KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Peter Vermes has never been shy about cutting players loose. Professional soccer is a business, after all, and Sporting Kansas City's manager and technical director runs his side accordingly.
But for two and a half years, he stuck with Jimmy Medranda, committing a precious international roster spot to the energetic young Colombian who, for all his considerable talent on the ball, couldn't seem to crack the score sheet.
Vermes saw upside, and he was determined to get it out of Medranda.
“It wasn't, 'Could he play? Could he not play?' I think we all knew that he could,” Vermes told MLSsoccer.com earlier this week. That's why we stuck with him as long as we did.”
Now, midway through Medranda's fourth season in Kansas City, Vermes' patience and Medranda's potential are both yielding returns.
After logging just eight starts and 13 appearances as a winger and midfielder before this season, with no goals and no assists over that span, Medranda – who first joined Sporting in mid-2013 on loan from Colombian side Deportivo Pereira – has broken out this year since his move to left back.
He leads Sporting at that position with 13 league starts out of 18 total appearances, with two assists, and finally notched his first goal on Sunday, connecting from distance in a 3-1 victory over New York City FC.
“Before, when I didn't play, I took it as a challenge,” Medranda told MLSsoccer.com. “I always wanted to be the best in my team, and now I think I'm doing well. But I know that I have more to give to the team.”
His emergence didn't happen in a vacuum, either. Medranda beat out veteran Seth Sinovic and Amadou Dia, who had a solid rookie season in 2015 but was traded this week to Montreal in the wake of Medranda's emergence and this month's signing of Honduran left back Ever Alvarado.
Nothing overnight, but Medranda's physicality, a necessity in MLS' hard-charging and high-contact environs, has finally caught up to his skill.
“It was the fitness aspect of it,” Vermes said. “Jimmy was struggling with the fitness for quite a long time. It's taken us a while to get him to expand his gas tank, if you will – and also believe in himself, that he could do it: play at the climate and play at the pace we do for 90-plus minutes, especially with the role he had in his position. That was the biggest thing to overcome.”
Adjusting to the fullback spot, where he had played only once in Colombia, was another change Medranda had to embrace.
“In Colombia, professionally, I played a five[-man] back [line],” he said. “In four, you need to defend more. You need to be confident. I was scared to lose the ball, because you're so close to your goal.”
Medranda's defense, especially in transition, is markedly better this year – as is his ability, when going forward, to pick out teammates with crosses and through balls. Training extensively in the spring with Swope Park Rangers, Sporting's new USL side, helped him develop his game going into this season, he said.
“Normally you play only 45 minutes each game in the preseason,” said Medranda, who also played in Rangers' inaugural match in March while Sporting had a week off. “But I played all of the preseason games with Swope, and each game I was getting better. I got confidence, I got minutes, and that really helped me.”
While Medranda had to do the work of improving his game and fitting into Sporting's everyday plans on his own, being taken under the wing of veteran midfielder Roger Espinoza over the past year and a half has helped the process along.
“He helps me a lot on the field, and we have become good friends off the field,” Medranda said. “He showed me Kansas City.”
That relationship had a lot to do with Medranda's emergence as a player, Vermes said.
“That's been, probably, the final piece,” he said. “There's no doubt. Roger, the way that he's worked with some of the younger guys – not just Jimmy, but a lot of the younger guys – that's been huge in regards to bringing those guys along, keeping them on a good level playing field in their minds, but also keeping them challenged every day.
Espinoza, who moved to the United States from Honduras when he was 12, said he could relate to the challenges Medranda faced. He too had to learn a new language and culture, as well as a new way of playing with a new club and league, when he joined Sporting at age 19.
“We grew up in different countries, but the similarities are very close,” he said. “When I didn't speak English very well, coming to this country, it was the same thing for him. I've been in this league for a long time, and you can't relax. Things happen. I just wanted to make sure he did well – and not just him, but a lot of the young guys on the team.”
That part about not relaxing still holds true. While Medranda is enjoying his recent run of form, he also knows the starting job has to be won every day – especially with Alvarado's arrival in Kansas City.
“It was the same thing when I was playing winger,” he said. “I had [Graham] Zusi, Jake [Peterson]. Last year I had [Krisztian] Nemeth – all good players, all players who have been playing for a long time. I want to be that good player. I want to be in the XI.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.