he knew it was his time to step into the light when given the opportunity in 2016.

“I’ve been on record as saying Sigi was the right guy to start the franchise,” Schmetzer said. “I’ve got zero problems with that. But I also think that I have some ideas of my own that I want to try and implement. They correspond with making sure the culture of this club - the relationship the fans have with the players, the way that the young players have to come up through our system and how they come up - all of those little nuances, now I have a bigger say in. Now I can go to the academy guys and say, ‘You know what, I want the academy guys to do this, this and this.’ And when they join me out on the field, when I gave those few academy kids a shot in preseason, I loved it. Because I was able to implement some of my ideas into those academy kids and hopefully they take that back to their academy and it spreads and grows.”

Schmetzer’s time as a player and a head coach, as well as an MLS coaching understudy, allowed him a unique amount of time before taking the reins in 2016 to formulate and codify his coaching ethos. Listening to Schmetzer wax poetic on answers to questions both tactical and philosophical feels like listening to the pontifications of a professor who’s spent time both in his field of study and in the classroom. And right now, Schmetzer is part of the second ever class to go through U.S. Soccer’s Pro License Course, intended to be the most intellectually rigorous methodology coaching course in the country.

Schmetzer is often referred to as a player’s coach, and not just because he has a knack for bonding with his charges. He prefers to ease off the throttle and let players work through their own on-field problems as much as possible. That comes from his own past as a cerebral player; Schmetzer views the game as a puzzle to be solved on the field given the proper general scaffolding in training. He also learned the man-management side of the game from coaches in his past, names like Hinton and Jimmy Gabriel. The former taught him how to coach up a number of disparate personalities toward a singular goal, the latter how to think more critically about how and why he makes the tactical decisions he does.

“The players know when he draws the line that, OK, he means it now,” Henderson said. “I think he gives people a long leash, but it’s like a parent, where you can’t cross that line. I think that’s important for a coach and I think he brings that. I also think his communication is good and it’s improving. He’s still open to learning and new ideas, and with coaches who’ve been around a long time, sometimes they’re not open to new ideas. He is.”

That’s manifested itself in how he coaches the team today. He readily acknowledges there’s no way to approach Clint Dempsey and Cristian Roldan, for instance, the same way. After becoming the full-time coach, Schmetzer wasted little time calling Dempsey into his office and essentially handing him the keys to the team alongside a few other leaders. Meanwhile, guys like Osvaldo Alonso might need a poke in practice now and then to keep the fire burning. Others, like Chad Marshall, might thrive more in one-on-one settings. Schmetzer’s come to be intuitive about all these things over his 15-year career as a Sounders coach in one capacity or another.

Now we are back in Schmetzer’s office, the figurative corner office at last, and he lets the doors crack slightly on the machinery of his mind again before the overwhelming immediacy of the moment reenters the room and shutters them.

It’s been a wild ride for the league’s only coach-as-resident-historian, an entire region’s modern soccer history practically grafted into his own personal history. But in many ways it’s still only beginning for the Sounders’ very own native son.

“We need to really make sure that we really value the culture we have in this club,” Schmetzer said. “I don’t want it to ever go away.”

Topics: