As Sounders age, Schmetzer will need to get out of his tactical comfort zone
Although the deck was stacked against him in lots of ways, Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer did have a few advantages when he took over from Sigi Schmid in the summer of 2016.
As Schmid's longtime top assistant, and having previously been the head coach of the Sounders in the USL, Schmetzer knew the roster intimately. For more than seven years, he had imagined himself in Schmid's shoes, paying close attention to what he'd copy as well as what he'd do differently.
Such institutional knowledge proved invaluable. With little to no room for error, Schmetzer hit on the 4-2-3-1 formation that best played to his team's strengths and rode it all the way to Seattle's first ever MLS Cup championship.
At the outset of the 2018 campaign, Schmetzer faces different challenges -- some that will stretch his skill set in directions it hasn't previously been tested at the Major League Soccer level.
Although the Sounders' return to a second-straight MLS Cup final last December might've dispelled any lingering notion that the first run was a fluke, once there, the beat down Toronto FC laid upon them reinstalled some of those doubts.
For all the respect of his man-management skills, Schmetzer isn't often included on the shortlist of MLS' brightest tactical minds. He has been candid about his own failings leading up to and during Seattle's comprehensive 2-0 loss at BMO Field.
"There was a lot of deep reflection after that game," Schmetzer told ESPN FC this week, and the shortcoming that most stuck out was his and his team's lack of adaptability. Having been so beholden to the same system for a year and a half of steady success, when Toronto exposed the flaws in it, the Sounders lacked a Plan B to fall back upon.
"Had I been able to arrange them in a different formation, Toronto was still better on the day, but it might have given us a chance," Schmetzer said. Instead, Seattle's dreams of a repeat title were shredded to bits and borne away by a frigid Ontario wind.
Even without any serious adjustments or that aforementioned soul searching, the Sounders are still probably talented enough to again trudge to the top of the wide-open Western Conference. If they are to make a serious play for TFC's crown -- or challenge for what would be MLS' first CONCACAF Champions League title next month -- however, they will require flexibility they haven't yet had to flash during Schmetzer's tenure.
If the 2016 championship felt like the seven-year culmination of inaugural gains, the current group feels like it is in transition. Instead of the last gasp of the beloved originals, the era of Ozzie Alonso and Brad Evans is gradually giving way to the reign of Nicolas Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan.
The veteran core is getting worryingly old. Friday is Clint Dempsey's 35th birthday. Alonso is 32, has been injury prone for years now and has already picked up another knock. The trusty center-back pairing of Chad Marshall and Roman Torres is a combined 64 years of age.
Schmetzer bemoaned the bad luck of injuries already suffered early in the new season, but that's kind of the way it goes when you build around guys with such high mileage.
General manager Garth Lagerwey has ably stocked the supporting cast with Targeted Allocation Money signings like Kelvin Leerdam, Victor Rodriguez and Magnus Wolff Eikrem. Besides Roldan, however, what this squad is currently lacking is young stars that look capable of stepping into leading roles. The bummer that was Jordan Morris' season-ending knee injury only exacerbates that sensation.
What it all means is that Schmetzer is going to have to break with some of what has brought him success so far in MLS. Instead of leaning on veterans with whom he had pre-existing relationships, he's going to have to integrate new blood and manage the development of talented-but-unproven youngsters like rookie winger Handwalla Bwana. He's going to have to tinker based on player availability.
On Wednesday, the Sounders travel to Guadalajara for the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal against Chivas carrying a 1-0 aggregate lead. Beyond that exists the possibility of greater glory, and in the meantime, the team needs to not lose too much ground in MLS having already dropped the opener to expansion LAFC.
If Schmetzer wants to push back against any criticism of his tactical nous and prove that he can manage the biggest games, well, there are going to be plenty of opportunities in the coming weeks and months.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.