Sigi Schmid finally met his end on Tuesday, fired after seven-and-a-half seasons in Seattle with his Sounders 21 points behind Western Conference-leading FC Dallas, ten points below the red line, and just one point out of last place.
It was a position that even a manager of Schmid’s stature couldn’t survive – especially not after Seattle failed to register a single shot until the 88th minute on Saturday against Sporting Kansas City in an unforgivably indifferent 3-0 loss.
How’d we get here? Certainly, the Sounders’ sale of Obafemi Martins to China right before the start of the season was a crushing blow. And had Schmid turned just one of his seven playoff appearances with Seattle into an MLS Cup, he still might have the benefit of the doubt and a job today.
But the start of the Sounders’ dramatic descent can be traced back to a single day: June 16, 2015 – the date of the Sounders’ fourth round US Open Cup matchup against the Portland Timbers at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila, Washington.
Until that point, the 2015 Sounders were cruising – one of the best teams in the league, and a good bet to defend their Supporters’ Shield title before taking another shot at MLS Cup.
But that Open Cup game would prove to be the beginning of the end.
Good Timbers teams have always brought out an element of manic self-destruction in the Sounders – Portland fans fondly recall several meetings in the fall of 2013 – but this would go beyond the scope of anything previously imaginable.
Seattle had beaten Portland three times in 2014, including a win at Starfire at this very stage of the Open Cup, but this was a different Timbers team.
Portland took the lead through Diego Valeri just after halftime, and then watched as Brad Evans got himself sent off for an ugly foul on Jorge Villafaña. But Seattle, through Martins, equalized and sent the game to extra time. It’d be the costliest goal in Sounders history.
Martins would be forced off injured after a collision with Darlington Nagbe, and, with Schmid out of substitutions, Seattle went down to nine men.
It was only a matter of time before the Timbers capitalized, and, sure enough Rodney Wallace would score what would be the winner in the 100th minute. But the Sounders wouldn’t go quietly.
Michael Azira got his marching orders for stomping on Gaston Fernandez, after which Clint Dempsey grabbed the referee’s notebook and threw it on the ground – earning a yellow card – and then ripped it in half for a red.
The Timbers would shortly add a third goal. For Seattle, the night ended with six players and a goalkeeper on the field, a group of fans throwing trash onto the field, and Schmid marching off the field before the final whistle after throwing the corner flag and announcing that he felt like he “was going to choke a referee.”
It was a meltdown of truly staggering proportions, and the fallout would haunt the Sounders into August. Most importantly, Dempsey would be suspended for three MLS games while Martins missed two months injured.
The Sounders, crippled for all intents and purposes, would go on to lose their next three games, seven of their next eight, and eight of their next ten.
Seattle scored just four goals over that stretch – which included losses to Colorado, Chicago, and Philadelphia, a 3-0 pasting at the hands of Vancouver, and, most embarrassingly, a 4-1 annihilation by the Timbers in Portland.
Maybe more importantly, the magnitude of the midseason swoon was the impetus for the Sounders’ to make a series of expensive and damaging signings including Andreas Ivanschitz, Roman Torres, Eric Friberg, and Nelson Valdez as a DP forward.
The Sounders did improve once Martins returned to health, recovering enough to make the playoffs, finally knock out the LA Galaxy in the Wild Card game, and come within a whisker of advancing to the Western Conference Finals.
If that didn’t hurt enough, the Timbers – in the playoffs mainly on the strength of a summer run inspired by the Sounders – beat Seattle to win Cascadia’s first MLS Cup.
What’s more, the residual effects of the summer – especially the summer spending spree – would continue to be felt. The Sounders entered the offseason in all kinds of cap trouble, and exited it shorn of a crucial depth and lacking a number ten.
Outside of Friberg, the other three signings have been busts. Torres tore his ACL almost immediately upon arrival Stateside, and has still only played a handful of games for the club.
Ivanschitz turned out to be a European version of a washed-up Mauro Rosales, while, most critically, Valdez – making more than a million dollars per year – has been anemic. He has, to date, just one goal and one assist for the club.
It should be said that it’s unlikely that Schmid was the driving force behind any of those signings. GM Garth Lagerway has been just as culpable in the Sounders’ decline over the last two years as Schmid, but because of his reputation, he’s the survivor.
Lagerway and Schmid, especially if you read anything into Lagerway’s comments today about looking forward to a fresh start, were always strange bedfellows.
But considering the loyalty Schmid had built up within the Sounders organization, Lagerway would have continued to work with him as long as the team won. This year – with Schmid once again reportedly losing control of a toxic locker room – that wasn’t the case.
As it stands, Lagerway has to get this hire right. He’s next up in the firing line if Seattle doesn’t turn its season around.
Schmid can complain that he was let go just as the club was finally bringing in reinforcements in the shape of Nicolas Lodeiro and Alvaro Fernandez – and he can certainly harbor resentment towards Clint Dempsey for his constant selfishness and petulance.
But he understands as well as anyone that, for all of his successes, there was no outrunning a season this poor without an MLS Cup victory to point to.
When Schmid looks back at where it all went wrong, he can point to that June day last year. Since that point, the Sounders have lost more than half of their league games.
It has been a remarkable fall from grace – and now, it has cost one of MLS’ most decorated coaches his job.
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