I didn't know Sigi Schmid. And I'm willing to chance that most of you who read this piece didn't either.
But perhaps thanks to the sea of tributes left for him in the week since his passing, you might have caught yourself thinking you did or at the very least wishing you had. That he was, according to them, the same man in private that he appeared to be in public – kind, funny, astute and honest – only makes it easier to excuse.
It also makes it that much easier to explain how he accomplished everything he did and why, as Sounder At Heart notes, he was admitted to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2015 as a "builder" -- someone whose impact on the sport will carry on in ways the more ephemeral legacies of players and coaches may not.
Of course, no one has to tell Sounders fans what that's worth. Up until two years ago, Sigi was the only coach many of them had ever known. Luring him to Seattle from the reigning champion Columbus Crew remains one of the greater coups for an expansion team to this day. Without him, the idea that they'd still develop into one the major powers in MLS is no sure thing.
Just ask Head Coach Brian Schmetzer, a Seattle native and Sounder lifer who coached them in the USL before being made Sigi's assistant. In a letter addressed to grieving supporters, he didn't hold back:
When Sigi was hired as coach I felt it was the right hire for the job. His knowledge of the League was second to none, his ability to remember names, dates, scores, games, moments in those games was uncanny... I could never replicate those character traits, but I absorbed other pieces of information from Sigi that I use in my coaching.
And though Schmetzer earned a hero's welcome for bringing home an MLS Cup, it's a testament to how conflicted fans feel that you still can find those who think Sigi got a raw deal. Had the season started any better, they'll say, or had he at least been given a chance to coach Nicolas Lodeiro, he might have equaled Schmetzer's result and stayed in Seattle until the end.
But as everyone will know, that isn't what happened. Sigi would coach in MLS one last time but not in Seattle or Columbus. Instead, his journey would lead him back to where it all began with the club that first brought him to the pros in Los Angeles.
If there was romance in the idea of Sigi coaching Seattle until the day he died, the same was true of him coaching the Galaxy -- maybe even to a greater degree.
That Sigi was a local for over six decades couldn't have possibly played a bigger part in that. Not only was he one of the very first players in AYSO history and a living legend at UCLA, where he won three national titles and mentored countless future stars, he was also the first truly great coach in Galaxy history.
Between 1999 and 2004, the team won their first ever MLS Cup Final in a sudden death classic and finished runner-up in another two. They also captured two other trophies in this time to help cement themselves as one of the league's top clubs.
Then, August 17, 2004, nine months after the team squandered a four-goal lead to arch rival San Jose in the playoffs, Sigi got a text. It was from then-president Doug Hamilton, who wanted to let him know he was being fired. At the time, the Galaxy were first in the West, even after four draws and a loss.
Though the late Hamilton called it a "painful decision", he maintained that it was a necessary one, adding "I will not be pleased if we get positive results that are not entertaining for the fans." (Over the years, his comments have since been regarded as the closest thing to a manifesto anyone at the club has issued.)
In the meantime, both sides would head their separate ways and continue to win titles on their own. The Galaxy went through five more coaches while stocking the cabinet with nine more trophies (four of them MLS Cups) and Sigi matched that tally in addition to becoming the all-time winningest coach in league history.
Most of you already know this. What you may not know is how often LA still managed to insert itself into the backdrop of his career.
In the week since his passing, a photo of him holding the 2008 MLS Cup with then-league MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto has gone viral. The location of that final, which he won with Columbus? Carson, California.
And in 2014, when the Sounders had not only their best shot at a title yet but also a historic treble, which team opened the door for them only to cruelly slam it shut in their faces? Your five-time champion LA Galaxy.
Maybe all this was inevitable because of the size of the league at the time. Or maybe it was a sign the two were meant to be together once again. Regardless, on July 27, 2017, a year after he was let go by the Sounders, Sigi was finally re-hired by LA to replace first-year coach Curt Onalfo. The reunion did not play out as Hollywood might have scripted it.
how beatifically poetic of the soccer gods pic.twitter.com/yO5KAwN68C— LAG Confidential (@LAGConfidential) December 27, 2018
Now, you may recall I highlighted the fact that Sigi was a builder, tasked with making over entire programs not only in Seattle or Columbus but also LA. That was as true of his second term as it was his first. But when he returned, he brought an additional mandate: to show the critics, and likely himself, that he could still be successful in this league.
As he put it to the Times last August: "Some people felt myself and maybe even Bruce [Arena], that we were old school and we were taboo and hey, it's passed them by. So yeah, proving that it hasn't passed by was a little bit important."
A little bit important but, as it would turn out, not the least bit simple.
Many times, it felt like the Galaxy front office went out of their way to make his job harder than it already was, starting the second he arrived with the signings of Jonathan dos Santos and Michael Ciani. And while at first, he may have been happy for the additional investments (after being denied them in Seattle), it would quickly become apparent that both moves were merely panic buys.
Two months later, after the Galaxy had been eliminated from the playoffs, management then announced their second shakeup in as many years. Sigi, as the headline read, would assume player personnel responsibilities as well as oversight of the team's scouting and sports science departments. But even this didn't give him the power to make all the changes he thought it did, and he would still need to check with any number of individuals -- from then-VP of Soccer Operations Pete Vagenas to Technical Director Jovan Kirovski, President Chris Klein, AEG CEO Dan Beckerman and owner Phil Anschutz - for final approval.
This bore several consequences in and of itself, from the players he named in his lineups to the tactics he used, but the most enduring one was that it prevented him from rebuilding the team the way he had originally planned.
As Times reporter Kevin Baxter would reveal, the FO used TAM he had earmarked for two defensive players instead on Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It was a move few questioned at the time, and Zlatan's phenomenal 22-goal season virtually ensures that will always be the case. But Sigi would no doubt still make the point that Zlatan's output wouldn't be as needed if he had been able to fix the vulnerabilities he saw in the midfield and backline.
Indeed, not even the Lion's offensive magic could save his team or the fate of his head coach. By September 10th, the day Sigi finally "resigned", the team had lost two games by blowout margins in their last three and were winless for the month of August. They had also failed to win 10 games in which they scored at least two goals.
Rumors circulated that the team had quit on him, and their turnaround in form under interim coach Dominic Kinnear didn't dispel that narrative.
To say the fans reacted any better to the news is plainly comical. Several took to Reddit and Twitter to celebrate, while others openly wondered why Klein and Vagenas hadn't yet joined him.
In reflecting on now being fired twice by his hometown team, however, the 65-year old Schmid was stoic.
"It was probably the best decision," he'd tell ESPNFC's Jeff Carlisle three days later.
But as for whether he felt management ever really had his back? That he didn't appear comfortable discussing.
"They can answer that," he said diplomatically. "I'm not going to go there."
The Galaxy wound up missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season, Vagenas joined Sigi in exiting the organization, and then before he could finish plotting his next move, it was all over.
"Sigi" Siegfried Schmid, born in Baden-Württemberg, Germany, left us Christmas Day at Ronald Reagan UCLA Hospital, three weeks after being admitted with a heart condition. An emotionally devastated league and fanbase found out not from the LA Galaxy but from the Seattle Sounders.
Guilt is as natural to the mourning process as pleading. And while our community spends the next weeks (and months) remembering an American soccer great, some might be asking what role they or their team may have played in such a tragic loss or if there's anything they can do to change it.
The idea this supposes though is obviously absurd. Sigi would be the first to remind us that sports are a business and death isn't a game. No one owed him this job, and no one is to blame for where he is today.
That said, if his treatment by management, players and fans alike still is hard to bear, what if it should be? Moreover, what can we do about it besides denying it ever took place or trying to rationalize it after the fact?
There is one option that comes to mind, and it pertains to the work Sigi left the Galaxy unfinished.
"My goal," he revealed to Carlisle, "[was that] I had told them it was a two-year project and then [I'd] leave with an infrastructure that was better than the infrastructure I found. I think we were allowed to accomplish that in some areas and in some areas it hasn't happened yet."
Fortunately, some of the developments that have already transpired this offseason suggest they soon might.
In hiring the highly-regarded and multilingual Dennis te Kloese away from the Mexican Football Federation, the front office now has someone who shares Sigi's belief in the doors communication can open for an organization, not to mention his sentiment that the future of any team is its youth. And with the aforementioned Schelotto, himself as much a pioneer as Sigi was thanks to being the first high-profile South American to play in MLS, those values are amplified still.
As for the roster, there will eventually come a day when none of the players here will have been coached by Sigi and will thus be unaware of the expectations he had of them. But with a majority of those who made last year's team semi-watchable slated to return in 2019, that won't be the case any time soon.
Fans will no doubt show up to Dignity Health Sports Park feeling invigorated by the improvement in both areas, nevertheless with pitchforks stowed in the trunk of their cars just in case.
Each of these groups, however, still has lingering concerns to address, starting with management. How they are ultimately judged for the way they internalize Sigi's legacy won't only be by the values they claim to uphold. Both te Kloese and Schelotto need the freedom to do their jobs and enough security to do so as well.
If they still fail, so be it, but at least they will have had the chance to fail on their own terms.
Isn't that all Sigi wanted? For the sake of having accountability, shouldn't that be what we want as well?
In the meantime, the situation the team itself faces is not having to play only for the pride of the shirt, the fans or even their new manager but now their old one too.
Some will, for example, want to prove that Sigi was right to give them the opportunities he did. For others, it may be as much about disproving claims that their performances were a fluke or that they showed him any less effort than they did Kinnear. Either way, this is one group that can only acquit themselves by the results they earn on the field.
That leaves us finally with the fans.
In reading over the comments that have flowed in since the news was released (which came hours after reports of the team hiring Schelotto, no less) most have been polite enough not to push whatever disagreements they had with Sigi and instead thank him for his contributions to the development of the Galaxy or, more broadly, the American game.
Unfortunately, some still feel the need to preface their remarks with qualifiers that undermine any sincerity they may have.
"I wasn't a fan but..."
"Regardless of how I felt..."
One fan's insistence that his criticisms "[were] nothing personal" rings especially hollow in light of the many petty attacks he personally lobbed, while other comments are imperceptibly different from trolls'.
Make no mistake about it: we as a fanbase must work to get this number down to zero. And that work starts by recognizing that all who serve this club have dignity, whether we believe every action they take is dignified or not.
Such an obligation, by the way, is no more imposing than asking that we keep our stadium clean, welcome traveling fans in good faith and refrain from homophobic or racist slurs. It is also fully consistent with the reputation that most LA teams and their fanbases (with 1-2 exceptions) have earned, and the one Sigi did as well.
I'm very mindful of how preachy some of this sounds. If we are as serious about honoring the man and giving him closure as we say we are though, then the pursuit of said closure doesn't fall upon the players or staff alone. This rules out any cheap talk of "winning a Cup for Sigi", not only because any commitment it might inspire would be highly selfish and exclusive but because it also wrongly suggests there is any finality to this task; that it's just a box to be ticked off.
To truly know one is to know a builder's work is never done.