Brian Schmetzer on Seattle soccer culture, his family, his mentors and lessons from his playing career

The Seattle Sounders have been Major League Soccer's most successful club since hometown boy Brian Schmetzer  took the reins from Sigi Schmid  about two-thirds through a failing 2016 campaign and guided them on a 12-3-5 run that climaxed with a penalty-kicks triumph at Toronto FC in MLS Cup.

He's taken them back to the title game three times since, with another championship in 2019, and -- after signing a contract extension last month that seemed to take forever -- heads into the preparations for the coming season highly motivated after a stunning 3-0 defeat to Columbus Crew SC in last year's final. It's the closest thing to a dynasty the league has witnessed since the LA Galaxy's Bruce Arena era.

It's a labor of love for Schmetzer, a Seattle native who cheered on the Sounders during his youth, signed with the club -- then in the North American Soccer League -- out of high school, returned for the team's mid-1990s, second-division rebirth, and has been its head coach or top assistant since 2002. In that span, he's won 11 major trophies, including two USL championships and two Commissioner's Shields as the USL's top regular-season side, and 361 games.

Schmetzer is perhaps American soccer's most underrated head coach. He's most understated -- “laid back,” as he puts it -- while his tenure has brought great joy to the league's largest and possibly most passionate fan base.

SOCCER AMERICA: What are your earliest memories of the Sounders?

BRIAN SCHMETZER: You're gonna test me right away with those memory skills! I remember going into Memorial Stadium with my family -- dad, mom, brothers, sister -- and what I remember is on a summer day, the sun would come around, it's got southwest exposure, just people in the stands, you're watching soccer, it was sunny, it's the summer. There was the good atmosphere. I still remember those times being with your family, watching soccer. I got to know Pepe Fernandez, who was, of course, one of the stars of those early '70s teams, the first couple of teams that came out.

Probably the highlight of my early Sounder fandom would be one of my friends had a birthday party, like a 12-year-old birthday party or something, and somehow they were connected or they figured out a way, and the Sounders are doing appearances. So we had four or five Sounder players -- Hank Liotart, Davey Butler, I think Pepe was there. A couple other guys came to our birthday party, and our friend had this big backyard where we all used to kick the ball around, and we were actually playing soccer against these Sounders that we would watch in the stadium on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday afternoon. And that was like one of the biggest highlights in our lives, just being able to, you know, kick the ball around with these pro players.

And I remember watching a couple of games when the Kingdome opened. I was there for Pele's opening of the Kingdome, and that was a massive, massive, giant stadium. And a couple of years later, I was actually training in that massive giant stadium with the Sounders after I got signed. So, you know, a lot of good memories early on about the team and growing up with the pro soccer franchise here in Seattle.

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"I was doing construction. I was coaching a couple of teams for Emerald City, and my brothers and I started doing summer camps again. We did whatever we could to make a living."
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SA: You learned soccer from your father, Walter, a German immigrant, right? Tell me a little about your family.

BRIAN SCHMETZER: Yeah, he was a semipro soccer player in Germany. It was always in his blood, and he started coaching our Lake City Hawks soccer team when we were 6, 7 years old. ... He was the one that got us started. But another fond memory is there was a pretty vibrant ethnic league up here in Seattle in the '60s and '70s. And my dad used to play for Germania. And then they had an English team, they had a Polish team. They had an Italian team. And I would go down to the Interbay and just hang around and watch my dad play men's league soccer, and [I would] kick the ball around on the playing field and just hang out.

My mom, also from Germany, was into it enough that she worked at Schmetzer's Sporthaus for 25-odd years when we started the [soccer equipment and goods] business. She was a great spectator. She's always been one of my biggest fans. I think there are some old home movies of her kicking the ball when I was kicking the ball on the field and stuff like that.

I have younger brothers that are 5 years younger than I am, Andy and Walter, and I have an older sister, Jeanette, who's living in Germany.

Brian Schmetzer (No. 7) with brothers Walter (4) and Andy (12).

SA: Andy and Walter also played professionally. What was it like to have siblings so much younger than you who played? Did you mentor them?

BRIAN SCHMETZER: That's a great question, because, look, five years is a pretty big difference with kids. That's a pretty big chunk of time. So we played soccer in the backyard, but I was always hanging around my buddies. But the one strong memory I have, because they were good players, and so this was when I was playing for the Tulsa Roughnecks, and Wim Suurbier, bless his soul, was coaching. And I asked Wim, I said, “Hey, I got my brothers, can they come out and train for a week,” and Wim let them come to Tulsa, and they trained with us, with Billy Caskey, Victor Moreland, all the team. I think they were 17 at the time. That was a cool experience to have, getting them to actually come and train with the Roughnecks. That was pretty special.

SA: You played with them in the MISL with the Tacoma Stars. That had to be special.

BRIAN SCHMETZER: Yeah, that was great. Unfortunately, it didn't last long. It was great having your brothers on and it was a big storyline up here in the Northwest, up in Seattle, local brothers playing, but my brother Walt actually did his ACL like the third shift he was on. The first time all three of us were on the same field, but his third shift, he did his ACL. So that kind of started the decline of his career. An ACL injury back in the day … the medical progress to get guys back is way different than it was years ago. It didn't last very long, but me and my brother Andy played that whole season. It was great.

SA: Describe the Seattle soccer scene in the 1970s and '80s?

BRIAN SCHMETZER: Well, look, I'm going to come across as biased. But I mean, Mark Peterson, Jeff Durgan played on the Cosmos, Jimmy McAlister. There were a lot of good players that came out of this area. Chance Fry, Billy Crook. There were a lot of guys who were good soccer players from the Seattle/Tacoma area. Back in those days, it was a hotbed of soccer. Obviously, L.A. and California is always a hotbed, and is New Jersey. And nobody paid too much mind to us up here in the Northwest, but our teams were very successful. We produced pro players.

I think it was a great soccer scene up here. Outside of professional soccer, I mean, part of the reason why my parents started the store, the Sporthaus, was because, you could see there were a lot of people playing recreationally and youth soccer-wise in the Seattle/Tacoma area.

Brian Schmetzer with the Seattle Sounders in 1983. (Photo courtesy of the Frank MacDonald Collection).

SA: You signed with the Sounders right out of Nathan Hale High School.

BRIAN SCHMETZER: Well, I didn't know what I was doing. Somebody put a piece of paper in front of me and said, “Hey, do you want to play professional soccer? And we're actually going to pay you.” And I said, “Yeah, of course I will.” I mean, it wasn't a tough decision to make. I didn't really know what I was getting myself into. But it certainly changed my life.

SA: What kind of player were you?

BRIAN SCHMETZER: I was a midfielder in outdoor soccer, left midfield. My true gift, well, two of them: I was left-footed -- left-footers are harder to come by -- and I could run all day. I had good engines. I could get up and down the field. But when it came to indoor, then we had to shift a little bit, and I moved back to become a defender for the latter half of my career.

But I did whatever I could. I played whatever position the coach wanted me to, to help the team be successful. I was always game to play whatever position would get me on the field.

SA: The Sounders folded in '83 and the NASL in '84. And then indoor soccer was king, and you played with the San Diego Sockers, Tacoma Stars and St. Louis Storm in the MISL and Seattle SeaDogs in the Continental Indoor Soccer league. How did playing and coaching the indoor game translate to what you've done as an outdoor coach?

BRIAN SCHMETZER: Well, I think it cemented a couple of things for me, and I'll tell you another story, go a little bit further to your question. I remember one day, this was when I was still coaching the [Sounders'] USL team and Bruce Arena was coaching the national team, I think it was in 2002, '03 or something like that. [Then-University of Washington head coach] Dean Wurzburger had him up in Seattle for a coaching clinic. And I put Bruce on the spot. I said, “Hey, Bruce, if there was one thing, just one thing that makes a difference between the USL level, where I coach, and your level at the national team, what would that be?”

And he rattled this off, didn't hesitate. He said consistent technical ability under pressure. And how that relates to indoor is, look, the field's smaller and your technical ability in the indoor game had to be good or you wouldn't be successful. And so Ron Newman, another guy that I learned some stuff from -- great coach, God rest his soul -- you know, we used to train in San Diego, and every practice there was some component of one touch, and that helped me kind of see the game, speed the game up. It was a little faster, your technical ability, how you pass the ball to your teammates. All of those little things I have kind of used in some of my coaching now for the outdoor game.

SA: You'd retired then as a player, but came back when the Sounders were revived and then played and coached for the SeaDogs for a spell.

BRIAN SCHMETZER: I was in the construction business, just trying to make a living. The rebirth of the Sounders happened in '94 [WSA/APSL], and I played there, and then the SeaDogs came in '95, '96, and we won the CISL championship in '97, our third year.

I was in my mid-thirties, and it's just a way to keep busy and make a few bucks on the side, play with a bunch of local guys -- Chance, Billy, Jason Dunn, Dick McCormick … that first Sounder team back in '94, when Alan Hinton brought us all back. That was fun. Bernie James, you know. That was a good time. And then when the Sea Dogs came into town and Fernando Clavijo, bless his soul, was named the coach, it was a pretty easy move for us. Alan actually let me out of my contract with the Sounders, and I was able to join the Sea Dogs.

Again, that local connection here of a bunch of people from the Seattle area who have been successful in our sport. That was kind of the scene there with the rebirth of the Sounders and the Sea Dogs were around.

SA: After the CISL, you were coaching youth soccer. Had you figured you'd work in construction and coach youth on the side?

BRIAN SCHMETZER: Well, it was by default. I needed a job. I had bills to pay and three kids and all that. I had to make a living. It was tough times back then, I don't make any bones about it. I mean, sometimes retirement for professional soccer players was challenging in many ways. We didn't make enough money to have a big bank account, to start a business or save money or retire or whatever. So we had to work at it.

I was doing construction. I was coaching a couple of teams for Emerald City, and my brothers and I started doing summer camps again. We did whatever we could to make a living.

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"Sigi was the guy with the knowledge. Sigi could remember training sessions, he could remember players, he could remember games, particular plays in a certain game about where he took this tactic and did this and that. Sigi's memory and knowledge of the sport was better than anybody's."
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SA: And then in 2002 you get a call from Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer. Was that the first time you'd met Adrian?

BRIAN SCHMETZER: I love telling this story. I love telling the story because, Adrian was late [to the meeting]. That's why I always give him grief.

No, I didn't know him at the time. He called me and he introduced himself -- “I'm Adrian Hanauer” and “Sounders,” and I really thought for a second that we were going to meet and talk about soccer camps or something. I didn't think he was going to interview me to be the coach of the team.

I told him, “Look, I've got to drop my kids off at school first, can you meet me at the Tully's up by St. Joe's. And, sure enough, when I get there, I walk into the Tully's and Neil Farnsworth was there. He was one of the owners, with Scott Oki, and they were the ones that were the bigger money behind the rebirth of the Sounders in the A-League back in '94.

I knew who Neil was, and I knew he had a son who played, and this, that and the other, and Neil and I start to talk. And I knew right then and there it was more than just soccer camps or something. Then Adrian walks in, and we have a conversation about coaching the team. And it was a good conversation. Obviously, I said some things that they liked ... and that was the start of my coaching career.

SA: Did you feel ready at the time?

BRIAN SCHMETZER: Well, upon reflection, no, I wasn't. But at the time, I remember saying, “Yeah, I can coach.” I was pretty confident in my abilities.

When you reflect on things, how your life took shape and influential people in your life, that first year when I won [USL] coach of the year, we went 23-4-1. I had Leighton O'Brien, I had Preston Burpo, I had Brian Ching, I had a bunch of guys that were really good USL players or A-League players at the time, Viet Nguyen, Scott Jenkins. A bunch of guys from here that I already kind of knew. And so that first year, I would throw the ball out of practice, let them play 7v7 or whatever, and it was easy. Then the next year Brian Ching went to San Jose, Leighton went over to Sweden, and we have to change the roster because we had to cut some players' salaries, this, that and the other, and it was way more challenging.

Now the blessing, the luck, the sheer “this is just the way your life turns out sometimes,” Jimmy Gabriel was coaching at the U-Dub [University of Washington], and he wanted to get back into the pro game. And he came to be my assistant. That was life-changing for me, because we'd go to practice and Jimmy would go, “Hey, Schmetz, why are you doing that?” And I'd have to come up with an answer with a guy that I had a ton of respect for and played for back in the FC Seattle days, and I'd go, “Well, Jimmy, I think I'm doing it because I want to get this out of it.”

And he goes, “Well, have you ever thought about doing this to get the same out of this?” And he started asking me all these questions. And it really got me to think about why we do things, how we do things, what are you actually getting out of the players in these training sessions, and he stayed with me for those first three years, at least three years. And he was the one that really was kind of a mentor for that on-the-field coaching. “Why are you doing this? How are you doing this?” That was really a tremendous help and support for me and my coaching and my young coaching career at that time.

SA: Seven years as Sounders head coach, and then Sigi Schmid was brought in with the jump to MLS. How did be impact your evolution as a coach?

BRIAN SCHMETZER: I think Sigi is the same [kind of mentor], and I might bring Alan Hinton's name into this, because what I learned from Alan was man-management. Alan was a great man-manager and a player's coach. And that's where I get a lot of my stuff there.

Sigi was the guy with the knowledge. Sigi could remember training sessions, he could remember players, he could remember games, particular plays in a certain game about where he took this tactic and did this and that. Sigi's memory and knowledge of the sport was better than anybody's, still to this day. He could remember everything. With those two guys, with Jimmy's foundation of asking questions, and then my upbringing with Alan, and then the final piece of the puzzle was Sigi giving me the experience factor of what MLS is truly like. I couldn't have had better mentors than those three.

SA: You and Sigi have similar backgrounds, as sons of German immigrants and fathers involved in the game, with the difference being Sigi was born in Germany, too. How did that connection solidify your relationship?

BRIAN SCHMETZER: Yeah, it was something that certainly helped. Sigi came up here, and he didn't know me. I mean, I'd met him a couple of times. Sigi wasn't just a great coach. He's a really nice man, really super-nice man, always willing to help. Just generally a nice guy. When I was coaching in the USL and we went down to one of the MLS combines or something, I had asked him, I said, “Can I get a cup of coffee? I got some questions for you. I want to pick your brain about how you deal with certain players.” He said, “Sure, Brian.” And we went down and sat at a coffee shop and talked for a couple hours. And this was, like, in 2004.

So we kind of knew each other. We knew about each other. [His LA Galaxy team] beat us in the Open Cup one time, 5-2, which was a pretty good beating. But certainly the fact that we both had German heritage, we both kind of knew each other, I was from Seattle, he was coming up here. You know, it was pretty easy for us to get along.

SA: Did you feel passed over when they hired Sigi? Would you have liked to have been given that job?

BRIAN SCHMETZER: I have said this countless times: Sigi was absolutely the right hire for this franchise, to start us off. I could have done the job. I have confidence in myself. Yes, I could have started, I could have learned on the job, I could have gotten through. But Sigi had way more experience than I did. It was absolutely the right hire. I did in no way, shape or form feel snubbed at all.

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"I always take the best players that I have and devise a bare bones of a system, and we allow the individual players to exert their expertise, their style, their flair in how the team plays."
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SA: You took over in July 2016 in a difficult situation -- at 6-12-2 -- and the team just took off, and you win MLS Cup. All four trips to the final have come in seasons in which you've had to overcome difficulties. …

BRIAN SCHMETZER: Lots of things that I learned through the four and a half seasons have come on in a large part to some of the experiences I've had with some of my coaches. I had a good staff in 2016. We kept the guys that Sigi had. Tommy Dutra has been my rock, he's been my conscience, the guy that sits on the shoulder, and he bleeds Sounder blue. But then when Gonzalo Pineda came on board, he had some new ideas.

When Djimi Traore came on board, he has a ton of ideas. I brought Preki here with me. He obviously has a strong opinion about how the game is played. I think I've compiled a really diverse staff, and Djimi and Gonzo are in the middle of their UEFA Pro and UEFA A licenses, so they're the fresh views, they're the young coaches that are learning new things, and we incorporate some of those ideas into our training sessions.

Preki's the guy that's the kind of right counterbalance for me, because I'm a little more laid back. I like the guys to enjoy themselves. It's still a game and stuff like that. But Preki really knows how to drive a training session in the right moments. I think my evolution over time has really come from the influence that I have from the staff, and I have to keep an open mind, because you cannot in our sport just do things the same every single year. I think you won't have success if you aren't constantly trying to tweak and adapt small parts of your game.

SA: Four MLS Cup finals, two titles. Which sticks with you: Is it the success, the championships, the joy of that, or do the losses kind of scratch you a little harder?

BRIAN SCHMETZER: Well, right now the loss [in December's MLS Cup] is really eating at me. I felt like we had prepared the team well. We knew Columbus was going to be good, they were the home team. It's always hard to win away from home, MLS Cup. ... It's really hard in our league to win MLS Cup back-to-back. We knew that, we had that experience in '16 and '17. And the messaging about this is going to be hard. This is what they're going to face. It's not easy. No team has done it since a Galaxy in 2011-2012. And we were pushing [our players]. At least I thought we were pushing all the right buttons to get them to perform to their level for that game.

But at the end of the day, credit to Caleb [Porter] and Columbus. I mean, they were better than us on the day. So, you know, right now it's that ache in your stomach that says we didn't perform up to our standard, and that really hurts. But when I take the long view of it and I look back another five years from now or whenever I retire, it's a heck of a run right now. We make it four out of five years, that's an accomplishment. To win two of those four is an accomplishment. I mean, it's really been something special.

SA: You won titles elsewhere, including three with Ron Newman and the Sockers. Do they all feel similar, or is winning MLS different?

BRIAN SCHMETZER: No, they all were great feelings. The teams I was on in San Diego, they were great teams. And this is how I formed my philosophy about mentality and IQ, and I can only bring Brian Quinn into the conversation here. We had Juli Veee, we had Steve Zungul, we had Branko Segota, we had Jean Willrich, we had Fernando Clavijo, we had Kevin Crow. We had tremendous talent on our teams.

But Quinnie was the one who had the mentality of putting everything, every ounce of his being went into head-tennis games, 5v5, practices, games. He was the one that had the mentality to push and persevere.

And then you bring Steve Zungul into it because Steve, at that time of his career, could kind of do what he wanted. He was a big star, so during the regular season: OK, whatever. When the playoffs started, he earned every cent of his money because he was so driven to win championships, and those experiences that I've had are similar with Nico Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan. They gave that same mentality. They have that mentality of winning every single game. Stefan Frei has that same winning mentality. But then I've got stars like Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz and other guys. I mean, they're good. When the game's on the line, when the money players have to step up, I've got that, too.

SA: How rewarding was winning MLS Cup in front of the home fans in 2019?

BRIAN SCHMETZER: I loved just stepping back and enjoying that moment because that was such a tremendous, tremendous moment for the city of Seattle, all the players, all the people from Seattle that have kept soccer going over the years. That was the best Sunday afternoon that I've had in a long time. It was super fantastic.

SA: The Sounders have such incredible support, a fantastic fan base.

BRIAN SCHMETZER: It was tremendous show of support for the team, for our sport. It should prove to all the people that are deciding World Cup venues that Seattle has to be on that list. I mean, we filled out that stadium in less than two hours. The tickets were gone. The march to the match, the thing that we do from Pioneer Square, my brother was there with his wife and some friends. There were so many people there that people were freaking out that they were going to get run over. There were so many people there trying to get to the stage and then march with everybody into the stadium. I've seen some of the aerial shots of that march to the march from Pioneer Square to the stadium, where they came in. I mean, that was a tremendous showing by our fans to support, you know, the players on the team. It just gives me chills every time I think about it.

SA: We've seen the fan culture in MLS change so much in the past decade, we're seeing things like in the rest of the world, and I think the Sounders and its fan culture was the impetus. There were certainly great fan groups in the league from day one, but the tenor has changed, and the Sounders seem like the starting point. The tenor changed, and it has fueled MLS and its growth.

BRIAN SCHMETZER: I would be remiss if I didn't mention Gary Wright. He was a big part of our launch. Obviously, Adrian. Joe Roth, who was in the movie business, all of the super smart people at the Seahawks, because, remember, the first year they combined the Seahawks' and the Sounders' front office. I think there was a lot of work and support to make that launch a success. ... There was always that undercurrent of really diehard soccer fans here in this area, and when MLS came, the [Emerald City Supporters], the group that puts up all the tifo and does all the stuff, I mean, they were ready. It was just the timing of everything just fell into place so nicely. We had a bunch of smart people putting on a good show, MLS was growing, we had the support here, we had the local guys -- real fanatics -- we had people that wanted to see something that were just general sports fans. The team started off that first game. That was a highlight of my career winning that first game against Red Bull. Things just couldn't have been scripted any better.

SA: I've always considered you a pragmatic coach. Since you took over in 2016, first as interim coach, the Sounders have had the best goals-against average in the league by a pretty good margin over everyone except Atlanta United, and then Nashville, but that's just one season. Then you have that dynamic talent in attack and your ability to attack so quickly makes things difficult for opponents. There really isn't another team like the Sounders, not as the league has become more Latin, let's say, in terms of style of play, and that seems to breed success.

BRIAN SCHMETZER: I love the word pragmatic because I think that describes me, or a lot of me. I am very pragmatic. There are systems coaches, and Gregg Berhalter is the first guy on my list. Tremendous coach. Unbelievable what he did in Columbus. Unbelievable what he's doing with the national team so far, knock on wood. He's more of a systems coach. I'm more pragmatic.

My coaching style, I can use Jordan Morris and Victor Rodriguez as a prime example. When Jordan Morris plays midfield vs. when Victor Rodriguez played left midfield, and we had Brad Smith overlapping, it was way different. I mean, it was used totally different the way we played. I am not boxed into one way or one version of how the Seattle Sounders play. I always take the best players that I have and devise a bare bones of a system, and we allow the individual players to exert their expertise, their style, their flair in how the team plays.

People have criticized me about, you know, “Ah, the Sounders don't have a specific style of play” and blah, blah, blah. Well, it's kind of by design. I'm not a systems coach. I pick the best players that I have and try and find a system with obviously a tactical structure that I want. And we're problem-solvers. I think defense wins championships, and I need guys that can think for themselves out on the field. I love smart soccer players. For me, there's a real premium on guys like Cristian Roldan. And one of the reasons why I love Cristian is because he's versatile, he can play out wide, he can play in the middle. What's his best position? Well, Christian's best attribute is that he can adapt and he can figure out ways how to be better than the guy he's playing against in any game, any formation. He's tactically astute.

SA: You've spent most of your career with the team you grew up rooting for. Not many get that opportunity.

BRIAN SCHMETZER: I am very lucky. I say this all the time. I can't remember exactly what I said in 2002 to make Adrian hire me, but he has been a tremendous boss. He's been a really good person. He certainly is passionate and has a similar story, about how his dad took him to the Kingdome and to Memorial Stadium to watch the games.

He was a fan first, but he had the vision to take a USL team, and he saw the MLS coming up. He was the one that did all the heavy lifting to get us into MLS. I mean, he had help, but it was his idea, his dream to get us here. So he deserves a ton of, credit and I thank him for taking a chance on some guy working in construction and having him wait until he dropped his kids off at school before he could meet.

And, you know, the rest is history.

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