By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 9, 2020) US Soccer Players – The MLS Cup final is bound to be an emotional affair for those who remember previous eras for the two clubs that will compete for a championship at Mapfre Stadium on Saturday. While MLS is a small, insular community in most ways, it’s still big enough that the connections between the Seattle Sounders and Columbus Crew ahead of a clash with a trophy on the line are worth celebrating. If not for the Columbus Crew, there might not be the Seattle Sounders.
Perhaps that’s a little dramatic. It’s also not technically true, though it has some validity in a spiritual sense. The 2008 MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew preceded the inaugural MLS season of the Sounders by a year. They contributed to the foundation of a club that 12 years later is the standard-bearer for the league.
The late Sigi Schmid led the Crew to that 2008 title, the second of his two MLS Cup wins as a head coach. Schmid’s time in MLS, following a successful run as a college coach at UCLA, ended with him atop the list of most wins all-time in league history. Bruce Arena has more championships, but Schmid earned his place in the tier just behind his old rival.
Back in 2006, Schmid returned to MLS to coach the Crew after a stint with the USMNT program. Two years before, the LA Galaxy fired Schmid with the club in 1st-place because club leadership deemed his style of play unattractive. That’s a move that 16 years later remains unique in league history.
In Columbus, the job was to rebuild a franchise that had fallen off a cliff. In 2004 the Crew won the Supporters’ Shield. In 2005, they fell to last-place in the Eastern Conference and missed the playoffs. The poor start to the season came to a head in mid-July, when the club dismissed coach Greg Andrulis following a home loss to the San Jose Earthquakes.
Robert Warzycha took over as interim head coach, but the Crew clearly needed someone with winning experience in MLS to take the reigns. Columbus hired Schmid ahead of the 2006 season, giving the former Galaxy head coach a fresh start and a runway to rebuild the team.
2006 wasn’t an improvement. Columbus again finished in last-place with fewer points than the year before. Ownership stuck with Schmid and gave him something to work with for 2007. Guillermo Barros Schelotto joined the Crew in April of 2007. Though the team again missed the playoffs, the seeds were sown for a big move up the table the next year.
The 2008 championship season was the fruit of Schmid’s roster-rebuilding labor. Patience paid off that season with a double. The Crew won the Supporters’ Shield and beat the upstart New York Red Bulls for the MLS Cup.
Schmid could have stayed in Columbus and worked to repeat as champion. Instead, following a failure to agree on an extension, Schmid departed to become the Seattle Sounders’ first MLS head coach. The Sounders wanted Schmid to do what he did in Columbus. Build a competitive roster from the ground up.
The acrimony over Schmid’s jump to Seattle didn’t enamor him to the Crew faithful, at least in the short term. It would be years before fans in Columbus would come to appreciate what their former coach did for their club during his stay. Meanwhile, in Seattle, Schmid took the Sounders to the playoffs in his and their first season.
The explosive popularity of the Sounders in Seattle in those early years was about much more than the team Schmid rolled out that season. Winning immediately undoubtedly helped the club reach new heights for MLS attendance and established the foundation that the club still rests on today.
Schmid built the Sounders culture. With Brian Schmetzer, the former head coach of the USL iteration of the club, Schmid found an able lieutenant to connect the new to the old. Schmetzer would end up continuing the work as head coach, living up to Schmid’s incredibly high standard.
In his eight years in Seattle, Schmid never missed the playoffs. His teams won three consecutive US Open Cup titles, setting a standard of commitment to that tournament that carries on to today. By virtue of those Open Cup wins, Schmid pushed the new MLS outfit immediately into the Concacaf Champions League, thereby establishing the club’s continental profile and enabling wider and more aggressive recruiting.
Two of the Sounders’ most important players from its first decade direclty link to Schmid’s time in Columbus. Following his move to Seattle, Schmid made sure to acquire versatile midfielder/defender Brad Evans in the expansion draft. Evans played for Schmid for two seasons in Columbus, proving his worth as a versatile option in several spots on the field. He went on to appear 200 times for the Sounders.
Center back Chad Marshall also landed in Seattle because of Schmid. Marshall was the league’s best defender in 2008 and 2009, leading the Crew to the MLS Cup title in the first year and winning the Defender of the Year award in both seasons. In 2014 Marshall reunited with Schmid via trade. The Sounders sent an undisclosed amount of allocation money and a third-round draft pick to Columbus.
Marshall lived up to his reputation. Before retiring midway through the 2019 season, he claimed another Defender of the Year trophy while leading the Sounders to the Supporters’ Shield in 2014. He anchored the defense on the run to the MLS Cup title in 2016, and did that job again on the way to a return trip to a final the following season. Earning legend status at two clubs is a rare feat. Marshall can thank Schmid for the opportunity to achieve it.
The Sounder and Crew have never met in the MLS Cup playoffs because they’ve never met in an MLS Cup final. That will change Saturday when a team that won its only championship under Sigi Schmid and a team that counts Schmid as the architect of winning franchise face-off at MAPFRE Stadium in Ohio.
Schmid died two years ago this December. His untimely passing came before the Crew could induct him into its ring of honor, something that happened last year. When the Crew and Sounders take the field on Saturday, both teams will honor Schmid simply by their presence at that moment. Seattle and Columbus don’t have a lot in common, but they do have Sigi.
More From Jason Davis:
- Coaching fit in MLS
- MLS 1.0 in the Eastern Conference final
- Is MLS weirdness worth celebrating?
- The play-in round and the underdog scenario
Photo by Howard C Smith – ISIPhotos.com