A few weeks ago, Jimmy Conrad, the Sporting Kansas City/Wizards Legend and veteran defender of 27 caps for the US National Team, including two appearances in the 2006 World Cup, toured Pinnacle National Development Center. Opened in January, Pinnacle is Sporting Kansas City’s training center as well.
The world-class, first-class, everything-a-player-needs-and-more facility prompted Conrad to say, “and you wonder why players may feel entitled.”
But Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes “… don’t have time for that.” Not during preseason. Not during the season. Not in the run for advantageous playoff position. Not in the playoffs. Not ever.
“I don’t care if it’s this league or any other league in the world, I don’t know how you find success unless you have an incredible work ethic,” said Vermes before Friday’s training. “You are competing against other guys that want the same thing you do, so you have to be willing to suffer more than they do.”
The boss’s words came two days after a vital come-from-behind 4-1 Sporting win at Vancouver Whitecaps that kept them in second place in MLS’ Western Conference in front of their Sunday away match with West-leading FC Dallas. A top-two finish means a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage in a two-game conference semi-final series.
In the 62nd minute, still facing a loss that would have dropped them to fourth and perhaps heavy-legged from playing on turf, Sporting picked up their game. Team captain Matt Besler stepped up to win a ball just past the center circle on the right. Instead of stopping and relying on overlapping right back Graham Zusi to do his thing, Besler continued his run and received the ball back from Zusi. Heeding a call from midfielder Roger Espinoza, Besler cut the ball back to the top of Vancouver’s box. The ball was met by a hobbling Yohan Croizet and smashed into the net to tie the match.
Twenty minutes later, still needing a go-ahead goal, substitute Khiry Shelton ran down a high bouncing ball that normally would have been an easy play for Vancouver defender Jose Aja. In contrast to Aja’s nonchalant reaction, Shelton ran into position to block him off and lay a ball off for hustling winger Daniel Salloi. One sweet finish later, it’s 2-1 Sporting Kansas City.
“That’s why you make those extra runs; that’s why you fight for those balls. That’s the difference… There’s a sacrifice, and there’s a reward,” Vermes said. “You have to know that if you put everything out there and you sacrifice for it, there will be a reward at the end.”
It’s a culture of suffering and sacrifice, of doing the little things to create bigger things, that Vermes and his staff try to cultivate each day in training.
“It’s been the same thing since Day One – tracking the ball down and being a menace and not allowing goalkeepers and defenders to have time has been a big thing for us,” confirmed Shelton.
But Sporting KC did not stop there. The three points were not in hand yet.
Four minutes into six minutes of stoppage time, substitute winger Johnny Russell, fought to keep a ball from going out, beat his defender to it, won the ball, and entered the box free. Calmly, he slotted for a far post-running 16-year-old Gianluca Busio. 3-1. Points in the bag.
“When Johnny fought for that ball, that saves the play. These are the games where those moments can change – that ball goes out of bounds, they come with a throw in. But now, we scored a goal,” reflected Salloi.
The players have clearly bought in from the team captain to sometimes role players like Shelton and Busio. Gaining that buy in comes from not just the staff’s insistence, but from realizing rewards and having examples.
“I feed off other players, so Roger Espinoza usually gets me going. He has good energy all the time, and he’s hungry. He runs like a dog out there,” said Shelton, while acknowledging that the whole team “has an engine.” “When you see that, it feeds the fire and makes you want to do well and help the team.”
Of course, stocking a side with talent that can reap the rewards of suffering and sacrifice regularly enough is imperative, or the whole idea fails.
“This team never gives up. I’ve never seen anyone put their head down. We always believe. We have so much firepower, it doesn’t matter who is starting up top. It’s hard for teams to keep track of all of us,” Shelton stated. “There’s so much movement and so much skill up top, it’s hard. We don’t make it easy for teams.”
Vermes, however, makes his philosophy easy to understand.
“If you come here and you don’t fight, you don’t work, you don’t compete, you won’t play here. It’s an expectation,” he said before continuing.
“It goes along with [having Pinnacle]. A lot of people have said to me after they see it, ‘how do you keep the guys from being spoiled?’ It’s simple. You want to be here and have this every day? Great. There’s an expectation that goes along with it. If you don’t do it out here on the field, you won’t be here and you won’t have it every day.”
The hard-working Vermes and his staff embody and exemplify this as well. It takes effort and persistence by the staff in training, in constructing the team, in planning for opponents to make sure there is a reward. That’s why star players in all team sports often leave their current team. They want that reward. They want to play for a team that wins trophies.
“Every man is entitled to hope,” said American writer and producer David Milch (and likely many others).
Back to Russell’s effort on the third goal. “Fighting for a ball like that will mean so much in the playoffs, and now going into the playoffs,” said Salloi. “This group of players is like that. We want to achieve something. When you are fighting for a ball, that comes to your mind. You need to win this.”
Yes, even a small feeling of entitlement (something that many feel impacted the US National Team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup) can wreak havoc with achievement.
With two matches remaining for Sporting and its competition and only six points separating the top five teams in the Western Conference, bet your bottom dollar that everyone at Sporting Kansas City is hedging his bet on high suffering and sacrifice for high reward. “You either work your ass off or you’re not here,” reiterated Vermes. “The staff is the same way. We’re all under the same level of scrutiny. It’s not like I’m asking them to do what the rest of us aren’t doing.”