If Sigi Schmid’s face belongs on the Mount Rushmore of Southern California soccer, as one of his players says, then his firing by the Los Angeles Galaxy was graffiti across the granite.
The Galaxy didn’t merely dismiss Schmid in 2004, they tarnished his reputation in a way that follows him to this day.
But for all that, Schmid says there is no added meaning, no personal grudge to be settled, at noon Sunday when the Galaxy visits Schmid’s new team, Seattle Sounders FC.
“It’s been so many years now,” Schmid said Wednesday. “It’s just another game. Certainly, still having a house down there in Manhattan Beach, I still know a lot of the Galaxy front-office people. It’s always a good one. When you win the game you feel good about it. For me, it’s three points like every other game.”
Schmid already was an L.A. soccer legend when he was hired by the Galaxy in 1999. He had played at UCLA from 1972-75, became an assistant coach there, and then took over the program in 1980. Over 19 seasons, he became a wizard of Westwood in his own right, leading the Bruins to a 322-63-33 record, winning College Cups (NCAA championships) in 1985, 1990 and 1997, and being named NCAA coach of the year in 1997.
“If there was a Mount Rushmore of Southern California soccer, he’d definitely be up there,” said Sounders midfielder Peter Vegenas, who also played under Schmid at UCLA and with the Galaxy. “It speaks a lot to not only what he’s done in the public arena – his career has been well-documented – but it’s the players he has affected; guys that aren’t even necessarily professional soccer players now, who have gone through his program. ... Some coaches expect professionalism from their players, but they don’t necessarily lead by example in that sense. But no coach, I assure you, works harder than Sigi.”
Having accomplished so much at the college level, Schmid jumped to Major League Soccer in 1999. And he made an immediate transition to the professional game, winning the league’s coach of the year award in his first season. Over almost six seasons, his Galaxy won the Supporters Shield in 1999 and 2002, MLS Cup in 2002, the U.S. Open Cup in 2001, and the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 2001.
“It’s not an easy thing,” said Sounders assistant coach Ezra Hendrickson, who played parts of eight seasons in the MLS under Schmid at Los Angeles and Columbus.
“The college game is a little different than the professional game. ... If you’re in college and you’re at a big program, it’s easy because you’re going to get the best players; the same teams are going to be in the mix as far as a championship. In the pros, players come and go, and you’ve got to be able to manage that.”
Schmid still seemed to be managing just fine in 2004, coaching the MLS Western Conference all-stars and having the Galaxy atop the conference. But he was fired on Aug. 16, 2004.
Club officials said Schmid was dismissed because his teams lacked an “exciting style of play.” Former U.S. national team coach Steve Sampson was quickly introduced as the new coach.
“(The Galaxy) decided that they wanted to make a change,” Schmid said. “And sometimes when you make a change – how do you call it in the press? – you’ve got to spin it. You’ve got to put it in a frame of reference that makes sense to people why you made the change.”
However, the Galaxy’s spin hit Schmid in a painful spot personally and professionally. They were saying a man who had devoted his life to what is known as “the beautiful game” coached a style so unappealing that even championships couldn’t make it palatable.
Worse, statistics didn’t seem to support the criticism.
“When you look at my time in L.A. and where we ranked, at that point we were the highest-scoring team in the league,” Schmid said.
“We were always around the top three or four in goals scored in the league every year. In Columbus, we were the same. ... I think it was just something that was a spin situation, and something that sort of got stuck to me that I’m not happy about because I don’t think that defines my coaching philosophy.”
Schmid spent 2005 coaching the U.S. under-20 national team - which qualified for the FIFA World Youth Championships with more goals than any other team.
He returned to MLS with Columbus in 2006. Two seasons later, he took the Crew to the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup championship and won his second MLS coach of the year award. Columbus also had the second-highest goal total in the league – behind Los Angeles.
This time, Schmid left voluntarily and was quickly hired by Seattle.
The Sounders’ 4-2-1 record is the best by an MLS expansion team after seven games, and their 1.43 goals-per-game average is tied for fourth in the 15-team league.
“He’s obviously a success on the pitch, a great person off the pitch,” Sounders general manager Adrian Hanauer said. “I’ve always loved the idea of working with him. ... We’re getting results, and he’s great for the community. It’s been fantastic.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808