- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 6, 2016

TUKWILA, Wash. (AP) - As he walked off the practice field recently, Brian Schmetzer was greeted in a manner usually reserved for players.

The Seattle Sounders coach was pulled aside to sign a poster board, asked to pose for a cellphone picture with a fan and finally chased down to autograph - of all things - a shoe.

“I’ve still got another four hours of work,” Schmetzer cracked with a grin as he walked away.

Schmetzer is a popular guy these days after leading a remarkable turnaround that has landed Seattle in Saturday’s MLS title game at Toronto with a chance to add a major piece of hardware missing from the club’s trophy case.

It’s been a stunning climb, from the depths of the Western Conference standings in July when Schmetzer took over following the dismissal of Sigi Schmid, to the Sounders’ position now.

“It always has the opportunity to get better, starting with we put ourselves in the position to have the opportunity to win an MLS Cup,” said Schmetzer, a Seattle native who had the interim tag removed from his title in early November. “I’m proud of that. But hopefully, we’ll all be around here for a few more years and we’ll continue to build on those opportunities to create the moments to create the chances to win more.”

Schmetzer, 54, is entwined with Seattle’s soccer history. A star player in previous generations of Seattle soccer franchises. A coach with earlier incarnations of the Sounders at lower levels of American soccer. An assistant coach for the first 7 ½ years of the MLS franchise. And now the man in charge of leading a remarkable midseason turnaround that has Seattle on the cusp of an unlikely first league championship and the biggest soccer moment in the city’s history with the sport.

“I think because of the story of our year you might have some traction there,” Schmetzer said. “But I think there have been some big moments. Winning the Supporters’ Shield in (2014), that team was really good. Again it’s kind of by era. The championships we won in (2005) and (2007) were pretty big for that moment in time. The (1995) team for their moment, the Soccer Bowl appearance in (1982). It’s all kind of relative to the era that we’re kind of playing in. But this one is pretty big.”

When Schmetzer inherited the lead role on an interim basis in late July, the Sounders were on pace for their worst season in club history. A season that began with promise highlighted by the signing of young American star Jordan Morris had devolved to the point that Schmid, the winningest coach in MLS history, was cast aside.

Even though he sat next to Schmid for the entirety of his tenure with Seattle, Schmetzer’s voice in the locker room became fresh and new. It was respected, in part because Schmetzer gave ownership to his players.

“He’s given us the team in a way,” goalkeeper Stefan Frei said. “Some players may not even realize this but it’s a huge sign of respect that a coach shows the players when he kind of does that. When he says, ‘I’m the chaperone but this is your guys’ team. I will guide you the best that I can but you guys will make the decisions. You guys will be the ones going to battle.’ For me it’s a huge sign of respect he shows the players and I think when players get that feeling they immediately want to repay that respect.”

He also remained the same person that even the longest-tenured Sounders have come to know. Schmetzer is an original just as much as Brad Evans, Osvaldo Alonso and Zach Scott - the only players who have been with Seattle every season since its MLS debut in 2009.

“A guy who was fiery even from our first training session (in 2009),” Evans said. “He in was our faces, making sure everything was sharp, quick and to the point. In saying that nothing has changed really. He’s still in your ear, in the back of your mind saying, ‘faster, quicker,’ and that’s good to keep the guys on their toes. He’s done that since day one.”

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