Brian Schmetzer has proven Seattle Sounders should drop ‘interim’ tag as coach

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Three months ago, most people couldn’t have imagined the Seattle Sounders would be where they are now. In July, they were last in the Western Conference and looked poised to miss the playoffs for the first tine. They fired one of the most successful coaches in MLS, Sigi Schmid, and replaced him with his assistant coach, Brian Schmetzer.

Today, the Sounders can clinch a spot in the playoffs and complete one of the most stunning turnarounds in MLS history. After racing up the standings from last place to a peak of fourth place, the Sounders can guarantee a postseason spot if they beat Real Salt Lake.

Regardless of what happens today, whether the Sounders clinch the playoffs or not, Schmetzer has done enough to earn another season at the helm of the Sounders. His record has been very good at 7-2-4, and he has done it in less-than-ideal circumstances. Schmetzer walked into a dire situation that seemed beyond repair. Morale was low and many Sounders supporters were already looking ahead to next season.

But somehow he managed to find a path to turn things around that seemingly no one knew existed. If his record says anything, it’s that he has earned a chance to show what he can do with a roster that is full in a situation where every game isn’t a backs-against-the-wall must-win.

Nicolas Lodeiro calls out instructions. (Photo by Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s easy to credit the Sounders’ turnaround with the arrival of Nicolas Lodeiro and, to be sure, that is a big part of it. Even back in July, it was apparent that the Sounders desperately needed a No. 10 playmaker to set up the attack and orchestrate the kind of movement that creates goals. Lodeiro turned out to be that missing piece — he has not only helped the players around him get more quality chances on goal, but he is also capable of scoring goals himself.

But Schmetzer has done more than simply plug Lodeiro into the existing game plans. He changed the Sounders’ system to use the Uruguayan correctly and also responded to a steady stream of absences, including Clint Dempsey’s. He moved from a stale 4-3-3 that looked disjointed under Schmid to a 4-2-3-1 with Jordan Morris up top and Lodeiro in behind feeding him service. Not to mention, when Lodeiro was suspended for a match, Schmetzer coped well by having his players push the game wide and use the flanks more — and the Sounders managed to win.

Cristian Roldan, 21, has been having perhaps his best stretch in a Sounders uniform, and it may be due to Schmetzer just as much as Lodeiro. In Schmetzer’s 4-2-3-1, Roldan has dropped a bit deeper defensively where he not only helps the Sounders play out of the back, but he makes more dangerous, dynamic runs into the attacking third. He can do that because Lodeiro helps control the midfield, but Schmetzer made the change. Absences have disrupted it somewhat, but it’s all the more reason the Sounders might want to see what Schmetzer can do with a roster that has fewer holes in it and give him more time to work with young players like Roldan and Morris.

Brian Schmetzer gives his players directions. (Photo by Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Sounders’ coaching gig is perhaps one of the highest profile in MLS and the hire is not a decision taken lightly. The Sounders lead the league in both average attendance and profitability, and so far they have never missed playoffs either. If they wanted to bring in a high-profile coach who has name recognition and experience on the international stage, they surely could.

But Schmetzer is not just some guy they let fill in — he has a long history with the Sounders, starting with when he was drafted by the NASL iteration of the team as a player in 1980. Under the current ownership, he coached the Sounders’ USL team for seven years, winning two championships and two Commissioner’s Cups for the best regular season record, before becoming Schmid’s assistant. He was by Schmid’s side since 2008 until being named the interim head coach in July. There is no questioning the commitment Schmetzer has to the Sounders organization.

Being a head coach of the Sounders first team is not the same as being an assistant or coaching the reserves, to be sure. But while head coaches can often come off as arrogant or deflecting blame, Schmetzer’s post-game comments hint at introspection and eagerness  to solve problems. In Portland, after the Sounders suffered a rare loss since Schmetzer took over, he started his press conference by accepting blame for the first half and vowing to figure out how to avoid a repeat. He stayed true to his word — the Sounders went unbeaten in their next six games, a streak that ended last week in Dallas.

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That loss in Dallas was especially difficult to swallow because even without Osvaldo Alonso, Andreas Ivanschitz, Brad Evans, Nelson Valdez and, of course, Dempsey, the Sounders led much of the match. On the road against the No. 1 team in MLS, the Sounders looked poised to walk away with at least a point until Carlos Ruiz’s 89th-minute game-winner. It was a loss that wasn’t without mistakes from the Sounders, but an encouraging performance given the circumstances.

It’s very possible that what happens today at CenturyLink Field will decide Schmetzer’s fate with the Sounders. There’s no arguing with results and if Schmetzer somehow completes a turnaround that took the Sounders from dead last to the playoffs, the Sounders front office would be remiss to not consider keeping him. But even if the Sounders do stumble against Real Salt Lake, Schmetzer has shown plenty already.

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