Sigi Schmidt and the Seattle Sounders: Eschewing the Dream of a Perfect Machine

Yesterday I ranted about Caleb Porter and his deficiencies. For the sake of karmic balance, today I’m practicing gratitude. Seattle is lucky to have Sigi Schmid, a superlative and original coach. Unlike Caleb Porter, Schmidt preaches a bold approach to soccer. The man has no system.

As recently as late last year, I was firmly in the #sigiout camp. The well-worn knocks on Sigi: the game has passed him by, he’s too static, too “my way or the highway.” Many promising players, Mario Martinez for example, were shipped out because they wouldn’t cop to Sigi. And game after game he trotted out either an unoriginal 4-4-2, or squished that shape to a 4-2-3-1.

Good coaches both teach and lead. Most trend one way or the other, but you need both chief attributes. Sigi appears to be a fine teacher, but his leadership was questioned in 2013. Sigi was not in control of the ship last year, and that is damning. The locker room needs an “oh captain, my captain.” The trade for Moffat during the troubles was telling. The front office brought in a “Sigi guy” to repair the fraying bonds of chemistry. It failed, or rather, Sigi’s influence failed. He lost the locker room, seemed out-coached and failed in the quarterfinals for the fourth time in five years.

I consider myself a loyal and grateful supporter, but I wanted Sigi fired. Full disclosure: I’m a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan and I never wanted Andy Reid fired. After all he had done for the franchise, I never understood the thankless barbarians at the gates clamoring for the Birds to can Big Red. As I cut my teeth on the Eagles, my relationship to them has informed my relationship to the Sounders. But at the ignoble end of last season, the tailspin down the table and Timbers playoff series, I became a barbarian hunting Sigi’s job.

In only five games this season, Seattle has shown more shapes than the last five years. Sigi is overthrowing himself completely and proving to be everything we expected back in 2009. Sigi is a man without a system. He has his hallmarks: attack wide, stay stout on D, lob crosses from the flanks, but he doesn’t have a “blueprint.” Sigi is a throwback. He builds his teams from the inside out, like a solar system. He builds his teams around the strengths of his players, whether its Fredy, Nkufo, Eddie or Dempsey.  He identifies the players with most gravity and shapes a team to revolve around them. Never is this more apparent than this season.

Give Sigi any eleven guys and he’ll build a fine soccer team because he’s never pouring players into a prescribed mold. Of course there are problems to this approach. Build a team around Dempsey and suffer when he’s suspended, injured, or called-up. But on balance, I feel the benefits far outweigh the negatives. Our team is unpredictable and plural. An opponent can never attack the Sounders the same way twice. And when we shape-shift, teams become reactive to our will. We switched from the 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 late on Saturday and strangled Portland.

In sharp contrast to Sigi, Caleb Porter has system. He runs it well, tweaks it at times, but is married to it. RSL is the best example of a system team. Like Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, RSL know their game plan, you know their game plan, and they dare you to stop them executing. The theory being that once your system is firing, no one should be able to stop you. More often they not, RSL are firing. Portland wants to be this type of team.

I used to want a system. But systems are theories, ideals that live in coaches’ minds and grease boards. They fail without the right players fulfilling their roles. How effective would RSL’s diamond be without Morales and Beckerman? Andy Reid had his famous binder of plays, the tome of his lovely system. But during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles, he was forever on a casting call. He scoured the nation for players to fulfill his dream of a perfect machine. Reid failed repeatedly in the playoffs until he found the big play receiver his machine needed. After TO left, the team suffered. DeSean Jackson finally replaced TO, but then McNabb was traded. In theory Reid should’ve won many championships, but in reality he never found the right players.

I’m starting to fall for Sigi’s agile concept of team building. Every season we may take a while to find ourselves, as Sigi uses the first two months to tinker and craft. I used to feel this was a weakness, but it is a strength. We are built organically and grow stronger as we bond. We eschew the dream of a perfect machine because we win with men.

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