TUKWILA — The questions swirled in Sigi Schmid’s mind. His team had been knocked out of the playoffs by its archrival, culminating an epic collapse and the most excruciatingly frustrating season in Sounders FC history.
His job was on the line.
What could I have done differently? What could I have done better?
The introspective look came while ownership deliberated and, eventually, decided to retain him as coach for a sixth season. The way things ended in 2013, though, things were going to have to change, so Schmid started with himself.
“You can never stagnate,” said Schmid, who is entering the last guaranteed year of his contract. “The moment you stagnate is the moment you go backwards.”
Simply put, that is something the Sounders can’t afford after another season without a trophy or MLS Cup appearance. More accurately, that is something Schmid can’t afford if he is going to keep his job.
Add that pressure to the fragility of what some might label a rebuilding year, as more than a dozen new players are on the roster, and this looks to be a defining chapter for the future of the franchise.
The Sounders open their season today at home against Sporting Kansas City.
Rebuilding year? Those don’t happen with the title-hungry Sounders.
“We’re Seattle. We’re unconventional,” Schmid said. “We weren’t a conventional expansion team and … we’re not a team that’s going to rebuild.
“We felt we needed to make some moves and change some things as we approach the game, but our expectations aren’t any less. I know that puts a lot of pressure on the players, it puts a lot of pressure on myself and the rest of the staff, but that’s the way we like it. We’re always going to try and achieve the best.”
Schmid has to be on the hot seat already. At least that’s been a popular narrative leaguewide in previewing the 2014 season. Conventional wisdom, of course, dictates that a coach nearly fired four months ago won’t get a very long leash.
To others, overemphasizing the first couple months after such sweeping roster changes — not to mention the absence of superstar Clint Dempsey in preseason — seems misguided.
John Strong, the voice of NBC Sports’ coverage of MLS, agreed with the Sounders’ decision to retain Schmid, and feels the pressure falls more on the season as a whole.
“I certainly don’t think Sigi Schmid can afford another season of missing expectations and falling short and having those issues,” Strong said, “but Seattle is one of those teams that has a front office that seems very mature, very smart and very forward-thinking — not the type of group that’s going to make a panic change midseason.
“Unless you have a coach that has completely lost the locker room, and it’s obvious that he’s the only problem, rarely does that spark a renaissance that everyone assumes it will.”
There is an option year in Schmid’s contract for 2015 triggered by the success of this season, but does having a coach in the last guaranteed year of his deal diminish authority with the players?
“I don’t think about it that way,” Schmid said. “The players are responding and are training hard and are working hard, so unless that becomes an issue, that’s something for management to look at.”
“Not at all,” added veteran defender Zach Scott. “I didn’t realize that, and I’m pretty sure if you ask the guys, 90 percent have no idea what his contract situation is.”
Some changes to Schmid’s approach have been obvious. Scott said the coach is “really putting his foot down” so far this season when it comes to team structure and discipline.
The culture in the locker room, many levels of the organization have repeated for months, needed to improve after the 2013 meltdown.
“It wasn’t any one thing in particular, but things slid a little bit, where some team rules weren’t maybe as enforced as they were the year before,” Scott said. “Maybe people had a little too much freedom.”
Assistant coach Brian Schmetzer added: “We’re trying to tighten up the ship a little bit.”
A more subtle change to Schmid’s coaching plans came after his postseason self-evaluation, and it relates to his relationships with players.
Looking back, he noticed he would sometimes delegate discussions with players to his assistant coaches — a strategy that could come at the cost of understanding more about his players’ lives. This year he wants to go back to his roots and embrace an interpersonal style he held as a championship-winning coach at UCLA.
“I always thought that was my strength as a coach,” Schmid said, “and as you get older, you’re like, ‘Ah, they don’t want to talk to me. I’m 60 now and they’re like 22. What do they want to talk to their granddad for?’ But it’s not like that.”
Schmid stressed this wasn’t a revolution of his coaching style. He likened it to slightly adjusting the bass and treble on a radio to get the perfect mix.
“You always have to coach from the base point of your personality and you never make radical changes,” Schmid said. “You just enhance things.”