Q & A: Former U.S. Men's National Team Captain Peter Vermes Remembers 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup
When CONCACAF established the Gold Cup in 1991 as the confederation’s premier event, the United States team was in the process of its re-emergence on the international soccer scene. Having qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years and playing in 1990 in Italy, the team now had its sights set on the 1994 World Cup to be held for the first time on U.S. soil. It was a U.S. team in transition, with a new head coach in Bora Milutinovic and players spread out all over trying to continue their professional careers. A young Peter Vermes had returned to the U.S. from playing in Hungary and Holland, planting his roots in Tampa and carrying the responsibility of being the USA’s team captain heading into the summer event. Now celebrating the 20th anniversary of the USA’s victory in the inaugural tournament, the head coach of Sporting Kansas City and long-time resident spoke to ussoccer.com about the significance of Kansas City hosting the U.S. in the Gold Cup and what his team’s historic victory meant for the course of the U.S. Men’s National Team.
ussoccer.com: This will be the 20th anniversary of the 1991 U.S. win in the inaugural Gold Cup, and the U.S. will play their third group game at the new stadium in Kansas City. What will it mean to soccer in that city to be able to have this type of event in the new building?
Peter Vermes: “It really shows how far the game has come in such a short period of time. Eleven years ago when I first came to Kansas City and we won a championship, if you asked me back then and said there was going to be a stadium in Kansas City specifically for soccer, I would have said there is no chance. You just couldn’t see it at that time, and now that it’s here it’s an amazing growth period for soccer in this country. I think the development of the game has been fantastic. It’s such a prideful thing for someone like myself who was involved with the national team back then and knowing who we were and where we started from and where we are now today. I think it’s great for the game and sometimes we forget how far we’ve come in such a short period of time.”
ussoccer.com: You’ve been in Kansas City for a while. What type of reception do you think the U.S. team can expect when they come there for the Gold Cup?
PV: “There is a huge following for soccer in Kansas City. I think it’s going to be a pro-American crowd for sure. I think what else you’ll find is that those people have been deserving of high- level games like this for a long time, and although you’ve had Arrowhead at times, it just wasn’t the venue maybe for a game like this. Now our new stadium will be perfect for games like this, so I think the fans will be rewarded with great competition out of the U.S. team and at the same time the players will be rewarded because they’re going to see some great fans that will support the game and have a good knowledge for the level of competition that will be there.”
ussoccer.com: As we look back to the inaugural Gold Cup in 1991, it was a much different time for the U.S. National Team. Describe the circumstances surrounding the team in the summer heading into the tournament.
PV: “There was a lot of change. Bora Milutinovic came in and was the new coach for the U.S. National Team. There was change in a lot of different ways with the new players, and the Gold Cup was something that was new to us as players as well. It was an interesting and welcome opportunity to play international soccer, and I think all of the guys were extremely excited about the competition. We didn’t know too much about what to expect other than the fact it was going to be in L.A. and we knew that we were going to feel like the away team in most of our games because there was more fan support at that time for the international teams that were coming to the United States than actually for the United States. Things were changing just because Milutinovic just had so many new players being brought in. You could see that things were on the upswing.”
ussoccer.com: You mention there were a lot of different players and also not a whole lot of preparation time. How did the group come together so quickly with so many new faces?
PV: “I think that’s one of the things that Bora was very good at. It’s why he’s done so well with so many different national teams. He’s able to come in and pull a group together very quickly. Although a lot of guys knew each other, there were still some new faces in regards to the national team; maybe they had never had a chance. I know one thing that we did was to play a lot. We got together and played small-sided games and it helped to create some continuity between players. Milutinovic also tried to make sure everyone was together as a team, at meals and things like that, which sort of brought a bit of camaraderie. He also took the pressure away from the team on the actual games. He talked about how winning was important, but being able to play the game and play it well was our focus and I think it helped the team a great deal.”
ussoccer.com: It was still the early part of your career and you were the captain of the U.S. National Team. What was your leadership responsibility like, especially given all of the circumstances?
PV: “With change there are a lot of people that become averse to it, and I think I found myself in a lot of situations like that over my career where I always had to be a conduit between players and staff. I had a good relationship with Milutinovic and at the same time I got along well with all the guys on the team. I think everybody was excited. You always think you get a fresh start when a new coach comes in. I also think the other side of it was everyone was looking ahead to the World Cup in 1994. I think with all of those things it was an easy job in one sense but then it was a little more difficult because players became more demanding about what they wanted. There were a lot of different things I had to deal with not necessarily just on the field but off the field as well. Again, when the players started to produce some good results on the field I think it helps with everything else.”
ussoccer.com: In the semifinal game of the Gold Cup against Mexico, obviously there was a huge pro-Mexico crowd there. What was the feeling like about the rivalry with Mexico at that point?
PV: “Well, we knew we had not been successful against them really at all. The thing that Milutinovic brought to the table was he knew Mexico very well. He also spoke to us about our strengths and weaknesses. Our strength was the physicality of the game, our fitness level and also just overall athleticism. He also explained to us how it was important for us in certain periods of the game to keep the ball and get our rest, because we would find ourselves at times where Mexico would have long periods of possession throughout the game, so we had to be able to be confident and rest on the ball. As we were leading up to that game, we started to find a little bit of a rhythm and form within our team. It seemed like everything came together in that game. We capitalized on the goals that we scored. My goal was a counterattack goal where we had defended and won the ball quickly and played like two passes on the ball, a long ball from Fernando to me. I cut across the box and dribbled a couple of times and then let a left footed shot fly from about 20-25 yards out.
"The amazing thing about it was after the first goal they were wounded, but I really think the second goal put the dagger in and they couldn’t recover from the way we went at them and the confidence we displayed in that game. I thought defensively we were really good. Tony came up big in that game. I also think that offensively when we got our chances we scored. What it really did was sort of set the tone for the future because Mexico took us very lightly when we stepped onto that field, and I think as the game wore on they realized this was not the same United States team they had played in the past.”
ussoccer.com: Did the level of play from the U.S. also affect the crowd?
PV: “For sure. They turned our way, and I remember at one point late in the game, we started stringing some passes together and they actually started doing the “Ole” cheer for us, which was something we had never experienced before. The American fans weren’t doing that ever, and all of sudden we had a Mexican crowd that was becoming pro-American. It was very interesting and really gave us a huge boost of confidence not only just going into the final but for the way we were playing at that time.”
ussoccer.com: In the final game against Honduras, all of the stats indicate during regulation time and even in extra time the U.S. was the better team and had the better chances. What’s it like going through a final when you get to 90 minutes and you’ve had chances but the score is still 0-0?
PV: “I guess it never changes because there are still 90 minute games today and you still have chances and you kind of think back on what could have been when you’re starting to head into the penalty kick round. Remembering it, it feels like yesterday. Everyone was extremely confident about who we were, how we got there and what we could accomplish. The interesting thing is the team took on a life of its own as we played through that tournament and you could feel it after our first game and you could feel it in the final game. The guys just had this idea that the times of old where we were just playing to not get embarrassed or to walk away with a tie were over. We wanted to prove that we could be a winner. I think that’s what really came out of the tournament. I think that’s why we won in the final and won the Gold Cup.”
ussoccer.com: The final game ends up going to penalties and several players on both teams missed. That must have been grueling to be a part of…
PV: “It was because it was an international tournament and we were in the final and we could win. There we were on the doorstep, and the teams were just going back and forth, make, miss, that type of thing, but we still had the confidence in each other that we would get ourselves back in it. When you’re in those situations you just know how the feeling is with the group, and the confidence level was so high that someone was going to come up big at some point and secure the victory for us.”
ussoccer.com: What was the significance for the team in that moment of winning the Gold Cup?
PV: “I think it was a couple things. The first thing is that it was the moment in which you win so everyone was excited about that but I don’t think everyone really realized it until we got into the locker room the importance of what we just did. It wasn’t really evident on the field other than the fact that we just won and everyone was excited and together and jumping up and down. That part of it is one aspect. The other part is once you get back in the locker room and everybody is starting to think about how we just won the CONCACAF Gold Cup. That is our region. I think the guys were extremely amazed that we were able to do that at that time. It was big time.”
ussoccer.com: What do you remember most about the tournament?
PV: “Obviously the goals I scored in the tournament. The Mexico goal was a very important one. It helped secure the victory and put a dagger in them. I also remember it was the first time playing with the national team that I felt we were in a tournament as a dominant team and we weren’t just playing to hang on. We were actually playing and dictating the game. We made a big turn at that point. We controlled our destiny and it was all about the way we played and if you were taking the game to other teams. We had an attacking style at times and we could possess the ball. Those were things that I think we struggled at years before. It was the first time I really think that we proved to ourselves that we can play at this level and be dominant.”
ussoccer.com: One of the most remarkable things about the tournament is that you played five games in ten days.
PV: “I think that goes into the whole fitness idea. If you think about the national team prior to that, we were a bunch of guys who all lived in California and would come in for two weeks, go home for two weeks, and it was this constant pre-season. It was always travel and it was never one place. I think that group of guys was very hardened in that idea and that they could compete and play through anything.
"I think about those guys quite a bit and how it was back then and how it is today with training. Everything is an hour and a half, and you do one session. There’s just a complete difference in mentality and what those guys go through and what we had to go through at that time. Again it was a very hardened group and that’s why I think we were able to recover and play again and go through 90 minutes and be successful and not really ever complain about rest between games.”
ussoccer.com: When the U.S. team walks out on the field at Sporting Park, is it going to mean something different to you considering where you’ve been with the U.S. National Team and Kansas City, and now 20 years later it’s almost coming full circle in some ways?
PV: “For sure. For the number of years I’ve been involved in U.S. Soccer on the Board of Directors and things like that, I’ve seen the process behind the scenes and have been able to witness the progression on the field. It’s a feeling of self-satisfaction. Having been a player for the U.S. National Team and knowing where the program was way back when, and then you think about all of the people prior to that who have put so much time and effort into building soccer in the United States. I really believe it’s going to be one of the best soccer-specific stadiums in North America. It’s going to be a tremendous atmosphere and environment, and it’s just another feather in the cap of the game and how it’s grown. I’m excited for that. I’m happy and very fortunate to be a part of it.”