Brian Schmetzer helps Seattle overcome adversity to win MLS Cup
TORONTO -- Adrian Hanauer stood off to the side of the Seattle Sounders' locker room, his faint smile giving testament to the satisfaction he felt at his side's victory over Toronto FC in the 2016 MLS Cup final.
Nine days ago, the Sounders' majority owner told ESPN FC that no matter what happened in the match, the 2016 campaign would go down as "the worst year of my professional soccer business career." The lows -- from the team's rocky start to firing longtime manager Sigi Schmid to seeing Clint Dempsey's season end due to a heart ailment -- had been so debilitating for Hanauer that they couldn't possibly be eclipsed by the high of winning a league title.
So with the MLS Cup trophy now in the Sounders' possession on Saturday, did he feel the same way?
"It's growing on me," he said with a laugh. "I have to be honest, yeah, it turns out now that it's been a pretty good year. It still has been the most taxing and trying year, but the end is finishing pretty positively."
For coach Brian Schmetzer, there was no epiphany involved, just a slow accumulation of playoff toughness needed to withstand whatever an opponent could throw at them.
The MLS Cup final proved to be a microcosm of the campaign. There was the rough early start where Toronto put its stamp on the game. That was followed by a period where Seattle established a foothold. Then there were a couple of panic-inducing moments in extra time after it finished 0-0. And then everything came together, ending with Roman Torres converting the decisive penalty in the shootout to seal a 5-4 victory.
That this wasn't the most talented team Seattle ever had didn't matter. It didn't need to win every match in a runaway. It didn't need to accumulate style points. The Sounders understood that they just needed to play well enough on the day, even as their best player, Dempsey, was reduced to spectator status.
"They've been resilient for a long time, and if my memory serves me correct, guys like Zach Scott are very resilient, guys like Brad [Evans], guys like Ozzie [Osvaldo Alonso], they're all pretty resilient," Schmetzer said at his postmatch news conference. "When we started out at the beginning of this year in preseason, we knew we had a good team, a veteran team, and the reasons for the slow start, we can pick that apart. I think the base was always there, and so they found a way to win, they found a way to persevere in tough situations."
On Saturday, none were tougher than that faced by Alonso. Schmetzer said that Alonso was dealing with what he called a pulled tendon in his right knee. Alonso revealed that he took eight pain-killing injections, four before to the game and four at half-time. But the Cuban was still a huge presence in midfield, doing plenty to keep Toronto midfielder Sebastian Giovinco in check.
"It's one game, a final, you have to give everything you have to win," he said. "I pushed to give everything I have for my team, for my family. I think we did it.
"I've been here a long time, waiting for this moment; first final, first cup. I'm very proud for the team, for the franchise."
So is Schmetzer. The Seattle native has always attempted to deflect credit for the Sounders' rebound onto his players. Granted, being able to introduce game-changers like Nicolas Lodeiro and Torres would make any manager look good, but it was Schmetzer who performed CPR on this team, then not only revived it but also returned it to the bloom of health.
"It was super easy to put your head down and say, 'Oh, it's a lost year,'" said defender Chad Marshall, who kept Toronto striker Jozy Altidore bottled up for much of the night. "No one did that, and credit to the guys. We go on the run we did, and to be here now is surreal.
"Schmetzer was a big part of it. He comes in, is super demanding right away, lets the guys know he wants it, and it was huge. There was attention to detail, super motivating, and it was exactly what the guys needed."
Over the years, Seattle always seemed to be trying to play beyond its limits, especially on those playoff occasions when it ran up against the LA Galaxy and lost. With the help of Schmetzer, this team seemed to find a skin within which it was comfortable. It found its equilibrium and is now an MLS Cup champion.
"It means a lot to me," Schmetzer said. "I think I share it with the entire team. When I took over, I had conversations with each and every player, the guys that weren't featured in the 18, some of the younger guys that have trained hard all year, guys like Herculez Gomez who didn't get into the game tonight.
"We've got young players, pushing, pushing, pushing, driving the level of training up. The championship is for all of those guys. So I'm happy for them, and I'm really happy for the fans. They're the ones that truly deserve it. I think the relationship between the fans and the players is what makes this club so special, so I'm happy for them."
Now that the end of the season has arrived, the team's supporters -- Hanauer included -- can look back and see more than a pretty good campaign. They'll see the best year the Sounders have ever had.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.