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Old turf, new crew

Former Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid has Columbus in the MLS title game, to be played Sunday at the Home Depot Center.

November 22, 2008|Grahame L. Jones | Jones is a Times staff writer.

It would be easy for Sigi Schmid to gloat these days.

No one would blame him for walking around with a self-satisfied smile, or even with the swagger that comes from having proved critics irrefutably wrong.

But that's not who Schmid is, and the former UCLA and Galaxy coach is simply enjoying the moment.

On Sunday, Schmid's Columbus Crew will play the New York Red Bulls in Major League Soccer's championship game at the Home Depot Center in Carson.

If the Crew wins, it will cap a remarkable season for the 55-year-old Schmid, who in three years rebuilt the Crew, coached it to the best record in the league this season and won MLS coach-of-the-year honors.

But while he is focused on Sunday's game, Schmid is looking forward just as much to Tuesday night and another soccer game. That's when UC Irvine will play Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a 1-0 winner over UCLA on Friday, in a second-round NCAA playoff game. Schmid's interest? The Anteaters, ranked seventh nationally, feature two of his sons, Kurt as an assistant coach and Kyle as a senior defender.

An Irvine-UCLA match would have left Schmid of two minds. He was the Bruins' coach for 19 years and won three NCAA titles.

And then came the Galaxy.

Schmid always believed he would last just as long with the MLS club. He saw himself as a sort of West Coast Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger, spending the majority of his career with the same club, and said as much this week.

"I grew up in Southern California and . . . I thought I would have a tenure at the Galaxy like Ferguson has had at Manchester United and Wenger has had at Arsenal," he said. "But that didn't happen. You can't look back."

Schmid coached the Galaxy for five-plus seasons, winning an MLS title, a U.S. Open Cup and a CONCACAF Champions Cup. The team was in first place when he was unexpectedly ousted late in the 2004 season.

"As a coach you know you're going to get fired, I guess," he said. "But the only thing that bothers me was the insinuation at the time that we didn't play attractive enough soccer, that we weren't offensive enough.

"That moniker was sort of hung on me, and that bothers me because at the time we were the highest-scoring team in the league."

Schmid's coaching philosophy has been built on defense, but with a purpose.

"We play good defense so that we can play good offense," he said. "You've got to have the ball in order to attack. If you don't play good defense, you're not going to get the ball."

Whatever the reason, Schmid was sent packing and, after winning an MLS Cup in 2005, the Galaxy has since rolled downhill faster than a runaway shopping cart, failing to make the playoffs for three consecutive seasons despite the presence of David Beckham and Landon Donovan.

"The results that the Galaxy has had over the last few years have made me sad," Schmid said.

But his focus has been on Columbus since the 2006 MLS season when he began transforming the Crew. Only two players -- defenders Frankie Hejduk and Chad Marshall -- are still on the team from pre-Schmid days.

The other nine members of his starting 11 were picked up in the draft, in trades or as discovery players. One of them was Argentine playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who on Thursday was named MLS player of the year, just as Marshall earlier was named the league's defender of the year.

Schmid's eye for playing talent has never been questioned, and one of the players he brought to the Galaxy, Venezuelan forward Alejandro Moreno, now plays for the Crew.

"I was in L.A. when Sigi got fired," Moreno said. "At the time, I thought it was wrong. Even now, I think it was wrong. Even with the Galaxy winning the MLS Cup a year later, I still think it was wrong.

"But he's made the best of it. There were a lot of people who wrote him off. There were a lot of people who didn't think he was the same coach. He's the same guy. He's still the guy who can get you in winning situations."

Hejduk, a longtime U.S. national team veteran who played for Schmid at UCLA, said Schmid knew from the start exactly what he wanted to accomplish in Ohio. "He had a plan and a vision in his head when he got the job three years ago, and that was to build this team to where it is right now," Hejduk said.

As for the Galaxy, Schmid is not looking back.

"That's Bruce Arena's baby now," he said. "My baby is the Columbus Crew and we're playing on Sunday. There's for sure a special feeling with the game being played at the Home Depot Center. I can't deny that."

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grahame.jones@latimes.com

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