Sigi Schmid peered over his cards and eyed the two foes still at the table during what they had all agreed was going to be the last hand of the poker party.
The players across from him stared at their cards, then at Schmid, who had been winning for most of the last hour. If he was reading the situation right, he was about to win again. He thought his three sevens would hold up.
The players showed their cards. Schmid’s hand was indeed good enough to allow him to rake in the last winnings of a night that had melted into the next morning. Good-natured profanity filled the air as the men stood, stretched their legs, and headed out into the cool pre-dawn. Some made their way home to wives or girlfriends. Others decided breakfast was in order and set a course for an all-night diner.
Sigi Schmid made a beeline for the home of his parents.
He was 18, but these late-night poker parties had become a regular thing for him. His fellow card sharks were guys in their 20s and 30s who played in a Los Angeles men’s soccer league. Schmid’s soccer skills were good enough that he was able to hold his own with his teammates on the pitch. His personality was such that they liked him enough to invite him to their weekly poker game.
Schmid was old enough to know what a beer was for. But he quickly realized that staying sober gave him an edge at the card table, particularly after midnight when alcohol tends to overtake reason. He would sip a beer for hours while others indulged like the thirsty men they were. He often left the parties with a couple hundred bucks in his pocket, money that came in handy in helping pay for his expenses in the 1970s at UCLA.
Schmid’s father, Fritz, worked the graveyard shift at a brewery and never knew of his son’s gambling exploits (of which he would not have approved). His mother, Doris, knew. She wasn’t wild about her son staying out until dawn. But she covered for him when Schmid promised her that he wasn’t drinking with the men, but was using their inebriation to grow the odds in his favor.
He may not have known it at the time, but he was exhibiting a trait inherent in all great coaches: The capacity to find an exploitable weakness in the opponent, then seize the opportunity.
At 65, Sigi Schmid died on Christmas Day, the winningest coach in Major League Soccer history. He had tremendous success as a coach in almost every situation during a Hall of Fame career. He’ll be remembered for national championships won at UCLA, and for MLS Cup wins in Los Angeles and Columbus. In Seattle, in addition to winning, he’ll be remembered for being a part of the remarkable launch of the Sounders FC as an expansion team in 2009.
Schmid soccer knowledge helped set the stage for success on the pitch, while his personality helped ensure it in the community. Schmid was a tireless advocate for not just the new team in town, but also for the game.
In 2009, some Seattle media members had deep knowledge of the so-called beautiful game, but there were many more who didn’t have the basic soccer chops necessary to speak of the sport fluently with a championship-caliber coach.
Schmid could have stayed above it all; he could have looked down his nose at the silly questions and elementary statements made by some in the Seattle media. Instead, he patiently listened to anyone who had a question or a comment and then explained what was what, and why was why.
He chose to educate anyone willing to engage him in conversation about soccer in a knowledgeable (but not know-it-all) manner that helped popularize the game organically in its new major-league market.
“Sigi helped me understand the game by comparing soccer to basketball on grass,” Kevin Calabro tweeted on Wednesday. Calabro, better known as a superstar NBA broadcasting talent (currently working for the Portland Trailblazers) was Sounders FC play-by-play man in 2009.
“During the Sounders MLS infancy he was so gracious with his time explaining the nuances of the game,” added long-time KOMO radio broadcaster Bill Swartz, also via Twitter.
Schmid appeared on my radio show (with Dave Grosby) on KJR numerous times and always enjoyed (or at least pretended he did) our attempts at humor. He earned the highest honor we ever gave a guest — raucous laughter — during an interview after a game that featured a classic soccer dust-up between players.
“Yeah,” he said drily, “it was a typical soccer fight. Handbags at 10 paces.”
Sports aren’t fair. Because if they were, Schmid would have won at least one MLS Cup in Seattle to go with the championships he won in Los Angeles and Columbus. But when Sounders FC finally broke through and won the title in 2016, it was Brian Schmetzer on the sidelines, elevated from assistant coach the previous summer when Schmid and the club agreed to part ways after a 6-12-2 start.
Schmetzer gets undisputed credit for the title, but the fact that he was in that position owes at least a little to Schmid’s big heart and personality.
In 2004, Schmetzer was coaching the Sounders in the United Soccer League (USL). He was a minor league coach with a day off in Los Angeles, and on a whim put in a call to Schmid. He was coaching the LA Galaxy and was as big a star as there was in the American soccer coaching community.
Schmetzer wondered if Schmid might have time for a cup of coffee to bestow a little soccer coaching wisdom. Schmid said he did. Before long, the two settled into a booth at a coffee shop.
That cup of coffee turned into more than an hour of conversation about training, formations, the locker room, finding players, winning, losing and how to deal with it all. The men found they had much in common.
Four years later, Schmid replaced Schmetzer as the Sounders coach when the team moved into Major League Soccer. One of Schmid’s first decisions was to hire Schmetzer as his top assistant.
Schmetzer accepted what was a demotion, at least in part because of Schmid’s kindness and generosity on that day in Los Angeles. But it wasn’t merely sentiment that made for the wise hire. After all, Schmetzer wanted to talk soccer. Anytime anyone wanted to talk soccer, Sigi Schmid was all in.
Like a sober, late-night poker player with three of a kind.