SEATTLE — The American soccer coaching ranks have seen some impressive accomplishments in 2019, including Jill Ellis’ second World Cup triumph, Jesse Marsch’s success in Europe with Red Bull Salzburg, and Bob Bradley’s record-setting efforts with MLS Supporters’ Shield winners Los Angeles FC.
Two other top American coaches will face off on Sunday in the MLS Cup final, with Toronto FC’s Greg Vanney and Seattle Sounders Brian Schmetzer matching wits for the third MLS Cup in four years. They have each tasted championship glory, with Vanney’s TFC side triumphing in 2017 and Schmetzer’s Sounders winning in 2016, but Sunday will put one of them into the rarified air of multiple MLS Cup winning coaches, joining Bruce Arena, Sigi Schmid, Domninic Kinnear and Frank Yallop.
Schmetzer and Vanney were classmates in the second U.S. Soccer Pro License Coaching Course, part of a 17-coach group that also included Marsch and Ellis. Their second MLS Cup final meeting came just before they graduated from that course, and it was Vanney who got the better of Schmetzer, deploying TFC in a 4-4-2 diamond formation that effectively neutralized Seattle’s attack.
“Look, they outplayed us in 2017. There’s no question,” Schmetzer told SBI. “The thing I remember about that game was it had a little bit of a similar feel to 2016. They were outplaying us. They were at home. They were keeping the ball. We didn’t seem to find our footing.
“In 2016 we didn’t break, we didn’t get a goal scored against us,” Schmetzer said. “As soon as Jozy (Altidore) scored that goal (in the 2017 MLS Cup final), it was like the 63rd minute, and I remember feeling like ‘Oh crap’, we really need try to come up with something. It was just not a good game for us.”
While you can argue that Vanney got the better of Schmetzer in 2017, it was Schmetzer who masterminded the defensive gameplan that helped Seattle neutralize a heavily-favored TFC side in the 2016 final.
Since that first meeting, Vanney has gone on to help lead TFC to multiple pieces of silverware, developing a reputation for being bold with his tactical maneuvering, both in terms of deploying effective systems to start the match, and making dramatic changes when the match calls for them.
“Greg, over the years, has shown he’s a little bit more willing to take risks,” Schmetzer said. “I’m a little more conservative maybe. My changes are more maybe personnel versus system based. Against Atlanta he went four, then five in the back, so he’s not afraid to take risks, which is something I admire. It’s something he’s done and he’s had success with it.”
“It’s kind of how I perceive the game, even as a player,” Vanney said of his coaching style. “I saw the game sort of that way. Even when I played it, at one point I was a central midfielder, at one point I was a striker, a left back, centerback, so I played in a lot of different roles.
“For me, trying to manipulate the game for my strengths was always a part of how I played the game, so as I try to coach I want a team that can adapt, and a team that can recognize situations and problem-solve, whether it be with the ball or without the ball. I try to leave that as much up to them as possible.
“If I feel like the opposition is doing something that we weren’t quite aware of, or we need to clog up the space then I might send in something we make an adjustment with, or if I think there’s an advantage we can try to exploit,” Vanney said. “Aside from that, the guys do a great job. It’s through what we do in training, and how we work these guys, that their job is really to read the game and recognize what’s there for us.”
Schmetzer’s philosophical approach to coaching sounds similar to Vanney’s when it comes to putting more emphasis on helping players develop their ability to read the game rather than simply being confined by rigid tactical assignments.
“I try and teach my guys to be problem solvers on the field, because our sport is too fluid,” Schmetzer said. “There’s other coaches who look to solve problems formationally, and both ways work.
“At the end of the day players have to make plays,” Schmetzer said. “Coaches, we set them up in how we think the game is going to unfold and what happens is either there’s a tactical tweak, or something that you plan for doesn’t happen over here, but it happens over here and the players have to adjust. The players have to figure things out.”
Schmetzer is being a bit modest about his impact on Seattle’s success. His ability to manage his personnel, and also his skill at maximizing input from a strong stable of assistant coaches, have helped him make the Sounders one of the most consistent teams in MLS, and a team known for making effective second-half adjustments.
“He’s a great manager, and coach, and person, which everyone can see,” Sounders assistant and former Mexican national team midfielder Gonzalo Pineda said. “In just three years and a half he’s led the team to three finals, and led the team to its first title. If that happened anywhere else in the world, he would be talked about as one of the best coaches in the league, and maybe now he doesn’t get the credit he deserves compared to some of the big names in the league.
“(Schmetzer) transmits calm, and that’s something the players have picked up from him,” Pineda said. “That’s one of his great qualities, whether things are going well or not, he knows how to manage situations.
“He’s also very open to taking input from his assistants,” Pineda said of Schmetzer. “At halftime we analyze things and go over video, and he’s willing to listen and take in observations and choose good strategies to help change games.”
Though Schmetzer is just in his fourth season as an MLS head coach, he already had a wealth of experience before being promoted in 2016, having coached the USL Seattle Sounders from 2001 to 2008, winning a pair of league titles in the process. The 57-year-old has become an institution in Seattle, having grown up in the city, and played for the NASL version of the Sounders before going into coaching.
Schmetzer will look to add another trophy to his resume on Sunday, and one that would cement his standing in Seattle sports history if he can deliver an MLS Cup at home.
Schmetzer and Vanney won’t kick a ball on Sunday, but they will be instrumental to determining which of their teams lifts a second MLS Cup title, and which of them can take the lead in what has become one of the better coaching battles in league history.