Sigi Schmid had more to lose than prove in ill-fated second stint with LA Galaxy

Taylor Twellman explains why Sigi Schmid’s exit from the LA Galaxy could shake things up in the search for a new U.S. national team coach.

A certain infamous politician recently made a point of reminding his supporters that they were about to get tired of winning. It was hard not to think of that sentiment on hearing the news that Sigi Schmid, the winningest coach in MLS history, who’d succeeded the second-most winningest coach in MLS, Bruce Arena, was stepping down as LA Galaxy coach to be replaced by the third-most winningest coach, Dom Kinnear.

And looking at that list, it’s perhaps fair to ask the question, “What have you won for me lately?”

The Galaxy are a team who’ve gone from unquestioned dominance in MLS to an indeterminate position in their own city in the space of a few short years. When LAFC appeared on the scene, the Galaxy were quick to remind their would-be rivals of their peerless achievements in the opening two decades of MLS history, but a legacy of winning can rapidly diminish in worth when it appears consigned to the past.

And since Arena’s departure, the Galaxy have at times more closely resembled the lopsided team he inherited than the organization he shaped. First Curt Onalfo, who was dismissed in July 2017, and now Schmid have struggled. With due respect to Kinnear — a fine coach at Houston — there’s little in recent history to suggest he’s about to arrest the trend.

Nobody doubts the pedigree of Schmid, Arena and Kinnear, or their outsize influence on the generation of American coaches that followed them. In advance of Schmid and Arena meeting in a July 2016 game between their then-teams Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy, a coaching family tree graphic even did the rounds to underline that influence.

At the time, this writer wrote a piece for this site noting that the diagram “represents a fascinating kind of core sample of a cultural moment that might be passing,” yet nobody was anticipating just how fast that moment would indeed pass, or how far away the moment when Arena and Schmid were the unquestioned dominant figures in domestic soccer would look from our current vantage point.

Schmid was ousted from Seattle that summer, and Arena would go on to a misadventure with the national team that fall, while the club team he left behind threatened to slide from benchmark to irrelevance.

A winless streak of six games, including a rout in Seattle, ultimately did in Schmid, after an early-summer surge looked to have consolidated his position. But rather than having taken ownership of the team, he’s taken ownership of an indifferent record on his return to one of the clubs he built that winningest record at. Just like Arena with the U.S., Schmid has learned it’s hard to go back.

Yet like Arena, Schmid is an oddly peripheral figure in this part of his own story. The most pointed questions are likely to be reserved not for the errors the two veteran coaches made in their posts, which were generally of the ordinary rather than drastic variety, but on the decisions to appoint them in the first place.

You can focus all you want on the fact that Schmid retooled the goalkeeping and defense of the Galaxy in the offseason, only for the results to be the worst part of how the team functioned this season. And it was hard to have sympathies for his Jose Mourinho-like pleas this summer for defensive reinforcements to address mistakes he was the author of.

Yet just as Sunil Gulati inherited the U.S.’s World Cup failure in a way Arena never fully did, Schmid’s tenure is likely to be a more significant addition to Galaxy president Chris Klein’s permanent record than it is to Schmid’s. It was Klein who appointed Onalfo as Arena’s replacement before entrusting the team to Schmid. In asking Schmid to take on the permanent job after Onalfo, Klein bet on Schmid’s appetite and ability to rebuild the team in his own image, at a stage of the coach’s career when he had more to lose than prove.

If there was a knock on late-period Arena, it was in developing the Galaxy’s abundance of youth talent. Onalfo failed out before he could truly address that. Schmid’s mandate was neither full Arena-style autocratic rule nor the type of developmental system enacted by Oscar Pareja in Dallas or Jesse Marsch with the Red Bulls.

In hindsight, it’s unclear what Klein was or indeed still is thinking. Schmid had name recognition and credibility, but it often felt like having him follow Onalfo was a patch on top of patch. Kinnear feels like tripling down on that.

Kinnear has won a lot of games and has experience. It might work. But going forward, Klein might reflect that experience is important, but you have to learn from it.

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