By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (May 10, 2018) US Soccer Players - Peter Vermes signed a contract extension with Sporting Kansas City this week, one that keeps him in his posts of technical director and head coach through 2023. Already the longest-tenured active head coach in MLS, his new deal stands to make him the longest-serving boss in the league’s history.
It’s a major show of confidence in the former USMNT player and 1990 World Cup veteran, a tribute to what he’s built in the Midwest. It also holds lessons and implications for the national team.
Sporting KC have by now been good enough for long enough that most MLS watchers barely remember their days as the Wizards. For years they were the league’s proverbial sick man, with tiny crowds at a comically oversized stadium, scant market visibility, and recurring rumors of franchise relocation.
With Vermes running the technical side and the OnGoal LLC ownership group engineering the spectacularly successful “Sporting” rebrand alongside the move into Children’s Mercy Park, the club has come a long way in under a decade. Today, Sporting KC is a perennial trophy contender, possessed of a distinct style and identity, and enough swagger to dare to dub itself “the soccer capital of America.”
A Jersey guy by birth and a globetrotter for much of his playing career, Vermes has been at the center of this evolution. He’s also shown marked personal growth along the way.
Sporting hauled themselves into steady MLS relevance by becoming a muscular, aggressive team as they moved into their soccer-specific home in 2011. The 4-3-3 formation that today is a platform for expansive passing and possession play? Back then it mainly seemed to be most conducive to the high press. Well before the New York Red Bulls and their investor/operator's global ownership group made it a mantra, SKC were the MLS team most immediately associated with this high-intensity tactic.
It dovetailed well with the arc of their move into a soccer-specific stadium. Sporting started the season on a lengthy roadtrip waiting for their new building to open. That hardened a rugged personality that later fit perfectly into a compact, noisy stadium that puts fans closer to players than most any in MLS.
A trip to Kansas City soon became a grinding occasion that most other teams dreaded, with bruising physicality on the pitch hooted on by loud, relentless supporters, especially during the hot summers. Vermes’s side has since racked up three US Open Cup championships, the 2013 MLS Cup title, and a lengthy streak of playoff qualification. Over time, the trophies helped Vermes and his team grow into more sophisticated ways of playing, in search of greater consistency and control.
“You need time,” Vermes told reporters during a conference call this week. “There are a lot of teams that can have one-hit wonders and do really well and then kind of fall off the screen. But it’s really about every year trying to be competitive and be in a place to try and win something. And I think we’ve proven that.”
Sporting's leadership identified the chief dangers of “small market” status early. They established a measured mindset towards spending and preference for homegrown cultivation and talent development. Maneuvering the murky insides of the single-entity rulebook, Sporting made claims to huge swaths of their region in both marketing and talent-scouting terms, and duly invested in the infrastructure to exploit it. Vermes managed to keep things fresh enough for both his players and himself, surely driven by the big-picture vision in addition to the weekly hunt for wins and points.
“Going forward, we believe that the pro pathway that we’ve created is going to be the lifeblood of this club moving forward, and we want to make sure that we continue to develop and evolve that to where it needs to be,” he said this week, repeating his hope of someday fielding an entire starting 11 of homegrown players.
As all this would suggest, over time Vermes’s efforts have put him in conversations about the National Team job. This week, he told ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle that US Soccer contacted him about both of the USMNT’s vacant leadership positions, the head coaching post and the new general manager job. The outlet had already reported in previous months that US Soccer considered him as a potential replacement for Jurgen Klinsmann back in 2016. Still, as Carlisle put it, “that didn't stop him from signing a new long-term deal with his MLS club” this week.
When asked, Vermes stopped short of guaranteeing what his choice between Sporting KC and the USMNT might be, should such a situation present itself.
US Soccer certainly appears to be of a “rebuilding” mindset towards the USMNT, allowing the coaching search to float on open-ended for months while emphasizing the pivotal importance of making an ideal long-term hire. USSF’s willingness to offer Klinsmann and many his predecessors multi-year contracts, and the willingness to wait until further possible hires materialize after this summer’s World Cup, ironically suggests a slow-and-steady outlook similar to Vermes’ mindset.
“I’m not a mercenary,” Vermes said on the conference call. “I’m not the guy that goes one year to this club and two years to this club and just keep bumping around. I consider myself to be more of a builder. I think we’re still building this project and I want to continue to be a part of it.”
Would it be possible for Vermes to enact a Sporting-type phenomenon on a national level? Will he someday get the chance? Is he what the program needs at this moment in time? I personally can’t begin to claim to know those answers, in part because the federation has given so few clues as to what it really wants and values in the GM, and the next head coach that they will hire.
The 2026 World Cup bidding process is devouring plenty of organizational capital at Soccer House these days. That’s understandable to a point, and maybe inevitable. However, hugely important decisions continue to hover above the USMNT, and well beyond merely which names will fill those open technical posts. These are matters both practical and philosophical, pertaining to identity, mindset, resource mobilization, and so much more.
Should Vermes’s own journey take him away from Kansas City, he’ll leave behind a sturdy framework for successors to work with. That's a differentiator for club and country right now.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Another painful Champions League for MLS
- Jimmy Maurer on the uncertainty of life in the lower divisions
- Will New England's approach change youth soccer?
- Zlatan, Concacaf Champions League, and cult of personality in American soccer
Photo by Tim Bouwer - ISIPhotos.com