Sigi Schmid, One-on-One: Galaxy’s struggles, watching Seattle and playing for pennies in L.A.’s ethnic leagues
FFT: Are you satisfied with what you accomplished in Seattle?
SS: I was happy with what I accomplished there. We started as an expansion team, and we were consistent from day one until maybe the beginning of 2016. So I was happy.
I think Open Cup [championships] are something to be celebrated. The Open Cup's taken on a little bit bigger of an impact now, and early on when we won those [four] Open Cups with Seattle, some people dismissed it as like, well, just the Open Cup. It was good to see Kansas City celebrate it the way they did [when they won in 2017], because I think it's an important trophy. And, obviously, winning the Supporters' Shield [in 2014] was something that we were proud of.
We're really, really more proud of the fact that every year we were able to give ourselves a chance to win MLS Cup. Being able to give the community and the club a chance every year was important.
FFT: You've been dismissed twice in MLS in circumstances that were perhaps curious. The Galaxy fired you in 2004 while on top of the Western Conference. Seattle parted with you just as the pieces required to compete were arriving. Were you treated unfairly in these situations?
SS: That's for others to judge. At the end of the day, certainly the first time I was confused. I'm still confused by it. And this second time, maybe I understood it, but I didn't necessarily agree with it, but I think every coach that gets let go feels the same thing.
FFT: Is the evolution of coaching in MLS keeping up with the evolution in players?
SS: Yeah. I mean, when you look at the league, you look at teams, some teams play a 4-2-3-1, some teams still come out and play a 3-4-3, some will play a 4-3-3. Teams definitely play different formations, more so than in early years, when everybody went pretty consistent. We were actually one of the only teams that played a 3-5-2 in my early years with the Galaxy, because that fit our personnel. But most teams were playing straight 4-4-2s. So I think there's more variety in the league that way.
Coaching staffs have expanded, which has allowed for more intimate coaching, which is important to the players and development of those players. I think the development of the American player -- and the Canadian player; we have three Canadian teams -- needs to be something the league feels is important. We can't neglect that, and sometimes with all the different [roster] rules we have, it led to more foreign players playing key positions, and we need to make sure that Americans get an opportunity to play some of those key positions. There are some teams that have them, and I think that's an important part for the continuing growth and development of our U.S. national team.
FFT: You played at UCLA and became the Bruins' coach in 1980 and had won two NCAA titles when you joined Bora Milutinovic's U.S. men’s national team staff in the buildup to the 1994 World Cup. What did you gain from that experience?
SS: I learned a lot from Bora because that was really my first involvement with pro players. I'd been involved with the B national team, I'd done some of that stuff, but now was really with the full team. We had a lot of conversations. There were a lot of things that I learned. Not so much in daily training of a team, but more so in terms of scouting an opponent, in terms of man-management, in terms of team competition, in terms of psychology within your team. It was more in that direction.
I had a lot of great conversations with him. Obviously, there were coaches meetings we had and things were talked about there, but where I really learned from Bora was in our individual meetings and our individual talks.
FFT: Coming back to L.A. really is a homecoming for you. You were born in Germany but moved to Los Angeles as a 4-year-old. What was it like balancing the two cultures?
SS: For me, the culture shock wasn't that great, because I came here when I was so young. Growing up in the same house as my grandparents, who didn't really speak English, and obviously with my parents, so we retained a lot of German, spoke a lot of German, and my mother cooked for the German soccer club [Los Angeles Kickers], so I was around Germans that way. But the neighborhood we lived in, although there were some Germans there originally, it slowly shifted and became very multicultural very quickly. It was a great experience because I was in a multicultural environment.
Then going with my father to watch games in the L.A. league, you were going to places like Jackie Robinson Stadium [in Compton], you were going to Daniels Field [in San Pedro], and those were very multicultural areas. And so it was good, because instead of watching games, I wanted to kick the ball around. So when you're kicking the ball around outside the field or underneath the grandstand, you were playing with kids of all different ethnicities. And I think that was critical for me as well.
I had the opportunity to go back to Germany an awful lot when I was young, and then sometimes whole summers there, sometimes six or seven weeks, but it was always a good amount of time. That allowed me to experience a little bit more of the German culture also. But it was great to have both.
Soccer always caught my interest at a very young age, and I was able to hold it. Why, I'm not quite sure sometimes, but it wasn't like my dad hammered it into me or he was a super soccer enthusiast, even though he became a referee later. It was something that was always very personal for me from day one, and I didn't play for a real club team. I played a little bit, but not for a real club team until I was 11, so most of the soccer I had early on was played in the street with friends.
FFT: So many of us grew up playing AYSO. I'm sure there was no way to imagine back in 1964 what it would become.
SS: No, not really. It was a great experience, because [AYSO founder] Hans Stierle did a really good job of involving people who loved the game. So my first coach, although it was only for a couple of months, was Helmut Bicek, who actually played for the national team, who was Hungarian in origin. He was a good player; I watched him play in the ethnic league. He was the first one. Then I got [AYSO legend] George Kay, who was a [former Scottish pro] and who had played for the Danes in the old L.A. league.
The thing about those coaches back then was they didn't get a penny for coaching. A lot of times, they worked their jobs all day and then came out at night to coach us kids. Their love and passion was something that came through and really drove us as young players. Sometimes I wish we could go back a little bit, because right now I think the game of soccer has become a good revenue-producing source for a lot of people, and I don't know if it's taken away a little of that passion and commitment. I feel very fortunate because when I was a young player, all my coaches were passionate and committed and doing it because they loved it, not because someone was giving them a salary.
FFT: What kind of midfielder were you? How good? Could you have gone pro?
SS: That's for others to say. I think I was an average player. I don't think I was great, I don't think I was poor. I was a very good passer of the ball, I was a very good striker of the ball, wasn't the fastest guy in the world, wasn't exactly a great dribbler, although by faking passes I could find my way to dribble sometimes. It was mainly passing that was my thing.
I made a very conscious choice coming out of high school and then going to college and graduate school, because I had friends that were going straight to the pros. At that stage, there was a possibility for me, but I think the money was $400 a month, and the ethnic leagues were almost [paying] as much. So for me, it was like, OK, I'll make a little bit less and I can go to school [to study accountancy] because by the time soccer makes it [in the U.S.], I'll probably be too old to play anyway.
FFT: You played at UCLA in a very different era. Were players in college soccer who would be pros in Europe if it had been today?
SS: It was definitely a different situation. Because in college those days, there really wasn't an age restriction. I remember when I was an 18-year-old freshman, my first time I played was against the University of San Francisco, and I played against a midfielder, who was English, who showed up to the game with his wife and two children. I had teammates at UCLA who went on to become assistant coach at Bayern Munich and things like that. I played with five guys who played for the Ethiopian Olympic team in the '68 Olympics in Mexico. Those were good footballing players.
The experience of playing at UCLA was great, and I was already going out there and training with guys like that on the intramural fields when I was like 17, 18, 'cause me and my buddies growing up, everyday we'd look to play. On Monday, we'd go here. On Tuesday, we'd go here. On Wednesday, we'd go here. Even though our club on trained maybe twice a week, we figured out a way to play everyday. That was our interest and our desire.