For Sigi Schmid, Sounders FC is another challenge in a life full of them
Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid loves a challenge, and faces another one Saturday when he returns to Columbus, where he won a championship last season, Columbus, to play the Crew.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Sounders FC @ Columbus Crew, 4:30 p.m., KONG
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For Sigi Schmid, life has been a series of challenges.
The Sounders FC coach faced each hurdle like a soccer opponent to be studied, dissected and conquered. Learning English in a new country. Overcoming a stuttering problem. Finding his way from a dreary job as an accountant to follow his passion for soccer.
And, finally, becoming one of U.S. soccer's most successful coaches and trying to take an expansion team to the Major League Soccer playoffs.
"Challenges, yeah, have always been a big part of my life," Schmid says.
To understand Schmid's determination, go back to some of his early struggles. He moved from his native Germany to the U.S., and with German spoken at home, he began school without a command of English. Still, he overcame that hurdle to become a good student who struggled to overcome a stuttering problem through high school that made speaking in front of groups an uncomfortable experience.
Soccer was always his refuge. When his family returned to Germany on vacations, he loved hustling rides to watch top-level Bundesliga clubs play exhibitions in small neighboring towns.
Yet his working-class parents steered him a different career direction — business. His father worked for Pabst Brewing, and his mother ran a cafeteria in Germany and a German deli in the Los Angeles area where Sigi worked on weekends. Soccer wasn't considered a career option.
So he majored in economics while playing soccer at UCLA, got his master's in business administration and became a certified public accountant. Yet soccer was always there — waiting and beckoning.
From 1978 to 1984, Schmid worked eight months out of the year as a CPA and spent the other four — soccer season — as an assistant and later head coach at UCLA.
"For me the dream was always: 'I want to coach soccer,' " Schmid says.
A turning point came in Schmid's early 20s, with his mother's death.
"My mom always said, 'Follow your dreams,' " he says.
Finally, he did. Soccer became Schmid's life after college. And taking on challenge after challenge over his 29 seasons as a head coach to become one of the most respected coaches in the history of the sport in the U.S. has been the recurring theme of his career.
Schmid, now 56, is relaxed and quick with a smile as he tells another of his endless cache of soccer stories and basketball analogies. The kid who once feared talking out loud is as chatty a personality as there is in Seattle sports. It's one reason he has won everywhere he has been.
"Guys like Phil Jackson or Red Auerbach [say] winning when you're supposed to win is one of the most difficult things to do," Schmid says.
Before the 1984 season, UCLA made Schmid's position full time. The challenge: Could he be successful now that he was dedicating himself to soccer year-round?
Schmid figured that if he couldn't make UCLA into one of the top soccer programs in the nation within five years, he'd go back to being an accountant.
"I could never be a .500 coach. Win some games, lose games, have a nice life. That wasn't me," Schmid says.
The Bruins were already a winning program under Schmid by 1985, when Schmid led the team to an NCAA championship. There would be two more titles between then and 1998, his final season in Westwood.
Then the Los Angeles Galaxy came calling, and Schmid's challenge to himself was not just winning enough to stay employed, but becoming one of the top coaches in MLS. The Galaxy won major titles in 2000 and 2001 before taking the MLS Cup in 2002.
But Schmid was fired by the Galaxy in midseason in 2004, even though the team was in first place at the time. The Columbus Crew hired him before the 2006 season, and Schmid's next challenge was to win with a franchise that had had just three winning seasons in its first 10 in MLS.
Schmid's three-year plan to remake the Crew into his kind of winner culminated in an MLS Cup in the third year, 2008.
Still another challenge, his latest, awaited — taking the reins of expansion Sounders FC in December. In Year 1, Seattle has already won a major trophy, the U.S. Open Cup, and is in the hunt for the MLS playoffs.
Dean Wurzberger, who coaches the Washington men's soccer team and was Schmid's assistant at UCLA for three years, knew his friend needed another hurdle. So he recruited Schmid to Seattle after talks with Columbus about a contract extension broke down last year.
Wurzberger remembers telling Schmid: "The big boys, they move on to the next challenge."
"He's found a challenge," Wurzberger now says. "Sigi's in a comfort zone."
Personal challenges remain. Schmid has a long-distance marriage with wife Val, who lives in the couple's home in California while Schmid spends the season in Bellevue. As always, Sigi makes the best of it. His brother Roland lives in the area, and son Kurt is here as a Sounders FC scout.
"Maybe it's good for us," Sigi says of being away from his wife so much, "because it's like we're dating every weekend we see each other."
Schmid has plans beyond making the playoffs for Sounders FC. He wants a MLS championship and to make Sounders FC a fixture in international club competition. He hopes Seattle is the last stop in his coaching career.
Those are Schmid's challenges now.
"He has evolved as a coach. That's my biggest compliment for him," says Sounders FC midfielder Peter Vagenas, who has known Schmid since 1995. "He's definitely an easier coach to play for nowadays. But all that aside, he's a good man, and he truly cares about us players as individuals, and you can see that in how he talks to you and how he approaches you.
"A lot of coaches talk the talk but don't necessarily walk the walk, and there's nobody that works harder than he does."
José Miguel Romero: 206-464-2409 or firstname.lastname@example.org
UPDATE - 8:54 PM
Sounders lose to another expansion team
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