2002 – Around the World and Close to Home
The Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse scandals is exposed in Boston, President Bush addresses presses the United Nations for the support of regime change in Iraq, and behind Ronaldo’s two goals, Brazil defeats Germany in the World Cup final in Japan. In Washington, Puyallup’s Nathan Chapman, an army sergeant, becomes the first U.S. casualty of enemy fire in Afghanistan, Mariners’ outfielder Mike Cameron belts four home runs in one game, and Seahawks Stadium opens to both soccer and NFL action.
A Remarkable Renewal
A new owner, new coach and new approach: Asking those elements to cohesively coalesce in a matter of months is ambitious. Asking them to win with regularity is capricious and asking them to win a championship is pure fantasy.
Yet the Seattle Sounders nearly pull off such a dream season in 2002. Coming off a year that they first failed to make the A-League playoffs, the club retool the roster, coaching staff and front office and fast become the frontrunner for the championship.
Adrian Hanauer, who at 35 joined the ownership group, becomes managing partner and general manager following the 2001 season, and soon after makes the coaching change. Bernie James is let go and within three weeks Hanauer hires Brian Schmetzer. On the business side, he focuses on slashing the annual losses that are approaching $1 million.
Schmetzer’s a logical choice in some respects, having played for every iteration of Puget Sound pro clubs, from NASL Sounders to FC Seattle to Tacoma Stars to A-League Sounders and indoor SeaDogs. At the last stop he transitioned from player to assistant coach until the franchise folded. Now, five years later, Hanauer and CEO Neil Farnsworth pluck him from the youth coaching ranks, and Schmetzer arrives with a clear vision of the club’s purpose and methodology.
"I kind of came up with a catch-phrase for the style that I want to play, and that's `A young American style,' " said Schmetzer. "We want to bring young Americans to this club and try and teach them. They are already accomplished players when they come to us. But can we teach them more? I think we can."
Three key acquisitions with MLS experience will figure prominently in the Sounders’ reversal of fortune. Darren Sawatzky, the top scorer in 2000, returns from a year in Portland to form a strike force with former Gonzaga star Brian Ching, on loan from LA Galaxy. Also back is midfielder Andrew Gregor following a season with Kansas City, and Nate Daligcon, a member of the 1996 championship side, comes home from Rochester. Pulling the strings in the middle of the park is talisman Leighton O’Brien.
Schmetzer’s system of “selective pressure” on the part of his front six preys on opposing defenders, forcing turnovers in Seattle’s attacking third and, once in possession, letting his players be creative. The chemistry and understanding are instantaneous, and the Sounders are clicking from the first kick, reeling off eight straight wins and scoring 24 goals in the process.
When Seattle (15-2-0) is drawn at home against San Jose Earthquakes (10-6-2) in the Open Cup, it’s a matchup of the table-toppers in MLS and the A-League. Ching gives the Sounders up at the half mark before the Quakes bring Ariel Graziani and Landon Donovan off the bench and go on to win in extra time. While it’s a tough loss, back in league play the wins keep mounting, reaching 12 in a row by mid-August. Among those is a 4-1 victory over Vancouver to celebrate the opening of Seahawks Stadium before a league-record crowd of more than 25,000.
Although the Sounders secure the Commissioners’ Cup for best record (23-4-1), hopes of a double are dashed. The Whitecaps, swept in four regular-season meetings by a combined eight goals, punish Seattle mistakes in a second-round playoff series, advancing 8-2 on aggregate. It’s not the ending Schmetzer had in mind, but when it’s announced the team will make Seahawks Stadium their permanent home, he guarantees a championship is close at hand.