Shortly after Christmas 2008, Tom Dutra sat at a table in a Pioneer Square coffee shop across from new Sounders FC coach Sigi Schmid. Dutra was the Sounders’ goalkeeping coach in their final three seasons in the USL and was hoping to stay employed as the club moved into MLS.
Schmid informed Dutra that he had the job — with an important caveat.
“I’m going to bring you on,” he said. “I’m going to give you a shot at this. But you’re not my guy, so don’t plan on being here a long time.”
Schmid’s bluntness threw Dutra off a little. He thought the meeting was set up so they could get to know each other (Schmid himself had been hired 10 days earlier). He wasn’t expecting to be offered the job. Schmid’s statement about the likelihood that the job would have a short tenure didn’t faze him.
“Fair enough,” Dutra replied. “I’ll give you everything I have.”
Three months later, before the Sounders played their first MLS match, the duo had another short, direct conversation in Schmid’s office. “As long as I’m here,” Schmid said, “you’re not going anywhere.”
So began a stint for Dutra, a native of Lacey in Thurston County, that has lasted 13 seasons.
He’s overseen the Sounders’ last line of defense through 12 consecutive playoff berths, two MLS championships, four U.S. Open Cup titles and a 187-116-91 record. The 48-year-old Dutra’s history with the Sounders goes back to 1996, when he was a member of the team’s roster during an A League championship season.
His professional playing career was cut short by injuries: a broken ankle in 1997 and a broken rib the following year, both while playing for New Orleans. He began coaching as an assistant at Pacific Lutheran in 2002.
As with an international spy (and most assistant coaches in most sports), a good goalkeeper coach is at his best when no one notices him.
But Dutra’s name has come up recently, and likely will again Sunday as the MLS-leading Sounders (5-0-1) host 2-1-2 Atlanta United FC (1:30 p.m., FOX).
After a frightening-looking injury to veteran GK Stefan Frei in a match earlier this month in San Jose, the defending Western Conference champions’ season seemed rocked. Frei, an eight-year anchor of the defense, was attempting to deflect the ball when he landed awkwardly and collapsed onto the turf.
Sounders FC fans weren’t the only ones fearing the worst.
“I thought he had broken his leg,” Dutra said. “When it became obvious that wasn’t the case, I figured he had blown out his knee.”
Eventually two pieces of good news emerged. The knee was only sprained, with no surgery required. And given that a two-week break in the MLS schedule loomed for international play, there was a decent chance Frei would miss only three matches.
The first absence was Sunday against LAFC. His replacement was Stefan Cleveland, who had all of five games of MLS experience. A Dayton, OH., native who played college soccer at Dartmouth, Cleveland was acquired by Seattle in a trade with Chicago at the end of 2019 after backup goalkeeper Brian Meredith was lost to Inter Miami in the expansion draft.
Cleveland, who turns 27 next week, had a solid minor league season with a team in Lansing, MI., in 2020. He was told by the Sounders that he would likely play some this year as the club focuses on managing the minutes of the 35-year-old Frei, one of Seattle’s longest-tenured active pro athletes.
That chance came earlier than expected. Cleveland delivered a clean sheet (his first in MLS) in a 2-0 win. Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said his young netminder’s play exceeded his expectations. He knows where that started.
“Tommy Dutra is the best goalkeeper coach in MLS,” Schmetzer said. “I know I’m biased, but he is, and so I lean heavily on him and his expertise.”
He’s not alone in that feeling. Former Sounders GK Kasey Keller’s relationship with Dutra goes back to their high school days in the mid-1980s in Lacey. As with Schmetzer, he rates Dutra a cut above, primarily because of his training methods.
“We believe in the same philosophy — the more you replicate what a goalkeeper sees off a striker’s foot (in training), the better it is for the goalkeeper,” Keller said. “For the longest time, goalkeeper training was doing six somersaults, jumping over things, flipping balls at you or hitting a volley at you. I get there’s a point for some of that stuff. But I want to see what I’m going to see match day — the movement of the ball off the foot of the person shooting.
“Tommy believed, from a long time ago, in the same concept. He is a great striker of the ball and has worked on it. You know that you’re going to get what you’re going to see.”
Dutra gets a little embarrassed by “best in MLS” talk.
“I hate it when they say that stuff,” he said, “because there are so many guys out there who are better than I am. I’ve been lucky to work with very good goalkeepers.”
Dutra is correct about Seattle’s talent. But where does a player’s talent end and a coach’s influence begin?
Keller arrived in Seattle in 2009 at 39 after a storied international career, and was adamant that his Sounders stint was not going to be some ceremonial victory lap. Dutra helped him achieve three outstanding seasons.
Michael Gspurning had the unenviable task of replacing Keller. While some fans never warmed up to him, he worked through injuries for two mostly successful seasons, including leading the 2012 MLS in goals-against average.
Frei arrived in 2014 after an injury-filled career with Toronto FC and has enjoyed a remarkable run. So Dutra’s assertion that he’s had top notch talent is correct. But his work with each player has been influential.
Dedication to craft (“I love goalkeeping,” is a line you’ll hear from him regularly) is appreciated by Cleveland.
“He’s always trying to critique and fix every small thing, because it all adds up when you need to make a save,” he said. “Everything we do regarding technique and angles involves so much attention to detail. Every session, every single rep, is important. He tells us, ‘Focus on this ball because this might be the only ball you get in 90 minutes.’”
Dutra understands well the psychology of players who play a position where every viewer knows when a mistake is made.
“You’ve gotta keep the chatter out of your brain,” he said. “Staying out of your own head is the hardest thing for any goalkeeper. The best learn to deal with that. You can give them a little confidence, but they have to find most of that on their own.”
Dutra attempted to give Cleveland a little confidence last week. Leading up to the LAFC match he repeatedly told his young keeper, “You’re ready for this spot.” That wasn’t just hype. Dutra has developed confidence in Cleveland’s game, which he said benefited from forced time off.
“His first three months with us (in 2020) he didn’t look very good, and he’d tell you that,” Dutra said. “He was unsure of himself, and I was a little hard on him at times. Then the pandemic hit. During lockdown, he had time to look at the video of the games he played. When he came back, he was a totally different goalkeeper. He had improved immensely.”
Dutra also spends time on his own improvement. He regularly consults his widening network of former players (including Keller) for advice.
“I like picking their brains because I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “There are times, even when we win, where I think, ‘That was not a good training week. I’ve got to do better because what we did last week didn’t work.’ I’ve got to put them in the best position to play well every time.”
A job he does better than anyone else in MLS, according to the experts.
“Attention to detail,” Keller said. “Little things are massive. That’s the big reason why he’s so well thought of and why the Sounders have had the most consistent goalkeeping of any club in MLS.”
Somewhere, Barry Watling is smiling.
I imagine a whole lot of Sounders fans are smiling, too, given the record despite injuries.
The Sounders have always had great goalkeeping. Marcus Hahnemann/Dusty Hudock tandem of the 1990s APSL/A-League expansion, Preston Burpo and Bill May later (the nascent ECS chanted “May Day!” when he stopped a penalty), and the MLS Sounders mentioned in the article all made their marks. Michael Gspurning was one of MLS’ best keepers until a terrible last month in 2013, and before Frei came to Seattle, his stats took a beating thanks to being stuck behind a terrible Toronto defense.
Interestingly, Wikipedia says the Lansing team Stefan Cleveland played for folded after just one season. And you thought minor league baseball was unstable.
We can always count on you for a quality soccer backgrounder.