Brian Schmetzer's memories of his first World Cup are clouded by time, by youth, by perspective that has grown as he has climbed the ranks of American soccer, first as a player, then as a coach, most notably guiding his hometown Seattle Sounders FC to two MLS Cup championships and — the first U.S. team to win in the modern era — this year's CONCACAF Champions League title.
Schmetzer, 60, the son of German immigrants, grew up playing for teams coached by his father, Walter, who took the Lake City Hawks to West Germany during the 1974 World Cup. His most vibrant memory wasn't of his ancestral land's title-game upset over Johan Cruyff and the Netherlands' marvelous “Total Soccer.”
“That was when East Germany and West Germany were separate countries,” he told Soccer America during a conversation Tuesday about the World Cup in Qatar. “And so we're kicking the ball around in my father's hometown [Niedernhall, in Baden-Württemberg], you know, kind of a city square. “East Germany upset West Germany, 1-0 [in a first-group-stage game]. And we're kicking the ball around.
“And all of a sudden, this man from the second story opened his window and threw his TV out the window. And as 12-year-old kids, we're going, 'Holy smokes, what's this crazy guy doing?' And we had to ask our parents and, you know, later in life, I could reflect on that moment and just the passion, the competitiveness, passion, whatever you want to call it, between sporting countries, sports in general.
“It was a pretty pivotal, pivotal moment in my life about understanding how important sports is to a lot of people.”
Schmetzer has lived that passion ever since, as a youth with those Lake City Hawks teams, 15 years as a professional player and 24 years as a coach, with the Sounders since 2002. His memory of the '74 championship game is spotty.
“We were a little bit too young,” he said. “I know we visited the Munich stadium, like, two days after the final. We got a tour and somehow were able to stand there as people were still cleaning up cups and things. And that's what I remember. But I still have those books for each Cup, where you could put stickers of players and teams and stuff like that. I always go back and read through some of those teams and memories.”
Schmetzer, who was a month or so shy of his 12th birthday while in Germany, played alongside Kazimierz Deyna, the star of Poland's third-place team in 1974, for three seasons with the indoor San Diego Sockers. Deyna finished third, behind Cruyff and West Germany captain Franz Beckenbauer in the Ballon d'Or vote in '74.
“I learned a lot from him. And he was a great man,” Schmetzer said. “That was an interesting little touch point, that I watched him play back in '74, then actually got to play with him.”
Schmetzer shared his thoughts on the tournament in Qatar, the United States' performance, Concacaf's struggles, the teams and players that most impressed him, and some of the trends and storylines that have emerged the past few weeks.
SOCCER AMERICA: What been your take on this World Cup? What stands out to you?
BRIAN SCHMETZER: I don't know, you can talk about the African countries doing really well. You can talk about the whole public narrative of the U.S. team. You've got Germany being ousted. You've still got the favorites, France and Brazil [in the quarterfinals]. I don't know if Argentina has enough, but [Lionel] Messi is a good story. I was just watching the Portugal [romp over Switzerland], and what a big decision for the coach to insert a young kid [Gonçalo Ramos, in place of Cristiano Ronaldo], and he delivers -- and the reception that Ronaldo got [when he came on in the 74th minute]. There are just so many storylines in the World Cup, so many good ones — well, bad ones if you're Spain or Germany.
SA: It's one of the most exciting World Cups I can remember.
BRIAN SCHMETZER: I would 100 percent agree. I can't remember all the games back in Brazil [in 2014], but I think some of these games have been tremendous.
SA: How do you gauge the U.S. performance and how do we determine success for the U.S. at this point?
BRIAN SCHMETZER: Well, what I would say to that is I'm firmly on the side of Gregg [Berhalter] and the team and a positive narrative. I think we have a tremendous young team, a bunch of talented kids. There are some older senior guys on there, as well. I don't want to exclude anyone, but certainly enough was made of the age of some of the players that were taking considerable minutes and also performing at a high level. And what I would say is since we missed the last World Cup, I use this as a learning curve for [Yunus] Musah or some of the really young kids, and I think there was something out there. [Christian] Pulisic will be 27 when 2026 rolls around, the prime of his career, so he'll have more experience.
Overall, I thought that the expectations were almost met, because, look, was there a way to maybe get a better game out of that [clash with the] Netherlands? I thought that ended a little bit in a dud just because of the way we gave up the goals. Because we're pretty stout defensively throughout the the group games, and then to have those couple of lapses. You cannot make those types of mental mistakes against any team in a round of 16 and the World Cup.
SA: Holland was clinical. I like that we play with an aggressive approach that we've not seen from the national team, not against these kind of teams, but it bit us in that game.
BRIAN SCHMETZER: It did, but if Pulisic scores that goal in the first 10 minutes, then maybe it's a different game. So that's sports. That's the beauty of our game, our sport, sports in general. You never know what's going to happen on any given match day.
SAA: If he scores or if we take care of other opportunities we had — we had at least four good chances — it's a different game. It's not the national team's job to create talent, but to take the talent that's there and to put together the best team. Can we not come up with a No. 9 [center forward] who can play at this level? Is that something we should focus on?
BRIAN SCHMETZER: I don't know how you focus on that, because I'm sure a lot of resources have been put into that position throughout the youth national team camps and all the way down to the grassroots level. I mean, what 8-, 9-, 10-, 11-year-old kid doesn't like to score goals? You always ask players, 'What did you play when you were playing U-10 soccer?' 'Well, I played striker, coach, because I like to score.' So that's an interesting conundrum.
I think that was the obvious answer, that was our Achilles' heel. For 2026, we need to sort that position out and who that is and who's going to write their name in the history books like the kid from Portugal today.
SA: Which U.S. players most impressed you?
BRIAN SCHMETZER: I like Musah. I think he's really super-talented. [Weston] McKennie, maybe he's got a little bit of showman in him, but that suits his personality. Obviously, Christian did well. Matt Turner, some shaky moments, but some good saves. That's another great storyline, a kid that really didn't start playing organized soccer till much later in his life. What a great story that is.
I thought Timmy Ream was very, very impressive. The old guy kind of coming through in the clutch when needed. Jedi [Antonee Robinson], the left back, I thought he could have been arguably one of our most influential players. Maybe not the best, but influential. I thought he had a really good tournament. The future looks really good.
SA: I thought Tyler Adams was our best player through the course of the tournament.
BRIAN SCHMETZER: Yeah, I like Tyler. I thought he was good. Steady. Put out a lot of fires. But that [first goal by Holland, in which he loses Memphis Depay in midfield and isn't in position for the pass] puts a little blemish on that performance. I mean, he knows better.
That was something that I found interesting, if you want to talk tactics about that last game. The U.S. and its 4-3-3 and Adams as the lone pivot with creative No. 8s or 10s, whatever you want to call them, that push higher up the field, he's got to cover a lot of ground. So [he's not at] that area top of the box. I don't know if Holland, if [Louis] van Gaal saw that in any of the previous games, but maybe they figured that out. Maybe those passes back to the penalty spot were by design.
SA: How about Gregg Berhalter? What'd you think of his performance?
BRIAN SCHMETZER: I love Gregg's performance. I thought he did well, other than he needs to stop throwing the ball back to the team. ... Look, I'm a Gregg supporter. I think he does a good job. Is he an accomplished World Cup coach? No. But just as much as we talk about the narrative of some of these players gaining this experience in this environment, Gregg is going to do the same. He's a really smart coach. And so four years from now, if the decision is made and he gets to take the next cycle, this experience that he had here is going to help him be a better coach.
I understand the criticism. Look, I totally get it. That's the job we're in. But I thought overall, he did a good job.
SA: I've covered the L.A. teams for years, and the two best captains I've covered have been Gregg with the Galaxy and Jesse Marsch with Chivas USA.
BRIAN SCHMETZER: There you go. There's your two front-runners for coach of the 2026 U.S. national team.
SA: I take it you'd support Gregg for another cycle?
BRIAN SCHMETZER: Yeah. I would go on record with that.
SA: It's wasn't a great tournament for Concacaf, but we saw some good performances within that.
BRIAN SCHMETZER: Yeah, Mexico was a disaster. You know, Costa Rica ... it was a little underwhelming, I would say, for our region of the world.
SA: Was that just one of those, you know, the cycle is what the cycle is? Canada certainly is young. And I think losing Maxime Crepeau certainly showed in their last game. This wasn't a great Mexico team and it wasn't one of the better Costa Rica teams.
BRIAN SCHMETZER: I had high hopes for Canada because that first half of that first game against Belgium, they were good, they were fearless, they were playing up-tempo, and then they just kind of fell apart.
And then the comments that [John] Herdman made to Croatia — I mean, you know that's a hot mic, you are in the spotlight, everything you say is going to be recorded and dissected. Certainly that was locker-room material. But Canada was another good one. I had high hopes for them, and that was a little underwhelming for their performance.
SA: Hopefully, we'll see better from them in four years. I think we will.
BRIAN SCHMETZER: I'm not saying that I'm not on Canada's bandwagon. I actually agree with you very highly that, you know, Canada has a bunch of good young players there and [they will grow from] the experiences they had. When was the last time they were in the World Cup? 1986? Long time ago.
SA: Your thoughts on the tournament as a whole? The schedule was bit compressed, there was little time for preparation for most of the teams, and we're playing at a weird time of year. How much impact did that have on some of the results that we saw in the group stage?
BRIAN SCHMETZER: I don't know. I'd have to do some more study before I make an educated comment on that. But what I'm keen on is kind of a reboot of some of these leagues after that tournament. Some of those players are going to be trashed and they're going to be they're going to be exhausted. So how do those leagues start up again?
This is an interesting kind of one-off, I guess you would call it. And we won't have that problem in 2026. It'll be a well-run tournament. And hopefully everything goes back to normal.
SA: Another thing I see in this tournament is that with the change in the substitution rules and a larger roster, it seems that the way teams approach games has changed as well. You know you've got five subs, and although the game is going to dictate how you how you do things, you can make plans with substitutions that you couldn't make when you only had three.
BRIAN SCHMETZER: Exactly. And you could say that's one of the silver linings from the whole Covid situation. I like that rule. I like the rule in our league. I think it gives coaches more tactical flexibility. It gives more players opportunities to play; youth development is bandied about all the time here in MLS. With three subs, you're putting guys in just to win games. With five, you get a little extra flexibility there. I'm in favor of keeping that that rule in place.
SA: We've also seen a lot of stoppage time. How do you feel about that interpretation?
BRIAN SCHMETZER: Now that's an interesting storyline. Some 10, 11 minutes of stoppage time, I think, is a little excessive. But I don't know what the referees were were charged with, how they saw the games. Obviously, the goal celebrations are longer for World Cup games, the players celebrate a little bit more.
SA: Are there times when — in an MLS game, for instance — we are not given enough stoppage time, that celebrations and things like that are not taken into account?
BRIAN SCHMETZER: No, the biggest pet peeve that I have with MLS's is somehow getting the rules to change just about the speed of play during the flow of the game, not the goal celebrations. I love the goal celebrations. I think that's critical to our sport. I love when guys are happy. That's a touch point for the fans.
When a keeper takes 45 seconds for every goal kick, when the ball goes out of play and they just saunter over there, or the guy that knows he's going to be subbed off and so he walks to the opposite side of the field and then [takes longer to leave the field] — some of those rules I would clean up and add to stoppage time in those circumstances. But I like the goal celebrations. I think I think those are great.
SA: Which teams have have you been most pleased with? Which ones have you most enjoyed watching?
BRIAN SCHMETZER: Well, I've been on record that my team is France, that I thought had the best chance of winning. I think they are tremendous. They have experience. This could be the first back-to-back in quite some time. [Ed: Brazil in 1958 and 1962 was the last.] I enjoyed this Morocco team, some of the freedom that they played with. You know, the Netherlands, Argentina, Croatia. Japan was fun to watch. Senegal was fun to watch. There are plenty of teams that I enjoyed watching, but France is the favorite in my eyes.
SA: How about players? Who have you liked the most?
BRIAN SCHMETZER: I don't know if I know all of the players or would rank them, but all the big stars are certainly shining on the biggest stage. Plus you get the young kids, like today, the Portuguese kid [Goncalo Ramos, photo above]. I enjoyed that storyline. And when Ronaldo got subbed on, the fans were there to see him and he had that smile on his face. And Messi's swan song. Some of these players that have done it at the highest level for so many years, I always want to see how those guys retire with grace and dignity and the respect they've earned through their play. But I also like the young up-and-coming kids, the ones that are going to keep our sport going.
SA: It seems like there's growing parity, in terms of who can compete leading toward at least the semifinals?
BRIAN SCHMETZER: Yeah, for sure. I mean, if you look at some of the big teams that have been [disappointments] — look, without even talking about Italy; they didn't even make it. And then Germany out and some of those others [such as Belgium and Spain]. I think there is parity. More and more African-born coaches are coaching their respective national teams, which I think is great. So the African contingent is going well. I think there is more parity, for sure.
SOCCER AMERICA: As the son of German immigrants, you had to be rooting for them. How disappointed were you or did you like the way they played, just not the results?
BRIAN SCHMETZER: Germany? Um, no, not necessarily. I'm firmly in the U.S. camp, No. 1. And then the French is just my pick. But some of the other teams that I get excited about are some of the younger, dynamic teams that play with no fear. I like some of those teams.
Germany, they are a good team. I just don't know why they fell short against Japan. Were they prepared or overconfident? I don't know. I thought some of their performances were OK, but they just didn't seem to have the mojo ... they just didn't seem to have any real excitement and flow in their games.
SA: This is an odd World Cup, in so many ways, and politics have played a huge role leading into and during the tournament. Some have suggested that part of what hurt Germany against Japan was wanting to make a statement about human rights. We've seen a political storyline in several other aspects, as well. How does that color this World Cup, the political side of playing in Qatar.
BRIAN SCHMETZER: I'm not as up to date. I mean, I read the headlines. I know there were human rights abuses. I know Seattle, we pride ourselves on being a forward-thinking club, all of that. But I would be remiss to really comment until I knew all of the details. But your question about how do the teams show solidarity, from not singing the national anthem to armbands and yellow cards, yeah, I think there was some distraction there.
Look, politics is everywhere. It's not just in the World Cup. It's in other sporting events in soccer and it's in other sports around the world. The Olympics obviously has a history of a lot of protests. And so the challenge is how do you keep the sport separated from the politics. There's a lot of people that say that's impossible, that our world has changed too much and that's too naïve. Where I'm probably leaning a little bit more towards the let's keep the sport [separate], but that's a challenge.
I wasn't in the locker room, why Germany decided to do what they did. Did that affect the outcome of that game? Could be. You never know. Margins are small, you know? Get distracted for one second and things happen. Bad things happen.