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 Thursday, December 12, 2002 15:34 EST

Win or lose, Sigi a success

By Marc Connolly [ESPN.com]

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Sigi Schmid doesn't fit the profile of the typical head coach in Los Angeles.

For starters, he's a Certified Public Accountant. Glitzy, yes.

He can put the right group of players on the field, and can get the best out of those players. That's something that is very difficult to find in a coach. The fact that he finds himself in a winning position a lot is a testament to how well he does that part of the job.
Cobi Jones

Looks-wise, he resembles a TV dad out of the fifties with George McFly-styled hair and a pot belly. Pat Riley he is not.

When talking to the media, he's straightforward and pleasant, but without the flash or intrigue of a Bora Milutinovic or the schmoozing ability of a Steve Sampson -- two coaches who have always seemed to be made for La La Land.

His hiring wasn't a high-profile move for the L.A. Galaxy three-and-a-half years ago to say the least. Schmid was a respected coach in SoCal at the helm of the successful UCLA program for 19 years, but that didn't make him the obvious choice coming into the '99 season. After all, here was a guy who had never coached professional soccer before. The move was even criticized, whether quietly or publicly, by several soccer pundits.

Yet all Schmid has done is produce, as is the case once again this season as his team storms into Sunday's MLS Cup as the favorites against the New England Revolution.

His squad has not won a title after being in the MLS Cup in both Sigi's first year and last season, and much has been made of that. (Did that make Marv Levy a bad coach for the Buffalo Bills?). But it's not so simple. To truly judge Schmid's success one has to look at his three division titles in four years, his outstanding combined regular season and playoff mark of 75-40-22 and his team's triumphs in the CONCACAF Champions' Cup and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

"He knows how to win -- that's the bottom line," Galaxy defender Danny Califf said. "He won in college. And in MLS, we've been to three finals and have been to five finals overall counting international competitions. You can't argue with the results."

To get the results you need the right players, something that Sigi has been able to do at all levels. His eye for talent is one of his most enviable traits.

"Sigi is someone who can find the talented players," said the Galaxy's Cobi Jones, who played for Schmid at UCLA before being reunited with him. "He can put the right group of players on the field, and can get the best out of those players. That's something that is very difficult to find in a coach. The fact that he finds himself in a winning position a lot is a testament to how well he does that part of the job."

Maybe the best example of that came when Eric Wynalda, only the greatest scorer in the history of the U.S. National Team, was discovered in high school by Schmid when other ODP (Olympic Developmental Program) coaches passed him by.

"Sigi comes up to me after a game and says, 'See you on the state team,'" said Wynalda, who retired from soccer earlier this season and is now coaching in southern California and working as an analyst for ABC and ESPN. "But I wasn't on the state team. Next thing I knew, I got a tryout and was on the team, and it was his doing. Obviously, I owe a lot to him."

A great testament to Schmid is how he is complimented by someone like Revolution captain Joey Franchino, a player he basically gave up on more than two years ago.

"Sigi is someone I respect a lot," said Franchino, who has settled in nicely as the right back for Steve Nicol in New England. "He's one of the best coaches in the league and I was fortunate to play for him. Sigi let me go, but I don't hold that against him and I have the highest regard for him. He brought me along as a player. I learned a lot from him. It was a stepping stone for me and helped me to get where I am today."

Ask Schmid what his secret is and he won't give you any Zen-like talk or philosophical mish-mosh like a better-known coach in L.A. He really just believes coaching is about adapting and changing on the fly as things change.

"My general philosophy has always been to try to let the teams I have mold and shape themselves," Schmid said. "There are a lot of roads to roam, as the saying goes, and some coaches believe in a certain system to play and try to find players to fit into that system. My feeling has always been to look for good soccer players. Once you have that, you try and make best use of their talent."

A great example of that is what he did with his lineup this season. In order to utilize the strengths of Alexi Lalas, he made the former U.S. international a sweeper without marking responsibilities in a three-back defensive line within the team's 3-5-2 formation. And Schmid's offensive shape was transformed when 2002 MLS MVP Carlos Ruiz entered the lineup.

"This year our system changed a little bit," the 48-year-old head coach said. "It gave a little more freedom for Cobi (Jones). With (Carlos) Ruiz being a true center forward, we had to play a little differently up front and it took awhile for that to mold. I always want that to emerge so the team gets a style of play that they are comfortable with and that they can play well from."

The system has changed, yes, but the better word might be "changing" as it is constantly being reworked depending on the opponent and availability of his players.

"The way I learned early on as a coach is that if you can take the other team out of their comfort zone during that period of time that it gives you an advantage," said Schmid. "We have gone to a system where we do adjust a little bit to the opponent and we do it because it gives us a better chance to use our strengths. It's not a situation where we're going to try to adjust to the opponent because 'Oh, Geez, we better stop them.' It's more of a situation that through this tweak or this adjustment it'll allow us to develop what we do."

His tweaks and adjustment have been on the mark throughout his stay with the Galaxy. Yet several of the questions he gets asked on a regular basis have to do with young American stars dispersed all over MLS. Why? Well, because it seems as though every player in their mid-20s played for Schmid in the U-20 FIFA Youth World Championships in 1999. This squad made it to the round of 16 behind a 2-2 record that included wins over England (1-0) and Cameroon (3-1) before being ousted by eventual champion Spain (3-2).

"I have a huge amount of pride for that," said Schmid, who will be looking to stop one of his former U-20 players -- MLS scoring champion Taylor Twellman -- on Sunday. "I said at the time to Wolfgang Suhnholz, who was an assistant of mine, that of the 18 players we took to Nigeria, the majority of the guys would make it. I believe 16 of the 18 are playing pro. You look at guys like Rusty Pierce, Steve Cherundolo, Taylor Twellman, Chris Albright, Nick Downing, Nick Garcia, Carlos Bocanegra and Danny Califf. It was just a real good, competitive group and you could tell that from the first day."

He built that squad around defense, which has become a trademark of his over the years, and the reason why he was on Bora's coaching staff for the 1994 World Cup.

"He has a great handle on the defensive side of the game," said Wynalda. "It's tough to solve for opposing players, and he brought that to our World Cup team that year. His organization on the field is very German (disciplined), and there's something to be said for that."

At the same time, he allows his strikers to have freedom up top and to be creative. That's something that Wynalda, as creative as they come, has always admired about Schmid's style.

"He never tried to pull the reigns on a forward," said Wynalda. "He allows you to be you and not someone you're not. Too many guys try to change players at the pro level as though they were in college. It doesn't work as a pro for the most part. And because Sigi knows and realizes that is why he has and always will succeed at every level."

That's not to say he's a liberal player's coach, though. Schmid is someone who is all business.

"Stevie (Nicol) is more outgoing than Sigi," said Franchino, comparing his past two coaches. "But a coach isn't supposed to be your friend. He gets the best out of his players. Everyone is not always going to like Sigi."

But they will respect him and play by his rules.

"From the moment you are signed with Los Angeles you come in to an environment that not only encourages but demands 100 percent effort," said Lalas. "There's a commitment to winning and a history of winning, and an expectation that this team will win. You certainly don't want to be a piece of the puzzle that comes in and messes that up because of the tradition that's come before. I came into that environment, which is a tremendously professional one on and off the field."

Just 24 hours before his squad gets yet another crack at that elusive cup, Schmid doesn't seem to be a man feeling pressure or even minding the slew of "Why haven't you ever won in this game?" questions from the media.

"You can't think about things you can't change," Schmid simply says.

Nearby, Wynalda marvels at him.

"He's just a guy who has figured it all out. And I'll say this, Sigi's one of the top coaches in MLS. My list would be (Bob) Bradley, (Frank) Yallop and Sigi."

The two names preceding that of Schmid have won MLS Cups. Maybe now it's his turn.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at shaketiller10@yahoo.com.

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