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A Look at the Way Peter Vermes Uses Substitutions

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A dive into the numbers around Peter Vermes’ use of substitutions in 2021 against the rest of MLS and against Vermes’ use throughout KC history.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting Kansas City head coach, Peter Vermes has coached close to half the games in the club’s history, having coached 403 of KC’s 820 league games in their 26 seasons. He’s recorded 172 wins, won four trophies, and made the playoffs 10 of his 12 seasons in charge as the full-time head coach. One thing that has been a regular complaint of Vermes’ strategy/coaching style by fans has been his use of substitutions. That’s especially been true in the 2021 season as fans have asked whether Vermes’ lack of rotation and substitutions worked against KC late in the season, especially during their three-game losing streak to end the 2021 regular season.

With that thought in mind I went back and looked at Kansas City’s substitution numbers throughout the club’s history with Peter Vermes as the full-time head coach and I also took a look at Kansas City’s substitution usage this year compared to the rest of MLS in 2021.

First a couple points from the research. To narrow the scope a little bit I am only looking at Vermes’ time as the full-time head coach, so the final 12 games of 2009 after the then Kansas City Wizards fired Curt Onalfo are not included in the research.

As another point to narrow just the amount of data I am sorting through, while I’m looking at Vermes’ subbing from 2010 through 2021, I am only looking at MLS’s subbing for the 2021 season. Obviously looking at the data over a longer period of time would give a more in-depth look at the numbers, but time is an issue.

For Kansas City’s subbing I’m making no difference between planned, tactical, or injury subs because while first half injury substitutions may be easy to point to, it is less so for injury subs in the second half, so the numbers include all those subs. The last point I’ll make is that while I pulled Kansas City’s stats from my own data that I keep about the team, the rest of the league’s substitution stats I pulled from FBRef.com. With that out of the way let’s take a look at the data.

Substitutions Used

The biggest complaint, especially this year has been the lack of substitutions used by Vermes. Starting last year when leagues started to return to play after shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, FIFA allowed leagues to let teams have five substitutions that could be used during three substitution windows during the run of play (half time not counting as one window). Many teams took advantage of the ability to use up to five players off their bench during the game, Vermes though wasn’t one of them.

In the 2021 season, Vermes averaged using 2.44 substitutions per game. In MLS in 2021, Sporting was the only team that averaged under three substitutions per game. The next closest to Vermes was Minnesota United where Adrian Heath used on average 3.21 subs per game. At the opposite end of the list, the San Jose Earthquakes averaged the most substitutions in the league, averaging 4.71 per game. The league’s average subs per game by team was 4.04, so Vermes averaged a sub and a half less per game than the rest of the league.

Put a different way, in a 34 game season with five subs allowed, MLS teams were allowed to make up to 170 changes in 2021. For Vermes and Kansas City, that means the 83 substitutions that were made were less than half of the allowed substitutions, Vermes used 48.82% of his substitutions. For comparison, Minnesota, who used the second fewest used 64.12% of their substitutions and San Jose used 94.12% of available substitutions. The league average percentage was 80.81%.

Subs league wide

Team (Playoff Seed) Subs Games % of Subs Avg subs
Team (Playoff Seed) Subs Games % of Subs Avg subs
San Jose 160 170 94.12% 4.71
Portland (5) 156 170 91.76% 4.59
Orlando (10) 155 170 91.18% 4.56
DC 154 170 90.59% 4.53
Austin 151 170 88.82% 4.44
LA 150 170 88.24% 4.41
Montreal 146 170 85.88% 4.29
Miami 146 170 85.88% 4.29
Nashville (7) 146 170 85.88% 4.29
Dallas 145 170 85.29% 4.26
Vancouver (12) 145 170 85.29% 4.26
NYCFC (8) 144 170 84.71% 4.24
Columbus 142 170 83.53% 4.18
New York (14) 142 170 83.53% 4.18
Colorado (2) 139 170 81.76% 4.09
Chicago 136 170 80.00% 4.00
Houston 136 170 80.00% 4.00
Cincinnati 133 170 78.24% 3.91
Toronto 133 170 78.24% 3.91
LAFC 132 170 77.65% 3.88
Seattle (3) 132 170 77.65% 3.88
Salt Lake (13) 131 170 77.06% 3.85
New England (1) 130 170 76.47% 3.82
Atlanta (9) 119 170 70.00% 3.50
Philadelphia (6) 114 170 67.06% 3.35
Minnesota (11) 109 170 64.12% 3.21
KC (4) 83 170 48.82% 2.44
Mike Kuhn

The difference between Sporting and other teams in the league is certainly the most striking thing as I looked at the numbers. Even if you take out the fourth and fifth subs that KC did use this season and think of it from the standard three substitutes, KC still only used 73.53% of their substitutions in 2021, which would be the lowest percentage in KC’s history with three subs.

While KC is on their own in terms of not using substitutions, seven of the eight teams who used the fewest substitutions in 2021 made the playoffs with the highest being the Seattle Sounders and Los Angeles FC (the one team in the eight that didn’t make the playoffs) using 77.65% of their substitutions, averaging 3.88 subs per game. Of those seven teams that made the playoffs, you have three of the top four seeds (New England Revolution, Seattle, KC) and four of the top six (sixth seeded Philadelphia Union). The other half of the playoff teams were spread out among the other 19 teams with the highest being the Portland Timbers who had the second highest sub usage in the league, using 91.76% of their subs, 4.59 per game. The Western Conference winning Colorado Rapids finished using 81.76% of their subs, 4.09 per game.

One thing that could be taken away from that is that teams that are in playoff positions are more likely to be winning, and less likely to use a substitution like a losing team would to try to change the result of the game. A winning team would seem more likely to hold onto their lineup while maybe using subs late in the game to attempt to waste time.

Subbing By Year

That last point would appear to hold true for Kansas City as well. When looking at the percentage of substitutions that KC has used during the Vermes head coaching era, the highest percentage of usage of substitutions has occurred in years where Kansas City did not make the playoffs. The highest percentage of substitutions used was in 2010, Vermes’ first season in charge full time where the then Wizards used 94.4% of their substitutions, averaging 2.83 subs per game. The second highest percentage of subs came in 2019, the only other season that Kansas City has missed the playoffs as Vermes used 94.12% of his subs that season, averaging 2.82 subs per season.

Average subs by year

Year Avg subs
Year Avg subs
2010 2.83
2011 2.74
2012 2.53
2013 2.74
2014 2.68
2015 2.71
2016 2.56
2017 2.32
2018 2.59
2019 2.82
2020 3.52
2021 2.44
Mike Kuhn

In the other years prior to 2021 that KC made the playoffs, the percentage of subs used ranged from a high of 91.18% used in 2011 and 2013, 2.74 subs per game, to a low of 73.27% used in the COVID shortened 2020 season where KC used 3.52 subs per game. Taking that season out because of the weirdness that was 2020 and the next lowest is the 2017 season where KC used 77.45% of their substitutions, 2.32 per game. The next lowest percentage of substitutions used though was 84.31% back in the 2012 season. In the era of three substitutions, Sporting under Vermes has averaged using 88.36% of their subs, which falls to 83.86% when you add in the two years of the five sub era.

Percentage of subs by year

Year % of subs % of subs minus 4, 5
Year % of subs % of subs minus 4, 5
2010 94.40% 94.40%
2011 91.18% 91.18%
2012 84.31% 84.31%
2013 91.18% 91.18%
2014 89.22% 89.22%
2015 90.20% 90.20%
2016 85.29% 85.29%
2017 77.45% 77.45%
2018 86.28% 86.28%
2019 94.12% 94.12%
2020 73.27% 93.65%
2021 49.41% 73.53%
Mike Kuhn

I think the other take away here is the fact that Vermes really has not been one to use the fourth or the fifth substitution allowed him currently. You take away the fourth and fifth substitution and 2020’s percentage jumps to 93.65% and 2021 jumps to 73.53% and the average over Vermes’ whole tenure with KC jumps up to 87.57% of his substitutions being used. It’s not excusing Vermes not utilizing the resources afforded to him by the league and FIFA with the two extra substitutes, but it is a point to remember.

Average substitution time

When I had said on Twitter that I was going to start looking into Vermes’ substitutions I had a number of people mention the average time of Vermes’ substitutions as they felt Vermes made a number of substitutions later than they felt he should, or later in games in general. So, the next thing I took a look at was the average substitution time that Vermes has made. Again, discounting any injuries, KC’s average substitution time was around the 70th minute, 69.98 to be exact. That puts Kansas City right around the middle of the league in terms of minutes played by substitutes. According to FBRef, MLS teams average substitute gets between 18 and 26 minutes. Only one team that made the MLS Cup playoffs made early substitutions, the New York Red Bulls subs on average played 24 minutes.

Average sub time overall

Year Avg sub overall
Year Avg sub overall
2010 70
2011 71
2012 73
2013 72
2014 69
2015 71
2016 72
2017 75
2018 73
2019 69
2020 69
2021 70
Mike Kuhn

For Kansas City specifically, I broke things down further both for 2021 and historically, including on average when Vermes made his first, second, third, fourth, and fifth subs. Through Vermes’ time in charge with his first sub has come mostly around the same time, sometime between the 56th and 68th minute, on average over his 12 seasons in charge it’s been the 62nd minute. The earliest average first substitution is in the 2014 season when on average the first substitution came in the 56th minute. The latest first sub came in the 2017 season in the 68th minute. The 2021 season on average saw KC’s first sub take place right at the 12 year average, in the 62nd minute.

Average first sub

Year Avg 1st sub
Year Avg 1st sub
2010 58
2011 59
2012 60
2013 60
2014 56
2015 60
2016 61
2017 68
2018 62
2019 58
2020 54
2021 62
Mike Kuhn

The same was true for Vermes’ second substitution. On average in 2021 KC’s second substitution came in the 72nd minute, just one minute earlier than the 12 year average of the 73rd minute. The earliest second substitution came last year in 2020 with the 66th minute while the latest second substitution was a tie between the 2012 and 2018 seasons when the second sub didn’t come until the 77th minute on average.

Average second sub

Year Avg 2nd sub
Year Avg 2nd sub
2010 72
2011 74
2012 77
2013 74
2014 73
2015 74
2016 76
2017 76
2018 77
2019 72
2020 66
2021 72
Mike Kuhn

Vermes’ third sub on average over his tenure was in the 77th minute, five minutes earlier than the 12 year average of the 82nd minute. It’s one of only two seasons Vermes has been in charge where the third sub came before the 80th minute, the other being in 2020. The obvious result you can take from this is the fact that both those seasons came with the five-substitution rule, meaning there was still the potential for more subs after the 80th minute in these two seasons. With three substitutions from 2010 through 2019, on average KC only made their third sub one minute later, with the earliest third sub on average occurring in 2014 and 2019 in the 80th minute while the latest on average was 2012 in the 86th minute.

Average third sub

Year Avg 3rd sub
Year Avg 3rd sub
2010 81
2011 84
2012 86
2013 84
2014 80
2015 84
2016 84
2017 85
2018 84
2019 80
2020 77
2021 77
Mike Kuhn

The two seasons with the fourth and fifth substitutions are in weird situation because of when Vermes has used them that on average KC’s fifth substitution has occurred earlier than KC’s fourth substitution. In 2020 the fourth and fifth subs on average occurred in the 84th minute. In 2021 meanwhile, the fourth sub on average occurred in the 81st minute while the fifth sub on average took place in the 79th minute. This mainly has to do with the number of times Vermes has used the fourth and fifth subs.

Average fourth and fifth sub

Year Avg 4th sub Avg 5th sub
Year Avg 4th sub Avg 5th sub
2020 84 84
2021 81 79
Mike Kuhn

To take the timing of the substitutions further, I went ahead and broke the subbing Vermes has done by time, dividing all the substitutions into six different categories, before half time, half time, between halftime and the 60th minute. Between the 60th and 75th, between the 75th and 90th, and in stoppage time.

As would likely be expected for most soccer teams, the majority of substitutions by Vermes took place either between the 75th and 90th minute (37.06%) and between the 60th and 75th minute (33.43%). Vermes averages for 2021 fall in line with his traditional substituting with 38.55% of his subs coming between the 75th and 90th and 30.12% between the 60th and 75th being the time where he’s used the most substitutions. His use of subs between half and the 60th minute were actually higher than the historical average, 13.25% in 2021 compared to 10.41% historically. Vermes just made five substitutions in stoppage time in 2021.

Substitution timing

 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 Total
 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 Total
Before half 4 3 6 0 6 3 4 1 2 3 3 4 39
at half 7 7 2 8 5 10 6 4 4 5 10 6 74
pre-60 7 9 8 12 8 10 9 7 9 10 9 11 109
pre-75 33 32 23 29 35 24 22 25 30 50 22 25 350
pre-90 31 40 37 35 33 32 35 31 37 25 20 32 388
stoppage time 3 2 10 9 4 13 11 11 6 3 10 5 87
Mike Kuhn

Usage of substitutions

As mentioned earlier, Vermes used less than 50% of KC’s available substitutions in 2021, in the 34 regular season games Vermes used the maximum number of substitutions allowed, five, two times. He used four of the five available subs four times, three subs were used 11 times, two subs, nine, one sub six times, and zero subs twice. The 32.35% usage of three substitutions is obviously the lowest, followed only closely by 2020 when 38.1% of the games did KC use three substitutions. On average over KC’s 12 years, KC used three substitutions 67.26% of the time.

Subs used per game

 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 Total % of games
 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 Total % of games
0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 2 4 1.02%
1 1 1 2 2 2 2 3 7 2 0 1 6 29 7.42%
2 3 7 9 5 7 6 9 6 10 6 2 9 79 20.20%
3 26 26 22 27 25 26 22 20 22 28 8 11 263 67.26%
4 5 4 9 2.30%
5 5 2 7 1.79%
Mike Kuhn

To make things a little more comparable I did another comparison of the substitution numbers but using three plus substitutions. There the 2021 season was still 20% points below the average with KC using three or more substitutions in only half their games in 2021. The largest percentage increase over the average was the use of just one substitution, where the 2021 average (17.65%) jumped over 10% points higher than the 12 year average of 7.42%. The 2021 season was the only season in Vermes’ tenure where three or more subs wasn’t used more than double the number of times two substitutions were as he used three or more subs 17 times while using two subs nine times.

Subs used when 3, 4, 5 are combined

 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 Total % of games
 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 Total % of games
0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 2 4 1.02%
1 1 1 2 2 2 2 3 7 2 0 1 6 29 7.42%
2 3 7 9 5 7 6 9 6 10 6 2 9 79 20.20%
3+ 26 26 22 27 25 26 22 20 22 28 18 17 279 71.36%
Mike Kuhn

When looking at all the numbers some of them certainly pass the eye test that Kansas City fans have complained about throughout the season, Vermes’ lack of substitution this year. Only twice in his prior 11 years in charge of Kansas City did he start and end the game with the same lineup, in 2021 though he doubled that number, twice not making a single substitution.

At the same time, some of the stats don’t match up with the eye test that KC fans talk about. Things like Vermes seeming to sub later, subs not getting a lot of minutes, etc. Compared to the rest of the league though Vermes is right in line with a lot of the rest of the league at least when it comes to minutes played by substitutes. Historically for Vermes, outside the number of substitutions he used most of the rest falls in line with the way Vermes has always done his substitution for the club when they are in a playoff position.

After reviewing all these numbers, the main conclusion I came to is that it’s hard to look at the subbing in 2020 and 2021 compared to the rest of the team’s history because of the changing in the allowance of substitutions during these years. Because of this you have to look more at how he subbed in 2020 and 2021. But it’s even hard to compare 2020 to 2021 because the differences in the situations for the team, league, world from last year to this one. So really, in the end, the 2021 season is more likely to stand on its own, at least compared to the past substitution strategy for Vermes.

With the reports though that the five-substitution rule is going to become a potential permanent option in the game, it will be interesting to see if and how Vermes (and other coaches) change the way they substitute as the game continues to progress should MLS choose to stick with five subs. At the same time, the numbers don’t lie, Vermes made far, far fewer substitutions in 2021 than not only the rest of the league, but he made far fewer substitutions than he has in any other season in charge of Sporting KC.