Why Peter Vermes deserves even more praise ... and a shot at the USMNT job
Anybody see David Villa walking through the door lately at Children’s Mercy Park?
Probably not. Because he isn’t. Neither, for that matter, is anyone who comes close to Villa’s game-changing superpower. No big-timers like Clint Dempsey or Robbie Keane, or even a younger model Designated Player like Miguel Almiron or Josef Martinez, the emerging South American internationals at Atlanta United.
Oh, sure, these pricey heartbreakers and point-takers do occasionally grace the gates around the swell Kansas ground, but always en route to the visitors’ locker room. Meanwhile, they don’t really do name internationals or big-time DPs at Sporting Kansas City. And that makes the purposeful march of achievement at Children’s Mercy Park even more compelling.
The trophies are piling up impressively. Sporting Kansas City took another one last week, the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Add it to Open Cups in 2012 and 2015 and to the grander achievement that was 2013 MLS Cup.
The 22-year-old club has other honors as well, like the 2000 MLS Cup. But this is about the organization in its current construct, and about how SKC has been so consistently capable. And it’s about asking whether we are pointing enough of the bright shiny lights on a can-do club in so-called flyover country?
Even more to the point, perhaps, are we directing enough praise and attention toward the shepherd of all this on-field prosperity, manager Peter Vermes?
As you ponder that, don’t forget: The United States men’s national team will be looking for a new manager in about 10 months.
Why Vermes deserves special praise
Sporting Kansas City has built its success without reaching for the top shelf of DP selections. Rather, the Vermes project is all about building around the college draft, then augmenting with mid-level Europeans and shrewd trades. None of that is as sexy as luring, say, Bastian Schweinsteiger. You could even say it’s a little boring. We all get excited over DP singings or a fight over allocation signings or whatever, but just can’t get worked up over a No. 16 overall pick out of University of South Florida; that was Dom Dwyer, by the way, in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft.
And yet, so much of the club’s success has been built around guys like Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Roger Espinoza and, before he was traded, around Dwyer. All were SKC draft picks. Seth Sinovic and Ike Opara were draft picks elsewhere, scooped later via trade.
Zusi and Besler have since become important U.S. internationals, but let’s not forget that they developed into U.S. regulars at Sporting Kansas City. Same for Dwyer. It’s easy to forget how raw he was coming out of college, collecting just four MLS minutes as a rookie and then spending much of the following season on loan at then-second tier Orlando City. Espinoza was similarly raw, mostly just a midfield hammer in his early years.
Vermes was in charge of nurturing this current group, which means SKC did it the inexpensive way. Like quite a few MLS teams, Sporting Kansas City’s collective player salary is less than what Sebastian Giovinco makes at Toronto FC. Overall, SKC is No. 16 in salary spending in 2017.
Salary doesn’t tell the whole story; this is also about a system. While Besler, Opara and Sinovic have long remained building blocks of the back, the screening man in front of them has changed out frequently.
Julio Cesar had that critical position as the club won Open Cup honors in 2012. Oriol Rosell manned the position regally as SKC took MLS Cup on a bitterly cold December night in 2013.
Soni Mustivar had the assignment as Sporting took another Open Cup in 2015, and last week, Ilie Sánchez was running the midfield methodically and sensibly from the bottom of the midfield “V.” When you see that happening, it tells you something important: A system works well when teams seamlessly change out such an important part.
Not just any system in this case. It’s Vermes’ system, a 4-3-3 with which he became acquainted while playing in Holland in the early 1990s.
A body of work which speaks volumes
For all of ridiculously untamed sideline histrionics, Vermes is clearly a damn good manager. Every time you talk to the guy, as I have several times through the years, you get smarter about soccer. And you immediately understand how immersed he is in the entire project, not just in the game-day finish line.
Even from a distance, you simply cannot look at the body of work and arrive at any other conclusion. Beyond the titles previously mentioned, SKC currently owns the league’s longest active streak of undefeated matches at home (24).
It’s built on a pretty simple premise that goes something like this: We have Opara and Besler, the league’s best center back combo, and the best MLS goalkeeper this year in Tim Melia. We’re just gonna defend like we do, and you’re not going to beat us. So there.
They haven’t missed the playoffs since 2010. Assuming the Galaxy misses the playoffs, only Seattle and the Red Bulls will have longer active streaks come late October. Speaking of longevity and streaks: No MLS manager has lasted longer at his current post, and yet, he’s never been Coach of the Year. Riddle us that.
That’s not a list of accomplishments that will humble the Sounders or Galaxy. Then again, you know what those clubs do that SKC doesn’t? They spend like crazy.
In the MLS structure, spending as part of a recipe for success is fair game. But if we’re talking about accomplishment through the virtues of improvement, quality control, accountability and all the better angels of project fulfillment, then tip your hats to SKC. Really, that runs through the entire organization; business books deserve to be written about the club’s rags-to-riches rebranding and complete image overhaul a few years back.
Good for Seattle and the Galaxy and all their success, but to say it doesn’t have a lot to do with money would be something less than honest. Look at the recent MLS summer transfer window: Finding itself not-top-of-the-chart successful, Seattle got four new players, including at least two starters.
Vermes and Co. sat around counting their cash from the Dwyer deal this summer, confident that Diego Rubio, Daniel Salloi and Latif Blessing (all in their early 20s) can fill the gap by lifting their own contributions.
Generally speaking, if a player isn’t doing the job at CenturyLink, Seattle goes and gets a new one. Most MLS teams don’t have that luxury; they can swap out a name or two, but they generally have to improve on the practice field and in the video room by shoring up individual weaknesses and reinforcing individual strengths. In other words, they have to “coach ‘em up.” Vermes and his staff at SKC just happen to be very good at it.
This is no knock on Patrick Vieira and what he’s done at New York City FC, nor Greg Vanney at Toronto. It’s not to denigrate Sigi Schmid or Bruce Arena for what they have done in MLS. But if we’re talking about making the best of what you got,” then guys like Oscar Pareja and Vermes top the list.
Arena’s second run with the U.S. national team will end by next July, latest. Unless the federation rediscovers its foreign wanderlust, it could do a lot worse than Vermes as the pick.