There remains a hole on the Sporting Kansas City roster.
There is no difference maker on Sporting Kansas City’s roster. Johnny Russell? Too inconsistent. Daniel Salloi? See Russell, and not yet dominate enough through his attitude and physicality. Roger Espinoza? Ilie Sanchez? Not the type of goalscoring, change-the-game-on-his-own-Bradley-Wright-Phillips/Wayne Rooney type of player. Tim Melia? Defensively, yeah. But still not the man. There is no player on the Sporting Kansas City roster that can take the team on his broad, capable shoulders and pull them through in times of struggle by being likely to score in any moment, someone that is often the difference in tight, fiercely-contested, maybe not-so-tactical MLS playoff soccer.
And that’s ok. Because Manager Peter Vermes is the difference maker for Sporting Kansas City.
‘Not a shock,’ one might say. There are obvious reasons. And there are subtle ones.
Vermes has made many clever and key acquisitions during his tenure at Sporting Kansas City – Matt Besler, Kei Kamara, Oriol Rosell, Dom Dwyer, Tim Melia, Ike Opara, Graham Zusi, Ilie Sanchez, and more – yet, nothing compares with the haul of the past offseason. Vermes, the technical director and manager (let’s be aware and give plenty of shouts out to Director and Assistant Director of Player Personnel Brian Bliss and Meghan Cameron and assistant coaches Zoran Savic and Kerry Zavagnin. But make no mistake, Vermes is the guiding force.), went after it. The varied attacking depth added by reclamation project Khiry Shelton and foreign gets Johnny Russell, Yohan Croizet, and Felipe Gutierrez have been huge in Sporting’s run to MLS’ third-best overall record and winning of the West in 2018.
The additions (especially Shelton’s, it must be said), did not make many peg Sporting KC as the West favorite going into the season. But Vermes’ acumen at deciphering talent, molding that talent – see Daniel Salloi, Jaylin Lindsey, and Gianluca Busio too – and mixing that talent together is nothing short of astounding. The addition of Russell and that of Gutierrez, however unexpected, particularly pay tribute to Vermes’ recognition of what his team needs and his and his staff’s ability to sell the club, the city, and their vision.
The reality of the roster build that Vermes headed is more than the franchise record of 65 goals scored this season and the wins. The reality is that this team can now afford to lose by a goal (or possibly two) away in the first leg of a two-game series and still win the series. They are built to win in the regular season and the postseason, no matter the situation.
The build over the last two or three seasons reveals Vermes’ realization that adaptation is needed to compete in a league improving each year. Call it a tactical fine-tuning. Kansas City is still a team capable of pressing hard to force mistakes near an opponent’s goal, but now they are able to dominate possession (keeping the ball away from the perhaps more explosive, high-priced attackers brought in by the Atlanta’s and LA’s) and move the ball quickly from wing to wing while recognizing and being able to take advantage of opportunities through the middle because the skill on the ball throughout the roster has been amped up.
Wingers Russell and Salloi and midfielders Gutierrez and Ilie can penetrate through the middle with their skill and vision. Ilie, Gutierrez, and midfielder Roger Espinoza’s deep lying playmaking abilities, combined with the quick and accurate field-switching abilities of center back Besler, Ilie, and Espinoza, make the power and quickness of wingers Russell and Croizet and the speed of winger Gerso Fernandes, and the attacking of wide backs Graham Zusi and Jimmy Medranda (when healthy) more effective. Effective coaches never stand pat.
Effective coaches learn, while staying true to who they are.
Vermes and his staff thoroughly vet prospective additions to the roster, maybe like no other, guided by their four principles of team first, intelligence, strong work ethic, and a winning mentality. But they have learned the lessons of the past acquisitions of forwards Omar Bravo, Claudio Bieler, and even Kei Kamara – all talented goal scorers superior to any on the current roster who were brought in to give the club needed offensive punch. And the lesson is simple: buy in is crucial. Vermes has repeatedly stated that if a player doesn’t want to be here and do what is asked, he won’t be. Tough lessons were learned from experiences with the aforementioned trio. This season, those lessons turned into the jettison of Argentina center back Emiliano Amor midseason, after the July 19, 4-2 loss at Houston in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal. It was a risky piece of business for Vermes with a position where the team desperately needed quality depth.
The minute-by-minute details of the subsequent Amor release and the related acquisition of Spaniard Andreu Fontas are not available. But Vermes made a commitment with his post-game comments that night, saying, “I think a couple guys gave up in the game,” and “our team, our club is not built on that type of attitude and that won’t be tolerated. It’s pretty simple. [The guys who gave up] are going to find themselves very, very, very, very, very far away from the team and trying to get back in.”
Odds are he didn’t know that the Fontas acquisition would go through, or perhaps even that it was possible, or even have Fontas in mind at that point. But Amor would not see another minute (eventually being released) and the team would get the message sent.
In Vermes’ side, no one is above the culture that has been carefully groomed in 10 seasons. No one is going to foil the winning mentality with which Vermes daily equips Kansas City. It’s the adage that all teachers and coaches are told (or should be): No matter how you manage lessons or assessment or training, and most importantly, people, be consistent.
From this observer, Vermes is a hardliner about the club culture and in every situation. But he has also displayed in his pulling over of a player during a match, in his comments about players in the press, in his handling of players who are not in form, an understanding, an ability to listen, an ability to learn from past hiccups, a wisdom accumulated over the years. Those traits of Vermes are seen by everyone around him every day. And the embodiment of all that is invaluable to Sporting Kansas City’s 2018 success. Vermes has learned, while staying true to his philosophy and who he is.
Yet, there is one more trend, one that fans have been boisterous about, that has tainted Vermes’ record since the year after winning MLS Cup 2013 – a late season faltering and the consequential fateful away playoff knockout round match, and loss, of the last four years. Many fans have blamed this on Vermes not using enough subs throughout the past four seasons, leading to the high level of fitness that Sporting KC aims for morphing into what fans have dubbed “Sporting flat.”
Six wins, two draws, and only two losses for 20 points in the last ten matches of 2018 bucked that trend and put Sporting KC in the top seat in the West. In 2017, Sporting went 3-4-3 for 12 points in the final ten, their third lowest total in four years. In 2017, Vermes used 79 substitutions for a total of 1,258 minutes throughout the season. In 2018, Vermes used 91 substitutions for a total of 1,571 minutes throughout the season. Twelve more subs and 313 more minutes. Those numbers may be due to injuries or a stronger bench or Vermes’ recognition that more rest was needed for his side to be fresher down the stretch or a combination. Either way, the numbers are significant. But the increased use of subs would not be the only reason for a better finish. The depth of the roster again comes up.
It must be reiterated, the substitutes in last year’s 2-1 playoff loss at Houston were an embarrassment. Not the play of each, but the selection available and used for a team that needed a goal: two rookies – forward Daniel Salloi and midfielder Kevin Oliveira (21), the former a 21-year-old who made some impact during the season and in the Open Cup run, but faded in MLS stretch run, the latter with a grand total of 16 minutes of MLS time played; winger Cristian Lobato, scorer of one regular season goal; and back Saad Abdul Salaam (6’ 4” 185) a 64-game MLS veteran, playing in only his third MLS playoff game but regarded as one of the top right backs in MLS in 2016. Compare that to the field substitutes available to Vermes in last Sunday’s final regular season match: Gerso Fernandes, Andreu Fontas, Gianluca Busio, Yohan Croizet, Krisztian Nemeth, and Diego Rubio. That’s 18 goals and many more minutes of experience and a variety of abilities waiting to impact the match. Vermes and his staff made sure the bench was amply supplied in 2018.
No, Vermes-the-wiser won’t be on the field come the playoffs, but the team will look to him – or he will make sure they do – to provide the direction, the right mentality, and the support needed to get Sporting Kansas City through. And when Vermes looks to his bench when a particular injection of ability is needed, he has made sure that ability is there.
Peter Vermes has never won MLS Coach of the Year in his 9 ½ seasons at Sporting Kansas City’s helm. What?
Wednesday, the news came out that Vermes is a finalist for the award this season, like he was in 2011 and 2012. The competition is strong. Yes, Bob Bradley has steered the 2018 expansion Los Angeles Football Club well and into the playoffs. Yes, Tata Martino has quickly built an at-times dominate force in two seasons with Atlanta United FC.
Vermes is MLS’ longest tenured manager who leads all active coaches with eight straight playoff appearances. Should not those who are dedicated to the growth of MLS and their own club be hoisted above those who use their time in the league as a stepping stone?
Honoring Vermes in 2018 would recognize his body of work at the helm of Sporting Kansas City building perhaps the most successful club in MLS in recent years (MLS Cup 2013 and Open Cups in 2012, 2015, and 2017), would recognize his team’s Best in the West performance this season, and recognize his growth. The award would be just for the difference-maker at Sporting Kansas City. Make it happen.