In the aftermath of the 2011 MLS Cup, a number of writers were finishing up their stories in the overflow press room of what was then still the Home Depot Center. The inevitable conversation was about the David Beckham narrative, the Englishman having finally won an MLS Cup with the Galaxy.
Looking back on Beckham's tenure with the team, the conversation turned to its low point, when the player was forced back to the club by AEG after trying to force through a move to AC Milan. Somebody noted the headache the saga caused for his head coach, Bruce Arena, and somebody else pointed out that at least Beckham was coming back to a club coached by Arena, noting that no other coach in the league would have had the strength of personality and authority to manage a player of his stature under those circumstances.
Everybody nodded, then somebody else said, "Well, maybe Sigi Schmid," and everybody nodded again.
Arena and Schmid may be the two most influential coaches -- never mind the most successful, though they're up there -- in MLS's two-decade history, with an unsurpassed level of authority to match. There's a graphic currently doing the rounds from the league that demonstrates just how influential they've been, as it charts just how many current MLS coaches have played under or assisted one of the two men.
It represents a fascinating kind of core sample of a cultural moment that might be passing; at the very least the dynamic that informs it will never be precisely replicated. In the current national atmosphere of hand-wringing about college soccer as an impediment to player development for the U.S. national team, it's a certain inconvenient truth that the two coaches who have dominated the league have been steeped in the college game.
Both were long-term college coaches at successful programs by the time MLS launched in 1996, but both would soon take a chance on the still-fragile division-one professional game during what Arena later called its "Wild West years."
Arena left the University of Virginia's soccer program after 18 years to become D.C. United's inaugural coach in 1996, while Schmid left UCLA after 19 years to coach the LA Galaxy in 1999. Other than spells of national-team duty for the full men's team (Arena) and the U-20s (Schmid) they've been in the league ever since, winning a remarkable combined total of seven MLS Cups, six Supporters' Shields and six U.S. Open Cups between them.
Of course, just as the professional game has developed exponentially, the collegiate game they left is not the collegiate game of today, technically or in terms of stature. At one time it incubated a generation of coaching talent like Arena and Schmid that might have been lost in the wilderness years after the old NASL folded. These days coaches who come from the college game into MLS, such as Portland Timbers' Caleb Porter, tend to be the exception rather than the rule, while the SuperDraft has diminished in significance to the point that it feels almost vestigial at this point.
These and other reasons are why we'll not see the likes of Arena and Schmid dominating the storylines of MLS to quite the same extent again. The generation they've influenced will shape much of the coming decade, if not the next two decades in a few cases, but each subsequent generation, for better or worse, will be defined by coaches and sporting directors shaped by the milieu of MLS. And as more money comes into the domestic game and club academies become a more reliable pipeline, the awkward relationship between the professional and college games will become ever more strained. Not ended -- the cultural importance of tertiary education and sport as it manifests in the existing big-four sports will continue to affect MLS -- but strained for sure.
In the meantime, as Arena and Schmid prepare to face each other yet again (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET on ESPN/WatchESPN), they're as engaged as ever with their respective teams.
They present a contrast in personal styles. The Brooklyn-born Arena alternates between bluntness and a certain enigmatic aloofness, offering haughty, Sphinx-like smiles from the sidelines at another poor officiating call. Through all his mind games one message remains clear: he has seen it all and nothing can surprise him.
The German-born Schmid is more direct. Gruffly straightforward in interviews, he stands on the sideline during games, scarf knotted high on his neck, showing barely concealed disbelief and disgust at anything that does not go the way he expects it to.
And if both are having a tougher time than usual this season -- a retooled Galaxy are not always scoring like they should, and the Sounders' attack looks hollowed out by Obafemi Martins' sudden departure and Clint Dempsey's international absence -- it would be a brave person who'd bet against one or both having yet another say on the destination of MLS Cup this year. And if they don't coach the winners, chances are they'll have coached the winners' coaches.