Canales Daily: Return of the King

Sigi Schmid, who coached the top college and pro team of the area, once ruled the Southern California soccer world. Now he heads back to Los Angeles as the coach of the top team in Major League Soccer.
By Andrea Canales

If there is a soccer kingdom in Southern California, the sunny land that allows for year-round play, then Sigi Schmid was once the king.

He started out as a German-born youngster on the Los Angeles Soccer Club youth team of Hans Stierle, which became famous as the club that essentially launched the American Youth Soccer Organization. It was the skills of Schmid and his teammates that led to AYSO's founding principles of balanced teams and the "everyone plays" philosophy.

Like so many things in Schmid's life, the AYSO connection came full circle when Schmid, who went on to play college soccer at UCLA and later coached the team, welcomed to the school's squad a youngster who got his start in AYSO, Cobi Jones. Despite a father who favored his son playing baseball, Jones was captivated with soccer as soon as he tried the sport with a local AYSO team.

Jones went on to become not only a star for Schmid at UCLA, but a national team talent who remains the most-capped player in history. As a member of the Los Angeles Galaxy since the team was founded, he preceded Schmid's tenure there.

Yet it only seemed fitting that it was the combination of Schmid as Galaxy coach and Jones as team captain that helped Los Angeles break their bridesmaid curse of making it to the championship game but never winning. Schmid and the Galaxy seemed the perfect combination in 2002 as they triumphantly held the club's first MLS Cup trophy, surrounded by players Schmid had nurtured and developed, many dating back to their college years at UCLA.

The Galaxy's breakthrough year was also notable in that it was a clear validation of Schmid's winning ways - in that same season, the Galaxy had won the league's regular season. So whether one rated the European-style points system or the American-based playoff format, the Galaxy were top of the league in 2002.

Yet uneasy became the situation of he who wore the crown in only a short while. With the commercial pressure to justify the expense of a fancy new stadium ratcheted to a new high, the Galaxy were under tremendous scrutiny in 2003. It was the absolute worst moment for an epic collapse, but that's exactly what happened in the Western Conference playoffs versus the San Jose Earthquakes. Up by four goals on aggregate, the Galaxy suffered a comeback for the ages by the 'Quakes, who scored five goals in succession to snatch away victory from the partially digested entrails of defeat.

The king had been mortally wounded. Accusing eyes wanting someone to blame turned in his direction. Though the Galaxy in 2004 were leading the league, the perception was that their style of play wasn't exciting enough. Schmid was fired.

He sought redemption first by going back to his roots with developing young players, taking charge of the U20 squad that contested the Youth World Cup in the Netherlands. Though Schmid was largely responsible for bringing the talent of Benny Feilhaber and Marvell Wynne to the world's stage, many believed that with the talent at his disposal, the U.S. should have done better than their respectable quarterfinal finish.

Schmid then left the SoCal community he had been part of for so long to coach the Columbus Crew in 2006. In Ohio, away from the direct support of his family and long-time friends, he endured two losing seasons marked by both injury and experimentation as Schmid tinkered with the roster in an attempt to find a winning combination.

Again, a player with past ties stepped forward to become part of the new foundation Schmid was trying to build. When the Crew won the 2007 MLS draft lottery to lay claim to Robbie Rogers, there was an instant rapport between the coach and the midfielder newly-returned from the Netherlands. As a Southern California native, Rogers was familiar with Schmid. Their paths had crossed regularly in soccer circles. The Crew showed flashes that year of what they might be capable of, but their inconsistency was also evident.

What the administration in Columbus had the foresight to have, though, was patience. As the turbulent Galaxy welcomed their fourth coach since firing Schmid, the Crew were celebrating a winning season where all the pieces Schmid had fiddled with finally fell into place. The youthful vigor of Rogers melded with the crafty savvy of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, as did the renaissance of Eddie Gaven and Chad Marshall with the ageless sparkplug that is Frankie Hejduk. The gritty effort of Alejandro Moreno combined with the under-appreciated consistency of Brian Carroll, the emergence of a confident Will Hesmer and so on and so on.

Schmid, newly minted the 2008 MLS Coach of the Year, became something of a king in exile, with his band of merry men and another new element in Columbus, a supporter's culture that was all about celebrating the team they had, instead of window-shopping for new designated player possibilities. 

As the Crew celebrated capping their excellent regular season with a trip to the MLS cup final, Schmid paid tribute to those fans and their contribution to the come-from-behind 2-1 victory over the Chicago Fire.

"The energy goes hand in hard, with the energy that the fans have," Schmid explained. "It makes it a lot easier for us to chase when someone is screaming for you and chanting."

Now there remains one last obstacle for the Crew to clear in their march to destiny, and it takes place at the same stadium and place where Schmid was once, figuratively, at least, unceremoniously tossed out on his ear.

In some ways, Schmid bringing the Crew to this point seems like the ultimate redemption tale - the last time any MLS team claimed both the regular season and the league title was when Schmid led the Galaxy to that feat.

"It's great for this city and great for this franchise to get over this hurdle," said Schmid of the Crew's accomplishment in reaching the final game. Like LA in 2002, a title win would be the first in franchise history for Columbus.

While Schmid allowed that returning to Los Angeles was special, he also pointed out, "I'd go anywhere for the championship."

Yet LA games have always been marked with an extra little bit of heat by Schmid, or perhaps its the fighter's spirit charged by memories when climbing into an old, familiar ring.

"Having coached there, I feel very comfortable," Schmid acknowledged. "I'm excited to get the chance to go there. I feel great."

One wonders if doubts assailed Schmid when LA rejected him and the Crew struggled to find their footing. Even if he had them, the Santa-shaped coach soldiered on.

"I'm a confident person and I believe in myself," he said simply. "All that I'm focused on right now is LA."

Fortunately for the Crew, Schmid wasn't talking about his old club, but rather, just the place where he hopes to guide Columbus to victory.

Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of USA