Sporting KC’s Peter Vermes: 'Aesthetics Don’t Matter’ in Cup Chase

No one knows better than Sporting Kansas City boss Peter Vermes – through to the Quarterfinals once again – that the U.S. Open Cup isn’t about the team that plays prettiest.
By: Michael Lewis
Peter Vermes in a suit yelling at a ref during an Open Cup match
Peter Vermes in a suit yelling at a ref during an Open Cup match

He knows the thrill of winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup as a coach, not once, not twice – but three times. He’s also experienced the disappointment of losing in the Final as a player, falling to a lower-division team in one of the most memorable upsets of the tournament’s modern era.

No one has to explain the importance, value (and peril) of the Open Cup to Peter Vermes, whose teams have run the gamut of results over the years.

"It's the oldest soccer tournament in the United States. That's something to me," he said in a recent interview with "I love that everybody gets a chance to participate and qualify. As long as you win, you keep going. Lower division teams can beat the higher divisions teams and knock them out. I think those are great situations.”

“I just really like the idea that it's open,” he said. “The single game elimination aspect of it."

Now Vermes finds himself in a unique situation. As he tries to lift Sporting Kansas City off the bottom of the MLS Western Conference and into league playoff contention, the 55-year-old head coach is hoping his squad can duplicate some of the Open Cup glory that he helped unearth in 2012, 2015 and 2017.

"The Cup takes on a life of its own," Vermes said about the energy a deep Cup run can bring to a season. "It's completely different from league play. The players have a chance to really look at the opportunities that that presents. That's really important. They take it very seriously."

In 2022, SKC were eliminated by Cinderella side Sacramento Republic FC (of the Division II USL Championship) via a shootout in the Semis. “We missed something,” Vermes said about the famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) result. “But we want to continue to keep trying."

Vermes as a USMNT player fighting for the ball
Vermes as a USMNT player fighting for the ball
Vermes in action for the USMNT during his playing days

Sporting KC will have that chance when they host fellow MLS side FC Dallas in a Quarterfinal at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas on July 10 (the game will be streamed LIVE via MLS Season Pass on Apple TV).

As of June 20, Sporting KC (3-11-5, 14 points) sit in 13th place in MLS’ Western Conference. They’re 10 points adrift of a playoff spot (ninth place) and just three above the last-place San Jose Earthquakes (3-13-2, 11) who were knocked out of the Open Cup in the last round by Sacramento Republic.

"I'd be a lot more concerned if I thought we weren't good enough," Vermes said about this year’s challenges. "We're definitely good enough. We’ve given up some really poor goals. But there’s not one game we’ve played where the other team just runs us off the park. So, we're right there. We just need a little bit to change and go our way."

Open Cup Sunshine in Dark 2024

Vermes and SKC need to win three more games to lift a fifth Open Cup title for the club.

"Any time you have a chance to win a trophy, that's a huge opportunity," said Vermes, who, in the KC job since 2009, is the longest-serving coach in Major League Soccer. "It would be incredibly welcomed by everybody. It's a great, great opportunity for the club to win a trophy."

When asked about his strongest Open Cup memories, Vermes points to the time he and his Colorado Rapids were defeated by the Rochester Ragin’ Rhinos in the 1999 Final. The Rhinos, the last non-MLS side to win the competition, recorded a famous 2-0 victory in Columbus, Ohio.

“That was a missed opportunity," he said of that famous night. "We were actually a pretty good team then. It should have been the first trophy for us, but that type of thing can happen in the Cup"

The three Open Cup titles he’s won as coach of SKC were much sweeter experiences, although it took Vermes 13 years before he could taste victory for the first time in 2012. In that year’s Final, Sporting denied the Seattle Sounders an unprecedented fourth consecutive Open Cup crown, winning via shootout (3-2) after playing to a 1-1 draw through 120 minutes.

“When you play a Final on your field, there's sometimes this idea in your head that you have to – and a lot of teams say this – you have to run the show,” said Vermes, a legend of the U.S. Men’s National Team with 11 goals in 66 official caps during the 1980s and 90s. “That you have to drive the game. That you have to entertain.

“But I was of the opinion that the only thing you have to do is win,” added the New Jersey native. “The aesthetics don't matter. You just have to win. We went completely into that game with a different mentality to win no matter what."

Vermes on the sidelines with a player following a US Open Cup victory
Vermes on the sidelines with a player following a US Open Cup victory
The last of Vermes’ three Open Cup triumphs (and SKC’s fourth) in 2017

In their second Open Cup Final in 2015, SKC won away at the Philadelphia Union after yet another 1-1 tie and a 7-6 penalty shootout result. "We proved we could win the Final away from home," Vermes said.

Sometimes it isn't necessarily the Final that stands out, but a vital moment or game on the long journey to the title. Take, for example, what transpired during Kansas City's 2017 run.

Only 15 minutes into their Quarterfinal against FC Dallas, defender Seth Sinovic was red carded for fouling Michael Barrios, who was on his way to goal. It forced the hosts to play the rest of regulation a man down. "Now, we have to defend for 70 minutes and still try to score or defend, defend for another 30 [in extra-time] and go to penalty kicks," Vermes said.

Good strategy, but things worked out differently.

"I remember coming in at halftime and telling the guys, There's no way we're losing this game. We're not losing this game, no way," the coach said before admitting of his team’s performance that night: "The effort that they put in was fantastic."

At the start of extra-time, Vermes brought on USMNT midfielder Benny Feilhaber for Diego Rubio.

Things started to tip KC's way. Eleven minutes into the extra period, FC Dallas' Maximiliano Urruti was shown a second yellow card for an overhead kick that injured Ike Opara (he was stretchered off the field in a neck brace) evening up the sides.

Latif Blessing recorded a brace in first-period stoppage time. Sandwiched between his goals was a red card to Javier Morales for a hard foul on Feilhaber, forcing Dallas to finish with nine men. Feilhaber, who set up the first goal, assisted on Daniel Salloi's tally in the 119th minute of the 3-0 triumph.

"What an adrenaline shot for the team," Vermes said of that vital win that unlocked a path to a Final.

KC defeated the San Jose Earthquakes on PKs in the Semifinal (5-4) following a 1-1 draw, and then bested Jesse Marsch’s New York Red Bulls in the Final at home (2-1). Blessing and Salloi scored on either side of halftime before Bradley Wright-Phillips' consolation goal in the 90th minute.

SKC Aim to Party Like it’s 2017

"That was big for us, because we're a small market," Vermes said. "If you're playing against any of the New York teams, any of the LA's teams, we're a small market, they're a big market."

For their first two contests in this year's Cup, SKC were the bigger market side as they topped a pair of lower division teams. But if you think Vermes – who knows better than most the jeopardy of Cup play for an MLS team – was counting any Open Cup chickens before they hatched, you can guess again.

"Those are always really, really, difficult matches," he said of taking on lower-division opponents. "You have to know how to play them, and you have to know how to win against them. There's a difference between those two things."

Vermes with President Barack Obama at the White House in suits with players in the background
Vermes with President Barack Obama at the White House in suits with players in the background
Vermes at the White House with former U.S. President Barack Obama

In the Round of 32 at Division III Union Omaha, SKC edged the hosts (2-1) in extra-time on Alan Pulido's 120th-minute strike, to avoid penalty kicks against the USL League One side. Lagos Kunga lifted Omaha to a 1-0 lead in the 31st minute, but Marinos Tzionis equalized three minutes into the second half.

"They were undefeated since last June, when we met, so they were pretty confident," Vermes said of the Nebraska side that caused a sensation by reaching the Open Cup Quarterfinals in 2022. "They weren't an easy team to play."

Kansas City didn't need any late-match heroics in the Round of 16 on May 21 – cruising to a 4-0 home triumph over FC Tulsa. Felipe Hernandez had a brace, scoring in the 38th and 63rd minutes, and Stephen Afrifa and Tzionis added goals of their own.

By a quirk of the schedule, Sporting KC and FC Dallas will meet in the Quarterfinals with a unique twist. It will be the second time they play each other during a four-day span in Kansas City as SKC host Dallas on Sunday, July 7 at 8:30 p.m. ET in MLS play. Then, on Wednesday, July 10 at 9 p.m. ET, the teams tussle for the right to reach the Open Cup Semifinals (August 27-28).

"Being that it's a midweek game, we'll have to be a little bit smart," Vermes said, noting that his team has a full week with a Saturday, July 13 match at San Jose. "So, that already makes it challenging for us, and we play the same team two games in a row – that's going to be tricky.

"That is the exact challenge of this tournament,” added the coach who knows all the ways things can go right and wrong in the historic Open Cup. “That's why I think it's fun to play. It's always interesting when a team gets knocked out. They say, we played our second group, we should have rotated. But we all try to put a roster out there we can win with."

Michael Lewis can be reached at and @Soccerwriter on Twitter. His book (ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers) is available for purchase.