The moment happened so quickly.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
A snap of the fingers, a clap of the hands. Here and then gone, all in a cameras flash. A mans life changed forever in a fraction of the time it takes to pour a cup of coffee. Peter Vermes still thinks about it, you know. Not every day. But, yeah. He still thinks about it.
June 14, 1990. The United States against Italy in the Americans first World Cup since 1950. Peters date with history. The Italian Walter Zenga was the consensus best goalkeeper on the planet, but with thousands screaming in person and millions more watching on television, Peter sprinted in on the left side and kicked the deflection as hard as he possibly could toward an unmanned part of the goal.
When his left foot hit the ball, Peter felt that rush. He knew the feeling: The ball was going in. The United States was going to take a lead against the host nation in the World Cup, a Miracle on Grass one decade after the U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the Russians and who knows what would happen after that? Peter would be a star, for one. Instantly. Hed be on the talk shows. Hed give speeches at schools. Hed be The Guy Who Scored The Goal.
But, well, Zenga had earned his reputation for a reason. Even now, watching the play on video, its hard to see exactly how Zenga stopped what amounted to a point-blank shot.
Peter doesnt know either. He shakes his head, the moment that wouldve changed his life forever gone but never forgotten.
It was going in, he says. I mean, I thought it was going. I really did.
Peter cant know exactly how his life would be different had he made that goal. The only thing hes sure of is that he wouldnt be here, in Kansas City, the brains and sweat and personification of what could be the greatest success story in the history of Major League Soccer.
Lunch is in front of him, but Peter is here to talk about soccer. This is his life, and not just the part in which his Sporting Kansas City team sold out all but one game this season. Peter worked his entire life for this, to be in charge of all things soccer for an eight-figure operation on the front side of what finally looks like the sports mainstream emergence both nationally, with new network television contracts, and locally, with booming youth programs that Peter himself started.
So the pasta can wait.
Peter traveled the world for this chance. He didnt always know hed be coach and technical director of a team that is now a back-to-back MLS conference champion and among the favorites to win the league title.
But soccer always meant something special to him, something big, something beyond even a pioneering career as a player.
He wears his hair neatly cropped, and the stubble on his face is there by choice. His words are direct, firm and confident. This is how it always is with Peter. Its what he knows. His life has been mostly soccer since his first organized game when he was 4 years old. Actually, its been this way even longer than that, since the moment his stern pro player of a father first put a ball near his sons foot and told him to kick it.
At a corner booth in this restaurant, Peter has hijacked the sweeteners to make a point about how he wants needs, really Sporting KC to operate. Its a simple point, actually, about how the first string (white sugar packets) is important, but you always need a strong backup (pink SweetN Low) in case of injury, and depth even behind that (blue packets of Equal) to give the organization options.
Peter couldve made the point without the props. But he didnt get here by taking chances. Didnt push Sporting this far by leaving details to interpretation.
This is the way it has to be, he says.
Back when Peter Vermes was just a boy, maybe 12, he was helping his father with something in the back yard. He cant remember what the project was, exactly, but he remembers his father saying he couldnt play until they finished. Peter agreed.
Soon after, a friend came by and asked if Peter could play. Peter told his friend no but still got grounded for a week because he got asked.
This is Peters worldview, one cultivated from birth by a father who knew nothing other than direct, forceful and unapologetic. This is in the Vermes DNA. Michael Vermes stood up against the Soviet occupation of his native Hungary. With his name on a list of wanted men, he fled the country on his third attempt, and the Vermeses settled in New Jersey.
Peter was a soccer prodigy. He wont say it in those words, but thats what he was. He scored five goals with four assists in his first game as a high school freshman, so the coach moved him up to junior varsity the next day. He scored four goals with four assists in that game. The next day, he played another JV game, scored a couple more goals, and then was told to suit up for the varsity game that same night.
Michael didnt want his son playing two full games in the same evening, and sent Peter to tell the coach as much. Peter played all but two minutes of the varsity match anyway. It was the only time he disobeyed his father, who died of cancer last year. Peters mother, Magdalena, died when he was 19.
Soccer eventually took Peter around the world. He was among the first Americans to play in some of Europes best leagues, once literally living at the stadium so he didnt have to commute to the only place he ever wanted to be.
Peter says he enjoyed every second of playing soccer, but also that he never felt the choice to do much else. That juxtaposition is a pretty good description of his life: all soccer, largely because its all hes ever wanted.
I dont have a lot of things outside the game, to be honest with you, he says. I just dont have much else.
Peter does not mean that literally, but putting it this way is telling. He met a nice girl named Susan through soccer, back in high school, and theyve been married 22 years. Peter escapes what can be a suffocating work life long enough to hang out with his college-age son they saw a late-night showing of Taken 2 together recently. His daughter is a starter at Rockhurst University, and he never misses a home game.
Soccer and family. This is all Peter knows, all he does, so its hard to tell where the sport ends and his life begins.
He almost found out last summer, when his bosses nearly fired him.
This is, technically speaking, the 17th season that the same Major League Soccer franchise has played in Kansas City. But its just the second year of the version that anyone outside of a passionate but small fan base has paid much attention to. In the glow of consecutive conference championships, its easy to forget that the movement to rebrand the Wizards started like a slug.
Sporting Kansas City won just one of its first 11 games last year, and its fair to blame part of that malaise on the frequent-flyer schedule the team played while awaiting completion of construction at Livestrong Sporting Park in the Legends retail area of Kansas City, Kan. But its delusional not to think the team was also woefully underachieving at the worst possible moment.
A gorgeous new stadium and fan-first philosophy are great, but the whole thing rings hollow if the team stinks and the first few months of Sportings reboot stunk. Peters players gave up 16 goals in their first seven MLS games of 2011. His arrest for DUI, in August of the year before, only complicated matters.
Weve always been clear that ultimately its about the results, Sporting co-majority owner Cliff Illig says. Peters never been confused about that.
Peters no dummy. He heard the noise and knows his bosses had every justification they needed to fire him. The man who oversees every detail from the fastest way to the office, to how equipment is packed for training camp, to whether a backup midfielder is mentally over a red card from two months ago no longer had control.
Maybe its false bravado, or revisionist history, but Peter swears he didnt think about his bosses making a decision that would turn his life on its head.
Never, he says. Not once. And Im not (fooling) you.
Part of why the Sporting ownership group kept Peter around is that the man and the organization are so deeply entwined. Peter first came to Kansas City in 2000 via a trade from the Colorado Rapids. He brought with him a shining past as a forward, but soon made the rare-for-soccer transition to being a top defender and helped the then-Wizards win the MLS Cup his first year in town.
He became technical director after the 2006 season, and when the team fired its head coach three years later, Peter convinced his bosses to give him that job, too. The duality doesnt always work, in soccer or other sports, but two very full-time jobs for Peter gives the organization a seamless cohesion between the field and front office.
The result is a soccer operation constructed and operating as a personification of the child of Hungarian immigrants, of the boy who not only was grounded because a friend asked if he could play but who accepted the punishment, and of the man who used a playing career to not only live out a dream but prepare for the afterlife of an athlete.
Thats very true, Peter says. Yes.
That means Sporting must not only win, but win a certain way. Peters players press, and dont flop. They attack, and dont apologize. They are perhaps the fittest team in the league, because winning a ball in 10 seconds rather than 30 is hard work. Good players have come and gone with the skills but not the stamina to play the way Peter demands.
Hes what we need, and its done us well, forward C.J. Sapong says. I was a little intimidated at first. He comes across as a hard-ass, but he brings the best out of you.
The result is a successful team with a style that sells tickets, built as the virtual mirror of a man who might not be here if not for a moment two decades ago that is never far from his mind.
Were back at that kick, the one that wouldve changed Peters life forever. Hes thinking about it now, about the feeling he had when his left foot struck that ball just right, how he just knew it was going in and how the other side of that fork in his lifes journey wouldve put him in a very different place.
He cannot know for sure what hed be doing now, or where hed be doing it. Peter guesses hed be overseas. Maybe hed be on TV. Maybe hed be involved in one of the European leagues.
All he knows for certain is that he wouldnt be here, in Kansas City, at this restaurant with pasta going cold while he talks about the success story built in the straight-ahead, never-apologize image he inherited from his father.
He smiles. Pauses.
My life would be different, Peter says. I know that. But I dont, in my mind, think it would be better. I dont think it could be better.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.