Friday, December 12, 2008
Schmid's departure a blow, but Crew won't miss a beat
One of the joys of winning a championship -- be it for fan, player, coach, or executive -- is getting to bask in the title-winning afterglow for an entire offseason. It's what author Jim Bouton called "the cool of the evening," taking satisfaction in a job well done. Alas, for the Columbus Crew, it took a mere three weeks for those perks to evaporate almost completely.
MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall is poised to depart for European climes. Midfielder Brad Evans was lost in the expansion draft. But dealing the ultimate buzz kill to Columbus' title-winning celebrations is the departure of coach Sigi Schmid, who looks set to take the reins of expansion side Seattle after failing to agree to a contract extension with the Crew.
"That's the toughest thing," said forward Alejandro Moreno about Schmid's impending exit. "Instead of enjoying our championship and savoring what the season was all about, we're now concerned with a subject that we thought winning the championship would have taken care of. It's tough to see [Schmid] go, and see him go under these circumstances."
Granted, the news out of Columbus isn't all bad. The re-signing of league MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto has allowed the club to retain its most vital attacking component, thus ensuring that the Crew remains among the league's elite. And the Crew isn't the only team faced with losing a key player or two. Houston defender Bobby Boswell is also looking across the pond, while former New England defender Michael Parkhurst has already inked a deal in Denmark with FC Nordsjaelland. Add the fact that the rest of Columbus' championship-winning side remains intact, and it's easy to conclude that another title run is well within reach.
"The players that are coming back have a tremendous mentality about them, and that's why we were so successful this year," said Columbus general manager Mark McCullers. "The locker room and the leadership from within the team is exceptional, and the players that were primarily responsible for that -- the Morenos, the Schelottos, the [Frankie] Hejduks -- those guys are all in place."
Yet the manner of Schmid's departure has the Crew faithful banging their hard-hat-adorned heads against the wall. McCullers first approached Schmid about a contract extension during the All-Star break. The back-and-forth continued into October, when McCullers made a revised offer to Schmid two days before the regular-season finale against D.C. United, all the while thinking that time was on his side.
It wasn't. The longer the process went on, the more appealing the thought of returning to the West Coast became for Schmid, especially since his wife Valerie had remained in California during his entire time in Columbus. The fact that the Crew filed tampering charges against Seattle for allegedly contacting Schmid while he was still under contract only served to give their former hero one final nudge westward.
"It's tough to leave Columbus," Schmid said. "It's just a situation where it took too long for the whole process. If everyone is committed to the process, it's something that should take a week."
McCullers insists that he made Schmid "a very competitive offer," and that moving back to the West Coast was Schmid's top priority all along, something the erstwhile Crew manager denies.
"At the end of the day, that had an impact," said Schmid of a possible return West. "But only after it was clear that [Columbus and I] weren't going to move forward."
That has left the Crew organization in a position that in many respects is unprecedented. Just once before in the league's brief history has a manager left a reigning champion to take another head coaching job. That occurred after the 2003 campaign, when Frank Yallop left San Jose to become manager of the Canadian national team. And given the near-constant rumors at the time that the Quakes would be moved, sold or both, few people begrudged Yallop his decision to move on.
Contrast that with Schmid's preference to not only leave Columbus, but to throw his lot in with an expansion side, and you have the Crew engaging in some considerable damage control. McCullers has been keen to point out that it wasn't Schmid alone who led Columbus to its Supporters Shield and MLS Cup triumphs in 2008. And while the coach who helped turn around the team's fortunes might be gone, the foundation remains.
"I think we're positioned well going forward," McCullers said. "Is [losing Schmid] a disappointment, and is it not the ideal scenario? Yes. Is it going to kill the organization? No, because I think we're situated properly, in large part due to his efforts."
While McCullers' logic is sound, there exists the real possibility that the loss in momentum will be enough to derail the Crew's hopes for a repeat. That's why players such as Moreno are eager to see longtime assistant Robert Warzycha be named Schmid's successor, despite McCullers' insistence that the Crew will do their "due diligence" in finding a replacement. The Pole not only fashioned a 7-6-3 record as the Crew's interim head coach during the horrid 2005 season, but his familiarity with the players, organization and city certainly would give him a better starting point than any other candidate.
"It would be a perfect situation in that the transition would be as smooth and seamless as possible," said Moreno of Warzycha's possible hiring. "It's a better alternative than what happened in L.A. when Sigi was fired, and Steve Sampson came in with a totally different outlook on how things were going to work. It really took a toll on how the team played for that year and in the long term for that organization."
But promoting from within is no guarantee of immediate success either, and carries with it some considerable obstacles. New York sporting director Jeff Agoos saw this up close during his last season playing in San Jose, when one-time assistant Dominic Kinnear took over for Yallop and saw his side struggle mightily during the 2004 campaign.
"You have to overcome the perception of always being the assistant, so I think there's a leadership issue that you have to establish," Agoos said. "And you go from somebody who is more of a liaison between the team and the head coach to making decisions on what your future is going to be, so there is a little of that perception. "But I think if you don't change who you are, your style, your character, that should still be in play when you become the head coach. You should have that ability to sit down with players and be honest and open."Kinnear ultimately passed those tests, and no less an authority than Schmid states that "Warzycha is ready." But regardless of who succeeds Schmid, Crew fans will be hoping another championship is in the offing, one that they can celebrate in full.Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.