Sporting KC’s remarkable 2023 season reaffirms the legacy of Peter Vermes

Sporting Kansas City opened 2023 without a win in its first 10 matches, but rebounded nicely to make the playoffs. The team's turnaround is (another) testament to manager Peter Vermes, returns this year for his 16th season in Kansas City.

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March 1, 2024 - 1:58 PM

Manager and Sporting Director Peter Vermes talks to Erik Thommy (26) of Sporting Kansas City during their game against the Inter Miami CF at DRV PNK Stadium on Sept. 9, 2023, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Photo by Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images/TNS

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Amid Sporting KC’s wretched start last season, going winless in its first 10 matches while scoring a measly three goals, some vocal fans took to booing the team off the field and chanting “Vermes out” in reference to longtime manager Peter Vermes.

They weren’t alone in their frustration and doubt. Principal owner Mike Illig told The Kansas City Star’s Sam McDowell the situation was “embarrassing,” and the club contemplated a dramatic change

If Vermes was flinching inside, though, it wasn’t apparent. In fact, the fallout only seemed to fuel his resolve and conviction.

And not just in the sense that he has what he called a “vengeful” side as Sporting began to hoist itself out of the abyss into a stunning late-season run that proved to be the actual signature of the season. That defiant part of him flashed after Sporting on May 13 beat Minnesota 3-0 for its second straight win, compelling him, he said Tuesday, to have “my say” before fans in the Budweiser Brew House of Children’s Mercy Park.

“It’s who I am,” Vermes said. “I can’t play the two-faced game.”

But who he is is far more multifaceted and deep than that.

Something he demonstrated anew last season with an uncanny combination of steadfastness and adaptability that affirmed his resume — including one MLS Cup and three U.S Open Cups (and 11 postseason berths in the last 13 seasons) — and underscores why he’s now in charge for a 16th straight season.

Given that the substance and duration of his ongoing term perhaps is underappreciated, consider this:

In Sporting’s season opener at Houston last weekend, Vermes became the first MLS coach to reach the 500-match plateau with one club. He’s the longest-tenured coach with one club in MLS history.

For that matter, he’s the fifth-longest currently tenured coach with one franchise in any of the five major American men’s sports leagues — behind only Gregg Popovich of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs (since 1996), Mike Tomlin of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers (2006), John Harbaugh of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens (2008) and Erik Spoelstra of the NBA’s Miami Heat (2008).

And, as of this season, he’s the longest-tenured pro coach with a Kansas City franchise, surpassing Hank Stram’s 15 seasons with the Chiefs that includes when they were the Dallas Texans.

Last season was testament to just why, and Vermes offered a glimpse at the subtle hows of it as he spoke about the constant need to adapt and adjust with the context of a broader scheme: His teams, he noted, always play the 4-3-3 with a holding defensive midfield.

“It’s just the way I play,” he said, speaking at Sporting’s preseason media day ahead of its home opener on Saturday. “But … there’s so many different nuances that go within that style of play that it can look so many different ways.”

WHEN IT was looking more and more like his ways either weren’t resonating or effective last season, Vermes saw something different.

Call it stubbornness or call it astute, but he proved correct.

All at once, Sporting was decimated by injuries and struggling to acclimate new players. For all else that might have been improved in the meanwhile, Vermes believed it was just a matter of time.

But he still had to keep the culture afloat, if there was hope to get to the other side that took them to the Western Conference semifinal.

“I really don’t see many teams coming back from that,” Sporting captain Johnny Russell said. “I think a lot of teams (would have) collapsed and their season’s over.”

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