These should be the happiest of days for Sigi Schmid. The big bundle of yellow on the Columbus Crew sideline could be 90 minutes from a second MLS championship. And how ironic this one could be, as he would take a second swig from the MLS Cup in the very backyard of the organization that once pushed him into oncoming traffic.
But this cool sip from the spring of karma might come with a bitter aftertaste, for Schmid is also pondering a future that's less certain than it rightly deserves to be.
Schmid's contract is up at season's end, and the distinct possibility looms that he'll be on the move quickly once the curtain drops on Major League Soccer's 13th season Sunday. It is strange that Seattle is dawdling on making its all-important initial managerial hire, eh? When is that expansion draft again? Oh, yes! It's next week. Hmmm. Would Seattle really go into this important day without a manager in place?
Didn't we see something like this once before, when Schmid's talent went unappreciated? How in the world could something like this happen twice to the same guy -- a man who might be the league's winningest all-time coach at this time next year?
Here's a theory: Some misguided MLS executives, who ought to know better, see MLS achievement as a candy grab. Somehow, some owners and GMs (and some managers themselves) suffer from a toxic illusion of effortless MLS success.
It was precisely this misguided notion, this idea that MLS hardware is just sitting around on shelves at the local quick mart, that prompted one of the silliest decisions ever to afflict MLS.
|MLS Cup final|
New York vs. Columbus
Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
In the summer of 2004 Los Angeles was humming along in first place and the sun was shining brightly on Planet Galaxy when the club stunned MLS by dismissing Schmid. A real head-scratcher, that one, which ultimately proved to be the genesis of the Galaxy's spectacular implosion. (Whether or not that elevator has finally reached bottom, only the big commissioner in the sky knows for sure. Because every time we think it has, someone at AEG proves us wrong again.)
This siren song, this wrongheaded illusion of fast-track success, has similarly removed other MLS executives from their good senses. Bruce Arena was kicked to the curb last year after 16 months as the Red Bulls' chief. Steve Morrow was dismissed in Dallas in a similar time frame.
We see other evidence that success in MLS is sometimes misdiagnosed as low-hanging fruit. How many owners, GMs or managers, drunk on arrogance and entitlement, have stated with more than a smidge of smug that an MLS Cup is well within reach?
The odds of winning a title in the 14-team MLS are, in fact, more favorable than winning in the NFL (32 teams) or the NBA (30). And there's surely some ego at work, too. After all, it's just MLS, right? Surely an owner, GM or manager with a big brain and a sharp edge can tip the balance, right?
Still, just because the initial odds are more favorable, that doesn't mean any old Hank with cones and a coaching license can deliver the Cup. Eliminate all other variables and every team has only a 7 percent chance of finding the prize in the cereal box come late November.
Consider this fact: Since 2000 only four clubs -- just four! -- have claimed an MLS Cup: Houston, Los Angeles and San Jose with two each and D.C. United with one. And guess which currently spotlighted coach claimed one of those? Hint: You'll see him Sunday, surely adorned in that lucky Crew scarf.
That brings us back to Schmid and this current Crew contract kerfuffle.
He had the best team in league play in 2008. There was little doubt of that by early September when Schmid's men bullied New England in a 4-0 statement-match pummeling.
Execs from Hunt Sports Group (HSG), the Crew ownership group, should have gang-tackled Schmid the very next day, hog-tied the man and refused to let him leave until he promised to stay for three to five more years. They needed to ask one simple question: "What's it gonna take for us to keep you in Columbus?"
Don't forget, Schmid won the 2008 Supporters' Shield by building slowly, frugally, with no superfueled DP boost.
Instead, HSG offered Schmid a deal that apparently landed somewhere between "Pass, thank you," and "Are you serious?"
Schmid said by phone last week from Columbus that he preferred not to extensively discuss the contract situation, but did say he had closed negotiations until season's end. Uh-oh.
Schmid was just a year and a half removed from an MLS title when AEG dropped the guillotine back in 2004. He never dogs the Galaxy too much about it, saying all the right things about coaches getting hired to be fired, etc. But he was clearly wounded.
"The only thing that bothers me, to be very honest with you ... was the insinuation at the time that we didn't play attractive enough soccer, that we weren't offensive enough," Schmid said this week. "And that moniker was sort of hung on me and that bothers me. Because at the time we were the highest-scoring team in the league."
Now, here we are again. Different circumstances, of course, but the miscalculations in value have a familiar feel.
HSG is notoriously frugal, never one to hand over a buck when 75 cents will do the trick. That's not all bad, of course. In this case, HSG rolled the dice -- and lost -- by leaving Schmid dangling too long. Hindsight is dandy, as we all know, but anybody who saw Schmid's team in 2007 knew the club was on the rise. Grand designs for 2008 were just a matter of adding pieces, specifically a left back and a bigger presence at holding midfielder. Bingo!
Now Schmid owns the dice. He can choose to throw 'em or he can possibly pack 'em up and head west on I-70 out of Ohio.
Most of Schmid's life has been an L.A. story. No, the Pacific Northwest isn't sunny SoCal, but it's closer than Columbus. And you get the feeling that Schmid just wants to be appreciated. It's a basic human need, after all.
Win or lose Sunday, Schmid has proved that he knows what it takes to win in MLS, and it's too bad anybody must wonder what he'll be doing come Monday morning.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.