The last time we connected was just six weeks ago. Sigi e-mailed me about an interview I did with Lothar Osiander, who praised Schmid when we spoke about Osiander’s years as U.S. national team coach.
“Sigi Schmid was my guy in Southern California,” Osiander said. “Even during the college season, he let me take his players. The UCLA guys were solid.”
Said Schmid of Osiander: “He was a great mentor, because he allowed you to feel and understand that every day on the soccer field was a great day. His enthusiasm inspired me to become the coach I became. I will be forever grateful.”
In the hours since the news broke that Schmid died on Dec. 25 at the age of 65, there has been an outpouring of tributes from so many in the soccer community who were grateful for Schmid’s influence. The list of outstanding players who played for Schmid – at UCLA, the Los Angeles Galaxy, Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders and U.S. national teams -- is a very long one, and large is the number of those who launched coaching and managerial careers of their own.
One of them is Brad Friedel, who broke into the U.S. national team program when Osiander was preparing for the 1992 Olympics.
“I remember when Lothar called prior to an Olympic team training camp in Southern California,” Schmid said. “He said, ‘Sigmeister, I need a goalkeeper for the camp. You know anyone?’ I said I have this kid but he has not played a game yet, but I think he is pretty good. His name is Friedel. Osiander says, ‘I like the name, send him down.’ And the rest is history.”
That I didn’t get on the field unless we had a massive lead allowed me to take notes while on the bench. And after the game, I’d shed my warmups, throw on a neutral sweatshirt, and interview the opposing coach. My coverage of Cal’s 2-1 upset over Schmid’s powerhouse Bruins got noticed by the editors at Soccer America Magazine and I was invited to write free-lance articles for the Berkeley-based weekly.
After I went full-time at Soccer America, my first trip was to cover the UCLA Classic in 1987, at which the Bruins faced Notre Dame and Indiana. Schmid and his staff made me feel like I was covering a World Cup, and between games I enjoyed soccer conversations with Schmid, which were always entertaining and enlightening. As anyone who had the pleasure to talk soccer with Sigi knows.
I also learned that we had some things in common. We both arrived in the USA from Germany with our families at age 3. In his case, a decade earlier. Both of our fathers encouraged our soccer playing and became referees. And we had similar role models.
I told Sigi that I used to pretend to be Gerd Mueller. Sigi said, “I thought I was Wolfgang Overath.”
When I mentioned that Overath was left-footed, Sigi said, “I wasn’t left-footed. But it forced me to work on the wall with my left foot to emulate him and improve. He used to roll his socks down not fold them, so I rolled my socks down also. Also, long passing became my thing.”
Schmid, a midfielder, played in three college final fours with UCLA. He coached youth soccer and earned his living as an accountant, even after he became UCLA head coach in 1980.
“I worked as an accountant from September 1978 to August 1983,” he said. “I was assistant coach of UCLA in 1979 and became head coach in 1980. I worked at UCLA from August through December and accounting the other months.”
He said that if he didn’t win a national title within three years after giving up his accounting job, he would quit coaching and return to his original day job. Two seasons later, he guided UCLA to the 1985 NCAA title. He won again in 1990 and 1997, and in 1999 left UCLA to become the LA Galaxy head coach.
He won the 2002 MLS Cup with the Galaxy, the 2008 MLS Cup with the Columbus Crew. After eight seasons with the Seattle Sounders that included four U.S. Open Cup titles, and a short stint with Galaxy in 2017-18, Schmid was the winningest coach in MLS history with a 240-183-125 regular-season record over 19 seasons.
Schmid also served as an assistant to Bora Milutinovic on the 1994 World Cup team and was head coach of the USA at the 1999 and 2005 U.S. U-20 World Cups, taking both teams to the knockout stage.
When Schmid’s second stint at the Galaxy came to an end last September, I got a text from a longtime friend of mine who lives in Seattle. John Richardson, my high school teammate in Hawaii, played at Seattle Pacific and then became an assistant coach to Cliff McCrath in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
John shared this with me about Schmid:
"I saw Sigi a couple years ago at a restaurant. I introduced myself and told him I was assistant coach for Cliff and we played UCLA.”
It was a “Night of Champions” exhibition game in 1986 in Seattle in front of 3,100 fans between the 1985 Division I winners UCLA and DII champs Seattle Pacific.
“He sat next to me and we chatted for 45 minutes,” said Richardson. “The guy was unbelievable. He acted like I was his best friend. And his memory of the game was so wildly accurate -- he knew the names of guys on our team like it was yesterday. Class guy and brilliant mind."
I mentioned the story to Grant Clark, the Seattle Sounders Director of Team Administration, who also captained Schmid's UCLA teams in the early 1980s and served as an assistant to Schmid at UCLA.
“If you were interested in soccer and had a chance to talk to Sigi,” Clark said, “there’s a real good chance you’d end up becoming friends.”
Clark also recalled the first time the Seattle Sounders traveled to Columbus to play the Crew, which Schmid had left after winning MLS Cup 2008:
“Sigi told the staff we all needed to go to the pub where the Crew fans hung out. A bunch of us went, and Sigi bought rounds for the Crew fans and they shared stories back and forth and had a great time.”
Besides leading the Crew to an MLS title, Schmid’s work in Columbus demonstrated just how dedicated he was to growing the sport and creating a soccer culture.
After noticing that the Crew’s three fan groups sat in different sections, he was told it was because they didn’t get along –- so he called a meeting.
Ten members of each fan group came in, and Schmid brought players Danny O’Rourke, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Frankie Hejduk and Alejandro Moreno.
“So we had Frankie, Mr. Surfer Dude, Danny O’Rourke, as red neck and Republican as they come,” said Schmid. “You had the well-educated Moreno. Guillermo is talking about what the fan support is like at Boca Juniors.
“We said, ‘If we can all figure out how to get along, you can all figure out how to get along.’ They agreed how to make room to hang their various flags. From then on, we had this fantastic corner section of fans. Even when the stadium wasn’t full, we had great support … that corner group created a fantastic atmosphere.”
Every Thursday Schmid and team doctor Scott Johnson would go to the pub where the “Hudson Street Hooligans” hung out for an hour or so and created a “pre-game” talk with the fans.
“We did it because the fans are the lifeblood of the club,” Schmid said.
Each week, Schmid would meet with the sales staff for an hour to see if they had any questions about the team. He might not be able to tell them exactly what player move the team was going to make, but he made them feel more connected to the team.
“He was genuinely a warm guy,” said Clark. “He was so positive and above all he loved coaching soccer, loved his players, and loved talking soccer. It’s amazing how many people he connected with in American soccer.”
And I am thinking how fortunate I was to be among them. And I’m recalling my 2009 interview with Sigi about AYSO and grassroots coaching -- at a time when for years he’d been immersed in the pro game. When we finished the conversation, he told me how much he enjoyed talking about the youth game with me.
And I’m re-reading our email exchanges. The last one ends with Sigi writing, “Stay in touch.”
I, like so many others, wish that I could. But we can, like Sigi did, keep appreciating that every day on the soccer field is a great day.