Tuesday was a surreal soccer day in Seattle, a city where few question the sport’s major league status. As incoming Uruguayan star Nicolás Lodeiro was arriving at the airport ready to begin his highly anticipated Sounders sojourn—he was greeted by team GM Garth Lagerwey—the club was announcing the departure of Sigi Schmid, the only head coach the Emerald City has known since joining MLS in 2009.
The 2016 season has been a train wreck, but the MLS format is especially forgiving and there seemed to be a possibility—at least before Sunday—that Schmid would have a chance to coach Lodeiro and any additional reinforcements. The 63-year-old manager had some wiggle room thanks to tenure and a National Soccer Hall of Fame career that includes 11 major trophies with three MLS clubs. But the page started to turn slowly when Lagerwey was hired in 2015 and the pressure increased following last year’s MLS Cup quarterfinal elimination.
Through seven winning seasons, four U.S. Open Cup titles and a Supporters' Shield, Sigi’s Sounders still hadn’t played in an MLS Cup final. The record crowds were growing restless, and despite offseason votes of confidence—“Sigi is our coach. Sigi will be our coach. Sigi is my coach,” Lagerwey said—there was a sense and several whispers that Schmid’s run was nearing its end.
The evidence it was over was there for all to see on Sunday, when Seattle (6-12-2) put up one of the most dour performances in league history in a 3-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City. Yes, it was hot, but that can’t begin to explain such a listless display by such a dispirited squad. The Sounders, with U.S. national teamers Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris leading the attack, were two minutes away from becoming the first team in MLS history to fail to take a single shot during a game.
Schmid seemed resigned afterward, telling reporters that toward the end of the match, “You start dragging a little bit, and guys didn’t make their runs and didn’t make their cover … We were a beat team.”
Time was up.
Ten points out of a playoff spot in the stacked Western Conference, losers of four of their past five games in all competitions and now looking increasingly demoralized, the club had little choice but to make a change. Some may believe it was overdue, and Schmid himself may already have had one eye on a return to Los Angeles, where he coached UCLA and the Galaxy. Maybe he’ll retire there, or maybe he’ll vie for the job at Los Angeles FC. After all, his track record with expansion teams is excellent. There should be considerable pride about what was accomplished in Seattle. But almost all coaching gigs run their course.
“Sigi departs the club with our utmost respect and gratitude for his years of service,” owner Adrian Hanauer said Tuesday. “Ultimately the club and Sigi agreed that a change was needed at this time, but Sigi's legacy will always be a part of our history. He has my sincere appreciation for all that he committed to our team and community.”
Long-time Sounders staffer Brian Schmetzer will take the reins for now and likely will keep them until the end of the season, Hanauer told reporters Tuesday. The well-liked, 53-year-old assistant, a Seattle native, was the club’s head coach during its USL days and played there in the 1980s. He is Sounders through and through.
But make no mistake, Tuesday’s move marks a new era for the club.
“It will be tough for any coach to match the legacy of success [Schmid] has established, and it is with a heavy heart that we part ways with such a respected figure,” Lagerwey said. “Stability and loyalty are hallmarks of this organization and it is incumbent upon us to reset the club and make good long-term decisions about our future in an effort to establish a championship contender."
The Sounders enjoyed an extended honeymoon, making the playoffs and winning the Open Cup in their first MLS season and playing before crowds that helped alter the perception of pro soccer’s American potential. They brought Kasey Keller home, broke the bank for Dempsey and lured Lagerwey from Salt Lake City.
There were many more wins than losses, several more trophies and an environment that was the envy of many. But last year’s fourth-place finish and this season’s swan dive mean it’s time to refresh. Whether or not Schmetzer is the permanent answer, Lagerwey now is the undisputed captain of the Sounders ship. The Sounders have been adrift, with the sale of players like Obafemi Martins, DeAndre Yedlin and Fredy Montero, along with consistent roster churn, leaving them without a recognizable style or coherent, long-range plan. Several veteran signings haven't panned out and Schmid was unable to set a new course, so now it clearly is Lagerwey’s responsibility. The power has shifted, but so have the parameters. Big clubs prioritize results, and Seattle is becoming a big club.
"This team doesn’t play like any team I’ve ever built before. I’m looking forward to a new beginning," Lagerwey told reporters later Tuesday, according to The Seattle Times. "I did my best to be deferential, if anything, over the past 18 months.