Since 2009, translating to nearly one-fourth of his life and half of Major League Soccer’s existence, Peter Vermes has managed Sporting Kansas City. He’s the seventh-longest tenured coach in men’s professional soccer and also holds sporting director duties, overseeing all soccer operations of the club he played for in the early 2000s.
The passage of time, the memories built, the relationships forged, the trophies won – they’ve created a unique bond between club and coach, region and supporters. Vermes, now 57 years old, is an institution in and around Children’s Mercy Park.
But the going got tough early into SKC’s 2023 season, laboring to a 10-game winless start. And a vocal contingent of SKC’s fans wasn’t shy about voicing their displeasure, of asking for leadership change. Vermes took it personally.
“We were playing a game at home, and I didn't know that there was a group of people that were screaming 'Vermes out.’ I had no idea. I'm not listening to that; I'm in the game,” Vermes told MLSsoccer.com during an in-depth conversation. “I was shown that after the game by someone and I was pissed. I mean, I was pissed. I also let our fans in that area of the stadium know that I was pissed because I think it was disrespectful. I do.
“I think it was disrespectful and I was disappointed because, again, families help each other in tough times. It's easy when a coach is winning, you know? Everybody loves the coach, he's great, everything's great, everything's good. But I wasn't brought in here for, again, if the team's winning like crazy and they're winning trophies, everybody's happy and it's great because you're winning now. But you're really brought in for the tough times. When the going gets tough, can you help the team get out of that? That's what you're brought in for.”
That mentality has served SKC well, and now they’re two wins away from reaching MLS Cup presented by Audi on Dec. 9. Up next in their Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs travels: Sunday’s single-elimination Western Conference Semifinal at Houston Dynamo FC (7 pm ET | MLS Season Pass; FS1, FOX Deportes; TSN, RDS).
The No. 8 seed, Sporting have already upset expansion side, and newfound Midwest rival, St. Louis CITY SC with a Round One Best-of-3 series clean sweep. Beforehand, a Tim Melia penalty-kick special powered their Wild Card victory against the San Jose Earthquakes.
Don’t go mistaking this for a Cinderella run, though. SKC have been the West’s best team since May, digging out of their slump to ascend into a playoff spot. This is a classic ‘prove the doubters wrong’ story, in many ways, even if uncertainty created a dark cloud early on.
“I'm a big believer that you have to face things head-on,” Vermes explained. “You can't sweep them under the rug, you can't ignore them. I think that just gets you nowhere, it just prolongs whatever your problem is.
“So I told the guys: 'Look, we've got to face this stuff head-on. But just understand something: The only people that are going to get us out of this is the people in the room. Everybody thinks that we're s---, everybody thinks that we suck. So just understand that we're the ones that have to rally around each other, and what will happen is that the ones that are going to be there are going to be there. The ones that are going to jump back on board when you start doing well, they're just going to jump back on board. But they'll act like they never, ever doubted you before.’”
Getting healthy, getting hot
Slowly but surely, points piled up as spring turned to summer and summer turned to fall. Sporting KC went 12W-7L-5D to close the year and, with a convincing win over Minnesota United FC on Decision Day, their playoff ticket was punched.
In many ways, key players getting healthy provided the foundation for that turnaround – a development most embodied by Designated Players Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda after they missed the entire 2022 campaign with knee injuries. Pulido turned his 14g/3a campaign into 2023 MLS Comeback Player of the Year honors and Kinda, after additional stops and starts, has proven clutch with 1g/3a in the playoffs.
But, from Vermes’ perspective, it wasn’t that simple. The scars from watching the 2022 postseason at home, after midseason signings Willy Agada and Erik Thommy inspired an unsuccessful playoff push, still lingered.
“In one respect, it's easy that [Pulido and Kinda] came back into the team,” Vermes said. “Where the nuance and the difficulty lies is trying to keep the team believing, committed, giving the effort week in and week out, when they didn't have the results early on and it seemed like there's no way we can get out of this. That's where the difficulty was.
“It took a lot of individual meetings, took a lot of team meetings, took a lot of communication, if you will. But I say, again, to be fair to the team itself, they didn't give up on that. There were times when a guy was like, 'F--- this, this team sucks, we're never going to do anything.' And then there was another guy who was like, 'You know what, we're starting to come back to who we are.'”
That belief has produced a classic MLS matchup, harkening memories of when Sporting and Houston met in three straight playoffs from 2011-13. That latter year, en route to raising MLS Cup, included a 2-1 aggregate victory over the Dominic Kinnear-led Dynamo during a Western Conference Semifinal series. Goals from CJ Sapong and Dom Dwyer made the difference in Leg 2.
A decade later, and with MLS now at 29 clubs instead of that year’s 19, Vermes remains on the sidelines. There’s value in that, he asserts, when reflecting on the criticism his job inherently brings.
“I've been here a long time,” said Vermes, now in his 15th year as manager. “… And I think what happens over that time is the relationships, they take on a different depth. I've heard people say this, that I have this long leash because I've been here for so long. That's a crock of s---. That's not the way it works. You still have to prove yourself all the time in what you do.
“What I do think, though, is when people see over time the way you work, what you do, how you have performed over time, then a level of trust gets stronger and deeper. Whereas when you first come into a club, you have to prove all those things.”
Belief and commitment
That’s not to say Vermes and SKC will always win a trophy or they’re immune to hard questions. But they’re in the hunt more often than not, and again have a playoff spotlight to prove it. Ownership’s decision to stick with Vermes, through the ups and downs, has paid off.
“When your club starts getting in this situation where you're firing coaches every two to three years, now the new coach comes in and he wants different players, and he's got a different idea how to play, and the culture's different,” Vermes said. “Well, you never get a chance to build that because there's change all the time. And really what you're doing is you're creating inconsistency.”
Whatever this playoff run has in store, Vermes believes SKC are rightly among the contenders. His longevity and passion for the club is plain to see.
“We all want to win a trophy, of course, but the reality is you're not gonna win every year,” Vermes said. “It's not like this trajectory that just goes straight up and never has a blip in it. You have to be in the world of understanding, just like in our season this year, where it truly is not over until it's over. You have to maintain belief. And I will tell you, in those early games, there were guys on our team who lost a lot of confidence and I know that they were thinking: 'How do we get out of this? What are we going to do? How are we going to do this? Can we really do this? Are we good enough?'
“But I kept telling the guys: 'Look, I'm the one that chose you guys. I'm the one who picked you guys to come here. I believe in you guys. I know that we're good enough. We've just got to get healthy.' And so that's where I feel the most vindication and also the most pride, it's for the players because they found a way to believe and commit themselves.”