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Complacency be damned! Motivation, fun multi-faceted for Sporting KC Manager Vermes, Assistant Zavagnin, players

Ownership, evolution play large parts.

SOCCER: FEB 27 MLS - Sporting Kansas City at Atlanta United Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One played 78 matches in three seasons with the Kansas City Wizards and then took over the technical director role in 2006, a position he held for 13 years. In 2009, he took on a second role as manager of the club and now sits as the fifth winningest manager in MLS history. Currently, he is the sporting director and manager. The other played 237 matches in blue and has been not only an assistant coach since 2009, but he also is involved in scouting, developing younger players, breaking down film, and other roles.

Peter Vermes and Kerry Zavagnin have put in literally hundreds of thousands of hours bleeding Wizards/Sporting blue. The pure immensity, and having to deal with all they deal with, sounds exhausting.

Exhaustion, that is where complacency can creep in and take hold, infesting hope, infesting drive.

When dealing with the varying personalities of players and player contracts and playing time and all the more, Vermes and Zavagnin may lean on the idea that “It’s not personal; it’s business.”

In fact, it’s the opposite.

“I’m fortunate, in one regard that I started when the new ownership came in, so I am directly related to the vision of the club. Because of that, I view the project as mine. Not in a selfish way, but I view the project as mine,” stated Vermes at Sporting Kansas City’s Media Day on Wednesday at Children’s Mercy Park.

Not only then does Vermes take ownership, but that sense of ownership – and I conclude the idea of the success of the vision reflects on the success of Vermes himself – inspires. “There is always room for improvement; I’m always thinking of ways for us to get better,” Vermes relayed. “I’ve been offered opportunities outside of here, I just don’t think the grass is greener other places. I think I’m in a great place.”

As it went, when it came necessary in 2009 to make a change in team manager, the then “On Goal” ownership group sat Vermes down and told him they wanted him to be the man. From there, the relationship has grown.

“I love our ownership group; I love their commitment. They own the team, but they are in it, every day. I talk to the ownership group I don’t know how many times a week. I don’t know if that is the same at other clubs. I’m pretty sure it’s not because I talk with my counterparts,” Vermes revealed. “That commitment is incredibly important, even for staff members, or even players to know that they are at every game and are here and involved, it means something. I also think that applies pressure [on us], and that’s good.”

Constant motivation. Inspired responsibility.

For Zavagnin, one of Sporting’s Assistant Coaches, it is two personal mottos that have entrenched him in Kansas City’s soccer landscape and kept complacency at bay.

“I’ve always taken the same approach no matter what role I’ve been in and that is: try to be better the next day,” said Zavagnin, who, as a player, rose with the New York/Jersey MetroStars for two seasons, valleyed for one season in the USL, then peaked with Kansas City.

“If you go with that mentality, longevity or time spent in one area and getting kind of complacent doesn’t ever come into the picture,” Zavagnin observed, before revealing his second motto. “I truly, over the years, whether it be [under Kansas City Wizards Manager] Bob Gansler or Peter or the ownership group or anybody else who has put faith in me, I’ve always wanted to repay that. As long as I’m here and there are people that believe in me, I do take that responsibility of one, trying to be better the next day, and also living up to the belief that other people around here have in me.”

Like Zavagnin, complacency is not a thing for Vermes. He is worried about becoming ineffective, and, well, cartoon-like when it comes to addressing the troops.

“It’s not complacency that I worry about at this level. I’m always worried that every day I get up to do this, it’s more I just don’t want to become old for the players. I don’t want to be Charlie Brown [‘s teacher] and I go on and they don’t hear what I’m saying,” he said. “That’s probably one of the reasons why [Assistant Coach Zoran Savic] and Kerry have been with me for so long because I have been good at letting them have a lot to say, a lot of involvement, which keeps it fresh.”

But fun has to be a part of keeping things fresh, freeing and opening the mind, and battling complacency too. When I coached, there would be times we would play soccer football or silly things like leapfrog and more at practice. For Sporting, Johnny Russell embodies the fun at training.

“It is tough to talk over Johnny and to make bigger jokes than Johnny. Johnny is the MC,” Zavagnin said.

On the training pitch, it is business. Ok, mostly…

Off the pitch is where Sporting’s staff and players further feel the support of an active ownership group. The recent preseason in Arizona was another example.

“For us as a staff, we have more than a few conversations, and the conversations have to go well beyond soccer because we are “soccered out” in terms of our talk. We go out to dinner, but one of the greatest things in our preseason is with Cliff Illig and his family to have a place down there and take us to The Waste Management Phoenix Open – one of the best sporting events I’ve ever been to – and this year we went to a Super Bowl party, even though the Chiefs were not in it.

To have the opportunity to be with the staff, to be with the owners. It’s the little things that count and the relationships we have as a staff, and the owners, and for the players themselves: [those times are] opportunities to bond with them. We had a great time down there, always do. And it always goes back to what the owners do for you, whether it’s putting you in a nice hotel or give you good facilities, they give you the opportunities to experience the finer things of life.”

How preseason was run was a part of keeping motivation high as well.

“We give them their freedom off the field… the preseason was run more like a training camp, and not necessarily a preseason where you are going two-a-days and trying to beat the team into the ground,” Zavagnin explained. “They had the opportunity to go out to dinner every night. You give them a couple days off down there where they can golf, drive to the mountains, go to the beach, whatever it is. To be able to do those things, I think the guys really appreciate that.”

Easing the load, building relationships, and by connection, building the inner person, helps all evolve and boldly look to constantly improve the on-field plan and its execution, as Vermes continued, “At the same time, I’m constantly trying to evolve because I can’t be the same from last year. You may not see it, but the way we play is a little bit different in certain aspects on things that we do on the field. That is a challenge for the guys. I give that challenge to them and say, ‘Hey, we are going to try to do this a little bit better than we’ve done in the past because I think it will work better.’ It’s constantly trying to just be better.”

During the United States Men’s National Team run to the 2002 FIFA World Cup quarter-final, US Coach Bruce Arena allowed family to be near the national team’s training camp. It was a move that could have invited scrutiny. Yet, comfort inspires too, lends peace, and heads off the gateway of physical and mental fatigue. Now that Sporting is home in Kansas City, the next phase of motivation takes hold.

“Being back home – even in the lead up to week one it was hectic with the weather and being at the Chief’s facility – to get into a rhythm is important, a big thing. We are just now starting to feel like we are back home. That’s a good thing,” Zavagnin intimated.

In the end, a big reason for the foundations above, clearly, is winning. Winning can not only keep problems small,but is the biggest motivator.

Vermes closed, “Ultimately, I want to win. That’s the biggest reason. That’s the number one. I tell the players: ‘[Winning is] why we are all here. If we are not here to win, we shouldn’t be here.’”