Stejskal: Lagerwey on the moment he told Schmetzer the Sounders job was his

Schmetzer, who has been involved with the Seattle soccer scene since joining the NASL incarnation of the Sounders as a player in 1980, took over the team at the most turbulent point in their MLS history and helped right the ship, guiding the team to the playoffs after a brutal start to the season.

Moments after the Seattle Sounders beat Real Salt Lake in the regular season finale to clinch a home playoff game and officially complete their remarkable regular season turnaround, club GM Garth Lagerwey chased down Brian Schmetzer on the CenturyLink Field turf and wrapped him in a big hug.

There was still a contract to work out and an announcement to be made, but Lagerwey wanted to let Schmetzer know where things stood – the Seattle soccer lifer would be the Sounders’ full-time head coach.

“I ran up to him, gave him a big hug and said, ‘You’re my guy,’” Lagerwey, who I worked with at RSL from 2012-2014, told me in a phone interview in the early morning hours on Thursday, shortly after Seattle revealed at their annual Alliance business meeting with supporters that they had officially removed the interim tag from Schmetzer’s title. “I wanted him to know that he had done everything we asked.”

Schmetzer, who has been involved with the Seattle soccer scene since joining the NASL incarnation of the Sounders as a player in 1980, took over the team at the most turbulent point in their MLS history and helped right the ship, guiding the team to the playoffs after a brutal start to the season.

The 54-year-old was elevated from his longtime assistant position to interim head coach when the Sounders parted ways with former manager Sigi Schmid on July 26. At the time of Schmid’s dismissal, Seattle had just 20 points through their first 20 matches and were languishing near the bottom of the Western Conference after a dispiriting 3-0 loss at Sporting Kansas City. The playoffs, which the Sounders had qualified for in all seven of their previous MLS seasons, looked like a distant dream.

In order to get to the postseason, projections showed the Sounders would likely have to average two points per game. Even with reinforcements on the way in star summer signing Nicolas Lodeiro and healthy defender Roman Torres, a turnaround that sudden seemed near impossible.

A little more than three months later, Schmetzer and the Sounders are on the brink of the Western Conference Championship. They rode the arrival of Lodeiro to an 8-2-4 record in Schmetzer’s 14 regular season games in charge, good for an average of exactly two points per game.

They finished the regular season as the fourth seed in the West, dramatically topping Sporting KC 1-0 in the Knockout Round last week before smashing FC Dallas 3-0 in Leg 1 of the Western Conference Semifinal on Sunday night. If they can hold on in Dallas this weekend, the Sounders will move on to the third conference final in club history, with a good shot at advancing to their first-ever MLS Cup.
Sounders radio announcer Matt Johnson asked Lagerwey at the Alliance meeting on Wednesday night why the club decided that now was the right time to promote Schmetzer to full-time head coach.
His response? “Duh.”

Lagerwey expanded on that little bit of eloquence with me on Wednesday night.

“When I sat with Brian after it was announced that he was going to be the interim head coach, I said all we need to do is double our output,” Lagerwey said. “We averaged one point a game for the first 20 games. You’ve got about three months. If we average two points per game the rest of the way, we’ve got a shot at this thing. And he did it.

“It was an incredibly hard task that he had. It wasn’t just to turn the team around, but he turned it around immediately. And we definitely had some player additions that helped with that, but the key I think was the culture of the club, the history of the club and the legacy of success. I think he thought he had a lot of winners in that locker room and they just had to be harnessed and brought together and pointed in the right direction, and I think Brian did that.”

The Sounders still have plenty left to work for this season, but, for now, Schmetzer’s hiring marks the high point in a wild 2016 for Seattle, who have packed a half-decade of drama into one calendar year.
The team started the year by beating out Werder Bremen to sign US international Jordan Morris to the richest Homegrown contract in league history. Expectations were high – then Obafemi Martinsbolted for China. The Sounders couldn’t replace him. Seattle got off to a brutal 6-12-2 start, culminating with the ugly loss in Kansas City that prompted Schmid’s exit. That same week, Lodeiro arrived. Torres returned shortly thereafter, and things took full flight.

Not even the difficult news in September that Clint Dempsey would miss the rest of the year due to a heart issue could derail the Sounders, who have the biggest lead of any conference semifinalist heading into Leg 2 on Sunday (9 pm ET; FS1, FOX Deportes, FOXSportsGo in the US | TSN2 in Canada).
“You had a crowd [at the Alliance meeting] that was just crazy and delirious with its enthusiasm and support for Brian Schmetzer,” Lagerwey said. “You couldn’t have a guy who’s a better fit for the culture of this club and a better fit for this community. It really was a remarkable evening.”

Now, Lagerwey – who drew parallels between this Sounders team and the RSL side he was a part of that got hot at the end of the season and squeezed into the playoffs before winning MLS Cup 2009 – is hoping for a few more remarkable evenings as the Sounders and Schmetzer continue their postseason drive.

“It’s been tumultuous, it’s been a rollercoaster, it’s been up and down and there were definitely some dark days in there,” Lagerwey said when asked him to describe this season. “Spending four or five months negotiating the Lodeiro deal, knowing that he couldn’t come in the first [transfer] window, knowing that he couldn’t come in the beginning of the second window, then getting it done I think two or three days before the end of the second window. He’s obviously made all the difference for us on the field, but also getting Roman Torres back and healthy and the contributions that Nelson Valdez has made [in the playoffs]… that’s amazing.

“It’s been a really cool season. We went through some tough times and we came out with some positive momentum, but again, we haven’t accomplished our goal yet. Our goal is to win the whole thing.”

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