Preparation for Sporting Kansas City’s 2020 season began day one, day one – if not before – of the 2019/2020 offseason.
Peter Vermes, Sporting Kansas City’s general manager and manager, began an evaluation of every single thing they were doing at Sporting KC. “And probably some things we shouldn’t have,” Vermes quipped during his Media Day conference with the press Tuesday at Children’s Mercy Park.
A season that started so promising by whipping up on Toluca (Mexico) and Independiente La Chorrera (Panama) in the CONCACAF Champions League by an aggregate of 5-0 and 4-2, respectively, and making the semifinals of the regional tournament ended, in the short term, with a 10-2 aggregate loss to Monterrey (Mexico) in the semis and, in the long term, an 11th place finish in MLS’s Western Conference, allowing 67 goals over 34 matches.
That will instill some reflection. Especially for a club used to being in contention for multiple pieces of hardware and the respect of opponents, not multiple drubbings by opponents: In total, Sporting KC endured five losses of three goals or more, including a 7-2 loss and a 6-0 loss in 2019.
Not surprisingly, change begins with the mentality of individuals and of the team as a whole.
“You can call it what you want, a chip on your shoulder, there is some urgency within this group,” said Team captain Matt Besler of the 2020 squad on Tuesday. “We want to prove that we are a good team.”
Jettisoned in the offseason are some who perhaps exhibited mentalities - perhaps best termed “inconsistently strong mentalities” – that revealed too high of highs and too low of lows, perhaps an inability to come back appropriately from temporary or extended defeats, those who perhaps brooded too much, allowing oneself to be overwhelmed with the situation.
But we are all human. And humans will – and should be allowed to – falter.
In an article in The Athletic (relayed to The Blue Testament), Vermes admitted that his mentality and approach last season, with all the pressures of competing in the Champions League and coming off such a successful 2018 campaign, was maybe too much. Sam Stejskal quotes Vermes in the article:
“I think I was really demanding early on, and then I kept trying to push it on the guys, and I think it had a toll on them physically and psychologically.”
Having admitted fault, Vermes, in the same article, highlights his club’s focus on mentality, particularly from his leaders – the core veterans of Besler, Roger Espinoza, Ilie Sanchez, and Graham Zusi.
“We re-signed a lot of guys that have been really good for us, and I don’t necessarily think that all of those guys — and I told them this — lived up to that,” started Vermes. “I think they signed their contracts, and, at least a little bit, maybe they let their foot off the gas. We almost were in MLS Cup, we made it to the semifinals of Champions League, but what happens is, when you get a little bit older, and I don’t think we have old guys, I just think we have aging guys, you have to work that much harder. And I think they didn’t realize that.”
When asked at Media Day if he thought Vermes was being too demanding or unfair, Besler clearly shot the notions down.
“No matter whether your team is doing well or not so well, the veterans on your team have to take responsibility, the core group has to take responsibility… When things don’t go well, you have to step up and take it. You have to hold your hand up and admit that last season was not good enough. And that certainly was the case,” Besler stated. “No problem with him coming out and saying that. We all accept those responsibilities. That’s why we have so much to prove.”
From day one of 2020 Preseason, that “urgency” Besler spoke of was palpable.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” Zusi amplified. “You could tell one day into training camp this year the sense of urgency, the attention to detail, the focus of every single guy. Ultimately, it led to a very good preseason, and a very good start to the season.”
Last Saturday’s game one visit to Vancouver Whitecaps was a dream start for Sporting Kansas City. Not only did the side show a 90-minute focus in closing out a late 2-1 lead with a third goal, but three of the key newcomers - Transfer fee-record-busting center forward Alan Pulido, midfielder Gadi Kinda, and center back Roberto Puncec – got on the score sheet and mostly showed well.
Asked if the urgency was felt from day one, Besler gave an answer amplified similar to Zusi’s:
“Of course. Of course. Everyone has a lot to prove this year. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been here for 10 years or this is your first year, or whatever your name is,” he said. “We have guys on our team who are self-motivated; it does not take much to get them to perform. That’s why so many of our guys have had long careers. You don’t get to that point unless you are self-motivated. I’m excited to see how a lot of our guys respond this year.”
Evaluation. Self-reflection. From the top to the bottom. Vermes, furthering his introspection, has brought a number of new ideas to the table for the new season.
“Everyone is awake and trying to understand what Peter brought from the offseason. He brought some new ideas that we are trying to put on the field,” revealed Ilie Sanchez on Tuesday. “Of course, we have a lot of work on and off the field to understand that. In the end, mentality is the key, and I think all the new guys have the right one. Then you will see, as the season goes on, their qualities as players.”
The right mentality is, “absolutely” and “of course”, key if any of those ideas will pay off. And Sporting Kansas City feels they are there.