Peter Vermes doesn’t believe in the past. Or the future. He lives squarely in the moment, in the right here and right now. It’s not a Zen-thing or a yoga instructor’s refrain that inspires Sporting Kansas City’s head coach. Far from it. A man of intensity and intelligence, Vermes knows that history can be a false comfort, or an excuse, and the future isn’t yet written, swinging only on the sweat of today’s practice session. “When the whistle blows, you have to be ready and completely and totally focused,” he told ussoccer.com in the build-up to the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final. “Because opportunities to win trophies don’t come very often.”
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Chances to win trophies come to Vermes more often than most. Since taking the SKC manager job in 2009, he’s overseen the transformation of the Major League Soccer club from unremarkable to dynastic. And it’s no coincidence either. “We had a poor club culture when I came,” admitted Vermes, who played two seasons for the then-Kansas City Wizards in the early aughts and was the lynchpin of what’s considered by many to be MLS’ best-ever defense (the title-winning 2000 team). “But it’s a lot stronger now; so, when new guys come in they know what’s expected very quickly. They either get on board or they’re on their way out.”
(Vermes takes command of a Sporting Kansas City training session)
Vermes is a serious man. No frills. He’s worn the same haircut – close-cropped, flat top in the doughboy style – for near-on three decades now. He’s all business, as they say, and he likes to talk about defending. Not just on the field. He likes to discuss defending values and cultures, SKC’s hard-earned reputation. He’s worked to help build something worth defending in Kansas City and he’ll be damned if he’ll let it slip away on his watch. “We have four core values here and they’re pretty simple,” he said from his neat desk in the club’s front office. “The team’s always first – always will be as long as I’m here. You have to have a high work ethic. You need to be intelligent – I don’t expect the guys to go out and do brain surgery, but you need to take the strategy on board and execute on the field. And finally, you have to want to pursue excellence every day.”
He’s been in locker-rooms where the culture wasn’t right and Vermes knows it can be cancerous. “When you bring a player into a club, he’s going to look around and see what everyone else is doing,” said the man who’s responsible not only for the day-to-day results, but for the club’s direction and overall approach as Sporting Director – a job he’s held since 2006. “When there’s no set culture. He’s just going to do whatever he wants. If you don’t believe in the culture, it’s hard to get anyone to want to defend it.”
Early Chances Few and Far Between
It’s no surprise that Vermes seems obsessed with preparations, with getting the work right in the here and now, and leaving nothing to chance. He came of age as a player in the late 1980s, a time before Major League Soccer when chances for American players were rare. If you wanted to make a living playing soccer then, you had to take cold, dead aim.
A top high school prospect in his native New Jersey as a striker, he helped turn Rutgers into a national powerhouse with his eye for goal and cunning. He scored the winner in the 1987 NCAA Final before brief stints in Hungary, Holland and Spain’s second division. His 66 caps for the U.S. National Team came as a converted defender, a tough-tackling left-back, and were earned with grit and endeavor. He wasn’t showy. He didn’t play the guitar like Alexi Lalas, and he wasn’t made for the cameras like Eric Wynalda or John Harkes. He was Peter Vermes, a no-nonsense player who knew when and how to get forward. He read the game better than most and studied it out of necessity. He needed to get his preparations right.
(Vermes playing against hosts Italy at the 1990 World Cup, leaving legend Franco Baresi in his wake)
“In the World Cup  or the [CONCACAF] Gold Cup or the Olympics, I never really enjoyed those moments like maybe I should have,” Vermes said, looking back on his eleven years with the National Team. “I was so focused on the actual game or the tournament. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but I was always focused so intensely on the job that needed doing.”
Still Stuck in the Moment
Watch Vermes on the bench now. He won’t sit much. He may be packed tight in a tailored suit, but he’s kicking every ball. He’s playing the game. He’s still trapped in that moment and determined not to let it slip away. He takes the U.S. Open Cup very seriously. Not every coach in MLS does, but he’s particularly keyed in to the magic of moments and the value of trophies.
“The Open Cup is special because every game is a battle and there’s not always a tomorrow,” said Vermes, whose side now sit third in MLS’ Western Conference. In the run-up to this year’s Final there was one moment in particular, one game, that defined everything he’s made here in Kansas City. “That FC Dallas game really brought the best out of us,” he said.
Sporting KC went a man down early to a red card “and we got to the half and I gathered all the guys in the locker room and I looked them in the eye and said, We might bend in this game, but we’re not breaking,” said Vermes, looking back on an Open Cup classic, a Quarterfinal for the ages, where his ten men held on for more than 90 minutes against the defending Open Cup champions from Texas, before turning the game on its head to win 3-0 in extra-time. “We knew it would take everyone being involved. We needed to lean on everyone. Digging deep doesn’t always get it done, so we had to make sure we kept total concentration. All that, while playing a man down.”
(Vermes lifts the U.S. Open Cup - a hint of things to come?)
Core Values to the Fore
What came next was the purest example of those core values Vermes likes to talk about. SKC were without regular captain Matt Besler, so Roger Espinoza stepped up to battle and scrap and marshal the midfield – to lead by example and sometimes blur the line between tough and bully. Latif Blessing stepped up with a pair of goals – this slightly built teenager from Ghana who looked around on his first days at the club and knew his talent alone wouldn’t cut it. And mercurial playmaker Benny Feilhaber came on in the 91st minute to turn the game on its head. This was a player Vermes brought to KC five years ago, one whose ability was never in doubt but who needed a coach to take a chance on him – and challenge him. “Sometimes we had to be a little hard on Benny,” Vermes chuckles when talking about it.
“It takes a lot to come through and win a game like that, a lot from everyone,” added Vermes, pride radiating in his voice. “We had a perfect excuse to stop playing, and for a lot of teams going down a man is just a perfect excuse. Not our guys though – they never let their heads drop.”
If Sporting Kansas City beat Sacha Kljestan and his New York Red Bulls on September 20, it will be that Quarterfinal that they look back on as a leverage-point. A fulcrum. It would be hard not to. And yet Vermes takes no personal credit. It was a coaching master class, but he sees it differently. “Our club culture was on display that day and that’s what’s most satisfying about it.”
Sporting Kansas City have it all right now. Their outstanding goalkeeper Tim Melia conceded exactly one goal in four Open Cup games, the point-man point in one of MLS’ best defenses. Feilhaber, Blessing Gerso Fernandes and Graham Zusi form a fearsome attacking quintet (ten goals in those four games is hard to argue with). They’re on the verge of their fourth Open Cup crown, and they’ll be playing the Final at home at a Children’s Mercy Park that can be as raucous a cauldron as you’ll find in American soccer. Their opponent, New York Red Bulls, have never won a U.S. Open Cup before. In fact, they’ve only won a Supporters’ Shield – for the best regular season record in MLS in 2015 – in 20-plus years as a club. But Vermes, true to form, sees a serpent in the logic of his side being tagged as favorites. His mistrust of history won’t let him relax and just enjoy the moment.
(Vermes shakes hands with his captain and USMNT standout Matt Besler)
“I don’t buy into history,” he said. “What happened in the past doesn’t dictate the present or the future. The fact that you have a history of winning or losing doesn’t mean you’ll win or lose. If you don’t put in the right effort on the day because of things that have happened in the past, you’ll lose. All that history can do is provide you with experience and you can use it in those big moments. Or it can be a crutch and it can hurt you.”
Anyone watching can see that Vermes has gotten his point across to his team. It’s a big reason they’ve won two Open Cups and an MLS crown in the last five years. But it’s no reason to sit back and expect more of the same without putting in the work. “Maybe one day when I’m really, really old and I’m sitting back and watching an SKC training session with a cup of coffee, I can think back on the glory days and all the achievements. But not now,” said Vermes, ending the conversation abruptly to get about the business of planning for all the heres and nows leading to the USOC Final.
(Lead photo courtesy of Gary Rohman Photography)