The Team Builder

Flashback: 2008. 

You are Sigi Schmid, a well-known Major League Soccer coach in Columbus, Ohio. Your team just won the league championship and you’ve been named coach of the year. Your team is full of rising stars, including the league MVP. The future looks bright and life, as the saying goes, appears to be good.

But the story isn’t as rosy behind the scenes.

“I was in the last year of my contract at Columbus and we really couldn’t come to an agreement on the new contract,” Schmid says. “I said I want to see what’s out there.”

Out there, some 2,400 miles away, was a rainy city recently granted an expansion franchise. The team had no players but it did have a storied name: Seattle Sounders FC.

So you meet with the ownership group and you feel comfortable. You explore the city and feel a soccer-related buzz. You are aware that in the world of professional sports “expansion” is synonymous with “losing.” Yet you want a new challenge and accept a contract offer.

“You’re always looking for challenges,” Schmid says.

Schmid’s ties to the Pacific Northwest also factored in his decision. Those connections included his younger brother, Roland, who lives in Sammamish.

In fact, when Schmid was introduced to the Seattle-area media in December 2008, he teared up when he mentioned how excited he was to reconnect with his brother. Though 10 years apart in age, the two grew up inseparable in Southern California but hadn’t lived in the same area in 16 years.
Today, Schmid laughs when he’s reminded of the incident. He points out that his tears were the result of thinking about his family in general, including his mother, who died when he was 23.

Growing up German

As the emotional press conference indicated, family is important to Schmid. It always has been. It was family that moved him to the United States from West Germany in 1957 when he was 4 years old. A few of Schimd’s relatives already were living in the U.S. when his father — a German soldier who had been captured in 1944 by allied forces at the Battle of Normandy and held as a prisoner of war in England until 1949 — decided to bring his family to America, too. The Schmids eventually landed in Southern California.

Although the elder Schmid had become fluent in English during his days as a POW, German was the only language spoken in the Schmid household.

“By the time I went to go to school in the first grade, my English vocabulary was not very big, because our next-door neighbors also spoke German,” Schmid says. “So even as kids we would play and just speak German. It was our little German community. So when I started school, at first they wanted to keep me behind because I couldn’t speak English.”

Fortunately, a nun at the Schmid’s school recognized Schmid’s intellect, despite his poor English skills, and pressed for him to be moved to the next grade.

“Eventually, the English caught up,” Schmid says.

As a kid and even well into his adult years, Schmid would sometimes hear people tease him about his German heritage. He says none of it really bothered him. Discrimination that did bother him came later, such as the time in Miami in 1972, when he saw his Ethiopian college teammates refused service at restaurants because they were black.

“That was an eye-opener not everyone gets to experience,” Schmid says. “People saying, ‘Well, you can come in but they can’t.’ Then you go, ‘OK, thanks, and you move on.’”

Being German helped get Schmid involved in soccer, because his mom was the cook for the Los Angeles Kickers, the local German club team.

“When I was 5 and 6, I would go hang in the kitchen and I would see these guys,” Schmid says. “My dad would take me to the games. That got me around soccer. I played a little bit but there weren’t a lot of teams to play on.”

When Schimd was 8, he joined a team of older boys as “sort of a player-slash-mascot. I’d get on the field every once in a while,” Schmid says. Next, he joined an all-Hispanic team in East Los Angeles. A move to the suburbs then kept Schmid away from soccer for a couple years until 1964, when the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) began. Schimd was a player on one of the group’s original four teams. Today, by contrast, there are more than 50,000 AYSO teams.

Schmid’s high school did not offer a soccer team, so he played in AYSO until he was 16. Then he began playing on a regional men’s team.

“That was eye-opening,” Schmid says. “When you’re 16 years old and you’re going to Vegas for a weekend to play on a men’s adult team and your parents are staying at home, you grow up in a hurry, that’s for sure.”

The head coach at UCLA eventually saw Schmid play and offered the midfielder a scholarship. It was a historic gesture: Schmid became the first U.S. citizen to receive a soccer scholarship to Los

Angeles school. He says playing at UCLA, which he did from 1972-1975, was a unique experience. “One of my teammates was a German guy and was a junior. He was 31 when I was 18,” Schmid says. “Four players on our team were Ethiopians who had played in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. It was basically a foreign-based team.”

UCLA qualified for soccer’s Final Four the first three years Schmid was on the team. During Schmid’s senior year, UCLA didn’t advance as far but still had an excellent season. Schmid left the school with his bachelor’s degree in economics, then got his master’s degree in business and eventually became an accountant.

“I had wanted to major in English,” Schmid says, “But my father said, ‘No, that’s not a profession.’”
Schmid became an assistant coach at UCLA in 1977, took a break in 1978, then became an assistant again in 1979. In 1980, he became the school’s head coach.

In those days, being a soccer head coach — even at a major university — wasn’t a full-time job. So Schmid worked as a CPA eight months a year and spent the other four months coaching.

“In those days, even NFL players used to have jobs outside the regular season,” Schmid says. “I remember my first trip as head coach at UCLA, I did the (medical) taping on the road, I was the trainer, I was the coach, I did the laundry. You did everything. I remember telling assistants later, ‘I’m never going to ask you to do anything I didn’t do at some point.’”

In 1984, a phone call at his CPA job ended Schmid’s dual role. “A call comes in and the partner is sitting there as he’s reviewing the books and I’m trying to pretend it’s not a soccer call,” Schmid says. “I get off the phone and he says, “Was that a soccer call?’ I go, ‘Yes, it was.’ And he goes, ‘We need to talk …’”

It was time to make a decision: Would it be soccer or accounting? Schmid approached UCLA and explained his situation. The school responded by make his coaching position full-time. The only issue for Schmid now was financial. The accounting gig paid a lot more than the coaching one.
Still, passion beat pocketbook.

“I gave myself three years,” Schmid says. “If I’m not successful at this in three years I can still go back to accounting.”

It didn’t take three years for success to come. That year, UCLA made it to the Final Four and in 1985 Schmid’s team won the national championship, held in Seattle’s Kingdome.

While still at UCLA, Schmid also began working with U.S. national teams. This, he says, helped him transition to the world of professional coaching. His first pro job came in 1999, when he took over the Los Angeles Galaxy five games into the season after the team’s coach was fired. Schmid was a natural choice for the job, as six of the team’s members had played for him at UCLA.

“Getting used to losing at the beginning was hard,” Schmid says. “I realized I couldn’t take losses as hard as I did at UCLA because there would be a lot more and I would have a cardiac arrest by the time I finished my first year.” That year, Schmid took the Galaxy to the MLS championship game but lost it. Still, he was voted coach of the year.

In 2002, the Galaxy — with star Cobi Jones as team captain — won the championship.

“When the guys jumped over the boards, they were in tears on the field … it was just a great feeling,” Schmid says.

Halfway through the 2004 season, with his team in first place, Schmid was fired. He says it was a matter of a personality clash between him and the team’s general manager. “He made a couple of trades that I didn’t approve of,” Schmid says. “Prior to that, everything in L.A., any trade that happened, I had the final say on it.”

Schmid was out of Major League Soccer for 15 months, until he signed on to coach the Columbus Crew. In Columbus, Schmid inherited a team that had finished last the previous year. He says the challenge of rebuilding the team into a winner was a big reason he took the job. Another reason was to prove he “wasn’t just an L.A. guy.”

He did. In 2008, Columbus won the MLS championship.

Three is a magic number 

In Schmid’s professional coaching life, the third year with each team has been a charm. In year three at Los Angeles, his team won a championship. Ditto in his third year at Columbus.
Now, Schmid is in his third season in Seattle. The team has qualified for the playoffs in each of its first two years. Attendance at the team’s home matches at Qwest Field has been phenomenal, breaking MLS records each year. In 2010, more than 66,000 fans came out to watch an exhibition, or “friendly,” match against a team from Barcelona. That is roughly the same number of people who show up on Sundays in the fall to watch the city’s beloved Seahawks.
Schmid is well aware of the three-year pattern he has fallen into. He also wants to remind people to be patient, and that every situation is different.

“We’re sort of a victim of our own success,” he says. “Because we’ve had such success, the expectations now may be higher than they should be. We’re still a pretty young team. Not only young in terms of ‘together’ as a group but also young in terms of age in key positions. We have to give these guys a chance because we are throwing some of them into the deep end of the pool. We have accomplished more than any expansion team has over their first two years. We still want to accomplish more but we have to be realistic, as well. We also know that if (a championship) doesn’t happen, we’re not going to say that makes everything terrible.”

Now 58 years old, Schmid is the winningest coach in MLS history. Earlier this year, he was given a lifetime achievement award from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. The award is named after one of Schmid’s mentors, Walt Chyzowych. Such awards often are handed out to those whose careers have ended. But Schimd’s still is going strong.

“Losing is what motivates me,” Schmid says. “Winning is what keeps me going.”

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