The Genius Next Door
By Jon Paul Morosi
Special to FOX Sports
Nick Saban was born and raised in West Virginia. Gregg Popovich graduated from high school in Merrillville, Ind. Bill Belichick grew up in Maryland, where his father worked as an assistant football coach at the U.S. Naval Academy.
The roots of America’s contemporary coaching icons rarely come up in assessing their legacies. The biographical details are footnotes, rather than landmarks.
Brian Schmetzer is the exception. The success of his soccer life in Seattle can be measured in trophies won and youth clubs founded.
Brian Schmetzer has brought two MLS Cups to his hometown, and he'll try to add a third Saturday night in Columbus. He has taken Seattle to four MLS Cups in the past five seasons.
Over Schmetzer’s four and a half seasons as head coach of his hometown Sounders, the club has become one of the most consistent winners in American professional sports. Schmetzer, 58, can claim a third MLS Cup on Saturday (8:30 p.m. ET, FOX) against the Columbus Crew; Bruce Arena, with five, is the only coach to win more than two.
The Sounders are in the MLS Cup for the fourth time in five seasons. D.C. United are the only other MLS club to do so, having reached the first four finals from 1996 to 1999, and success is harder to sustain in today’s larger, more competitive MLS.
Win or lose Saturday, Schmetzer is presiding over a dynasty. And he’s doing so in a way that the likes of Saban, Popovich, and Belichick can’t match: He's linked to the sport’s cultural foundation in the city where he’s coaching, because he grew up playing on those fields, too.
Schmetzer can be described, correctly and uniquely, as a grassroots professional sports coach.
“And there wasn’t a lot of grass in the beginning,” laughed Peter Fewing, one of Schmetzer’s many friends in the Seattle soccer community. “It was dirt. There wasn’t a lot of glamour back then, but he did the work.”
In the video above, Brian Schmetzer describes growing up in Seattle and playing soccer in Lake City, where he met several lifelong friends.
When Schmetzer’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Germany months before his birth in 1962, their sport made the journey with them. Brian’s late father, Walter Schmetzer, was a machinist by trade and high-level amateur soccer player in his home country. Walter coached youth teams in Seattle, including Brian’s Lake City Hawks, whom he brought to West Germany during the 1974 World Cup.
“We were 12, 13 years old, and we’d never gone on a long plane trip overseas,” Schmetzer said Thursday in an interview with FOX Sports. “We got to play against some smaller teams. That was when East Germany and West Germany were still separate. In that World Cup, East Germany beat West Germany. We were all playing down in the street, and some man threw his TV out the window. We were like, ‘Whoa.’ This was the craziest thing we’d ever seen.
“After that trip, my dad came home and decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to open up a soccer shop in Seattle, because there was no one there selling soccer equipment to all these kids.' "
One year later, Schmetzer’s Sporthaus was born. The store endured for more than four decades before closing in 2017, becoming a hub for the region’s burgeoning passion for the global game.
“I think my dad was one of his first customers,” said Chance Fry, the Bellevue, Wash., native who played professionally with Schmetzer in the 1980s and remains close with him today. “I vividly remember saving up my money to buy the 1978 World Cup shoes. His dad was a fantastic guy, always super positive. The shop was known as this small little place in Lake City where you could get good shoes.”
Brian turned pro with the North American Soccer League incarnation of the Sounders after his 1980 graduation from Nathan Hale High School on the city’s north side. (Another Seattle legend — Macklemore, who is now a member of the Sounders ownership group — would attend the same school two decades later.)
Schmetzer was head coach of the Sounders in the United Soccer League from 2002 through 2008. When the club was reborn as an MLS expansion franchise in 2009, Schmetzer became an assistant to Sigi Schmid; he remained in that role before replacing Schmid as head coach following the team’s poor start in 2016.
"Just being able to play for your hometown team, for him to coach his hometown team, it’s something super special and unique,” said Sounders forward Jordan Morris, the Mercer Island, Wash., native who has spent his entire MLS career with the club. “He’s a guy that’s rooted in the community, does a really good job, and understands the importance of community and the importance of the fans in our success. I think he’s done really, really well with that."
Jordan Morris, who grew up in Mercer Island, Wash., describes what Schmetzer means to the Seattle soccer community, in the video above.
Thus, Schmetzer’s Seattle soccer journey is one of many years and minimal distance. In a Schmetzer biopic, the following scene concepts could be set in the same 10-mile radius: Son of soccer-loving immigrants. Youth sports star. Teenage professional. Skilled midfielder. Up-and-coming manager. Loyal assistant. Turnaround architect. MLS Cup winner. MLS Cup winner (again). MLS Cup winner (take three, maybe).
Fewing, the Seattle University men’s soccer head coach, works as a television and radio analyst on Sounders games. He has been in social settings when acquaintances of the head coach refer to him as Schmetz.
(Prediction: New Englanders don’t call Belichick The Hoodie when they see him in Boston.)
“He lives in a great neighborhood, a lot of beautiful old homes,” Fewing said. “One of his neighbors told me three or four years ago, ‘I’m always excited when we take the garbage out at the same time. He’s way too normal. He’ll just sit there and talk.’
“He has no idea how much success he’s had. He really doesn’t.”
Schmetzer, in the video above, recalls reaching the “pinnacle” of his career when the Sounders won the 2019 MLS Cup in front of 70,000 fans in Seattle.
Schmetzer’s legend grew again Monday night. The Sounders rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the 75th minute to defeat Minnesota in stoppage time for the Western Conference championship. Seattle’s first goal (Will Bruin) and 93rd-minute winner (Gustav Svensson) came courtesy of Schmetzer’s substitutions in the final 20 minutes.
Watching at home, Fry saw two stories behind the comeback: First, Schmetzer had chosen the correct personnel off the bench, at the right moment. Perhaps equally important, Bruin and Svensson ran onto the field with a complete understanding of their coach’s tactical vision and belief in them.
“I know Will wants to play, just like Gustav,” said Fry, who is executive director of Eastside FC soccer club in suburban Seattle. “They both want to start. But I can guarantee you they’ll take 15 minutes and scoring to reach an MLS Cup, long before they’d want to play on any other team.
Schmetzer's Sounders have always had a flair for the dramatic since he took the helm in 2016 and rallied a struggling squad team to its first MLS Cup. That drama continued in the incredible 3-2 comeback victory against Minnesota in the 2020 Western Conference final.
“I’m sure Brian chatted with them in advance. He’s a great communicator. Sometimes you’re starting. Sometimes you’re not. It’s all about being ready when your number is called. I was really happy for them.”
The portability of Schmetzer’s success has become a popular topic in American soccer circles over the last week. Schmetzer is out of contract after this month, a fact that could have presented the team with an intractable controversy if Schmetzer wasn’t one of the most agreeable people in sports.
Consider this scene after Monday’s comeback win: About 13 minutes into his post-match press conference, Schmetzer was asked about the recent comments from FOX Sports analyst Alexi Lalas regarding whether he could have the same degree of success with another club.
On the subject of his or her future, a sports executive or coach rarely utters more than a terse, perfunctory reply. Schmetzer is different.
First, he laughed.
Then he said, “Thank you for asking the question.”
That’s right: Thank you for asking the question.
If another coach in sports history responded with those six words to a query about an expiring contract, I have yet to find evidence of the phenomenon.
“I don’t need to be in a different state, to coach differently,” Schmetzer said. “Geographically, my coaching doesn’t change. We certainly have confidence as to what we do here, how we do it. That part’s never going to change.”
After Schmetzer matter-of-factly referenced the reactions of his mother and wife to the critique of his coaching, Schmetzer said, “I’m very confident in that coaching staff. I’m very confident with this team that we can go and get one more result, and then let’s just let history decide whether I’m a good coach or not.”
Schmetzer, you see, has the laurels of a great coach — but none of the self-absorption.
That is why many Seattle fans have a hard time imagining Schmetzer coaching elsewhere in MLS — or Europe — unless the financial rewards are too great to resist.
The question isn’t whether he’s capable of winning elsewhere, because he is. The risk of starting over is in what he would leave behind. There is only one city where the soccer fans can tell you where Schmetzer’s Sporthaus used to be, where friends like Fewing and Fry are deeply connected to the team and coach they’ve known for decades.
Case in point: Schmetzer had to sift through a North Pole-level of incoming cheer when he picked up his phone after Monday’s dramatic win.
“Quite a few,” Schmetzer said with a grin, when asked for the text message count. “It took me two days to get to everyone. I like replying to everybody, but it took me two days. ...
"Soccer’s a big city, but it’s a small city. We’ve got lots of friends, lots of soccer people there. It was nice.”
In a scene that is pure Seattle, Schmetzer, center, hangs with two of the Sounders' celebrity owners, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson and his wife, pop star Ciara.
After Saturday, Schmetzer will have plenty to think about in addition to his contract. Home improvement projects await, one vestige of his upbringing.
“The gift of being able to use my hands I got from my mother,” Schmetzer said. “She’s very creative. She does stained glass. She’s an artist. I grew up in the time when, during the summer, you needed a job. My parents always wanted me to work. We were first-generation German immigrants.
“I worked some construction, odd jobs, during my high school years. I like doing it. It gives me some release. We’re in high-stress jobs. Coaching pro sports is a wonderful job. I am very lucky to be part of a really good organization, be coaching, and getting paid for it, but there is stress to it. How do you relieve that stress? I like putzing around in my garage, doing a few projects here and there. That’s actually very good for me, to keep me grounded.”
Fewing laughs at the notion of the Sounders’ iconic coach walking into a neighborhood shop, looking for a hinge to repair a century-old part.
“He’s always working on that house,” Fewing said, and the same is true of his hometown soccer dynasty. It has plenty of character and subtle opportunities to improve. And by Saturday night, he might need to clear a little more space on the mantle.
Jon Paul Morosi is a national baseball reporter for MLB Network and MLB.com. Currently a FOX Sports contributor, he wrote full-time for FOXSports.com from 2009 until 2016.