Rising American coaching stars Schmetzer and Vanney set to match wits in MLS Cup final

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Toronto and Seattle's managers are set to do battle in another MLS Cup final, only this time with a much better understanding of each other

TORONTO — The 2017 MLS Cup final will feature two teams that know each other well by now. Not only because of the 120 championship minutes Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders played against each other a year ago in this very same final, but because the men leading both teams know each other that much better.

Brian Schmetzer and Greg Vanney are coaching adversaries, but they also happen to be classmates, with both of them currently a part of the second class of the U.S. Soccer Pro Coaching Course. The group includes several high-profile classmates, including U.S. Women's national team coach Jill Ellis, New York Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch and former Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter.

The year-long coaching course, which has taken place throughout 2017, has given Schmetzer and Vanney an opportunity to get to know each other much better, helping raise the admiration that already existed between two of the league's rising coaching stars.

"Getting to know (Vanney) on a personal level is great," Schmetzer told Goal ahead of Saturdays' final. "The course itself is a great opportunity not only to get to know and understand some of your fellow coaches, but just being among your peers you want to try and compete against them."

"I know Schmetz a little bit and I think he’s a great guy who, clearly, the guys love playing for, which means he’s probably a great manager of them and great communicator and gets a lot out of them," Vanney told Goal. "They seem to genuinely enjoy playing the game and that’s a positive thing. That’s always an edge in MLS, when you get an intense group that enjoys playing, and then you can just bring out the assets of the players you have on the field. I think he’s done a great job of that."

Brian Schmetzer Seattle Sounders MLS 10272016

As much as Saturday's final will be about the star players on both sides, Schmetzer and Vanney will have a big part in determining the winner as they each have established themselves as astute game managers who are both adept at making the right moves to turn around a match.

"Just look at the last round. He changed his formation against Columbus in the second half (of the second leg), and pulled off (Eriq) Zavaleta and went a different way because he didn’t like the way the team was going," Schmetzer said. "I’m not sure I would do that, not at 0-0, but it shows that he’s confident in what he does."

Vanney has also taken note of Schmetzer's ability to make the right in-game adjustments to help the Sounders close out matches, and come back in matches when they are trailing.

"It’s a product of his personality," Vanney said of Schmetzer. "He’s not a highly emotional guy. He will sit back and he’ll take the game in and see what’s going on. He doesn’t get overly wound up about calls or about this or that, the things that don’t matter, he doesn’t get caught up in that stuff. He stays relatively emotionless and calm on the sidelines, and I think he’s taking in the game and utilizes his assistant coaches, as we all do, to get a good read on what’s happening and how he can get an advantage. I think he does a nice job of that. I think a lot of that has to do with his demeanor.

"Obviously he’s soccer aware," Vanney added. "He’s been around a long time and he’s a good coach. I enjoy that. I haven’t played against him a ton to say we’ve had these big tactical matches, but at the same time I recognize watching from a distance that he definitely can adapt and adjust the game and have an impact on the game with his moves, which again is a product of a good coach."

The two coaches matched wits in last year's final, and the result was a goal-less stalemate ultimately decided by penalty kicks in a Sounders win. A year later, their teams arrive in the final boasting more attacking weapons, which should give them each considerably more options in what should be another classic coaching chess match.

For Vanney, Saturday's final represents not only a chance for some redemption, but also an opportunity to write the perfect ending to what has been a dream season. One which has seen him win MLS coach of the year while Toronto FC secured a Supporters' Shield and set a new league record for points in a season.

As much as TFC's considerable talent was a big reason for the team's success this year, Vanney's evolution as a coach has also played a major role in how his team responded from last year's title game disappointment to evolve into one of the best teams in MLS history.

Greg Vanney Toronto FC

"The thing I think that sets Greg apart from a lot of coaches is the work he puts in," TFC assistant Robin Fraser told Goal. "The work in analyzing the other team, and trying to prepare our team for every possible scenario. The work is pretty incredible, but I think the other thing that sets him apart is he’s pretty innovative in the way he approaches the game. I think he’s very, very much a student of the game and wants to be on the leading edge of what’s happening in the game. I think that desire and that willingness to continue to push himself as a coach has made him better."

While the 43-year-old Vanney is seen as a leading member of a newer generation of American coaching talents, Schmetzer is a veteran who already had considerable head coaching experience before he was thrust into the Sounders top position in the middle of the 2016 season. The 55-year-old spent seven seasons coaching the USL version of the Seattle Sounders before the team joined MLS as an expansion team in 2009, a year which saw Schmetzer join Sigi Schmid's coaching staff as lead assistant.

Schmetzer wasn't expected by many to hold on to the Sounders coaching job after taking over on an interim basis in the summer of 2016, but the job was his to keep after leading Seattle to an improbable MLS Cup title. A year later, Schmetzer has shown that 2016 was no fluke as he has helped the Sounders hit their best form heading into Saturday's final.

"This is the deepest team I’ve been a part of and it’s not easy to manage every player when they’re not playing or thinking they should be playing," Sounders forward Will Bruin told Goal. "That’s good to have as a squad, but that’s hard to manage and I think he’s done a really good job of handling that."

Schmetzer will have some tough decisions to make in choosing his starting lineup on Saturday, even with captain and star midfielder Osvaldo Alonso ruled out due to injury, such as who to start at left back between Nouhou Tolo and Joevin Jones. Vanney is in a similar situation, as he chooses which of his center backs to deploy, and who between Marky Delgado and Jonathan Osorio will start in midfield.

The two coaches won't be done working for the year after Saturday's MLS Cup final. They will each make a final presentation next week in Chicago to conclude their pro coaching course. One of them will be fresh off having won an MLS title, and couldn't be blamed for simply bringing along the trophy and showing it off as part of their presentation. Neither plans on doing that though. Not just because they're both humble guys, but because of the respect they have developed for each other. Respect that should only grow after another championship duel between two coaches we might be seeing a lot of in MLS Cup finals for years to come.

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