The locker room was subdued after a hot afternoon in Kansas City, the aftermath of Sporting KC’s scoreless draw with Columbus. The club had produced a rather lethargic outing, but even so, Sporting KC earned a point and finished the day atop the Western Conference standings. On to the next one, some thought.
As players sat in front of their respective lockers, coach Peter Vermes interrupted the quiet with a message best described as a warning. As for the next week of practice, he said, “Be ready.” Some labor-intensive days were coming.
“I think the timing of it probably caught some guys off guard, especially the ones that haven’t been with the team until this year,” Sporting KC captain Matt Besler said. “On the outside, it would be easy to say after a performance like the Columbus one (that) it’s OK because we’re still in a good position and we’ve been playing well so far, so just one game like that is no big deal. I think that’s the natural reaction that most guys would have.
“So when that wasn’t the response that Peter had, it probably caught some of the guys off guard. The point was made what the expectations are here.”
They were further cemented over the ensuing practice, a grueling, long session that required players to supply what Vermes concluded they had not against Columbus.
It’s part of what almost every manager must do over the course of a 34-game schedule that embarks in the spring and doesn’t conclude until winter. And it came as little surprise to a few of the team’s veterans, players who had seen Vermes enact similar measures in the past.
But those had not come with the team occupying first place.
“I think it opened up everyone’s eyes to what we’re trying to accomplish this year,” Besler said. “It’s clear what standard is expected from our team this year.”
The intricate details of those practices will be kept in-house, said Vermes, adding, “They emphasized competing; that’s all I’ll say.” But it’s a card in a bag full of nearly a decade’s worth of motivational tricks.
It’s just one he rarely plays in this circumstance, with a team looking as formidable as it has since the 2013 MLS Cup-winning season. From the players, it was viewed as a sign that Vermes has grander ideas in mind for this roster, one the leads all of MLS in goal differential. There was concern about them becoming too comfortable, too at ease with their standing with five months left on the regular season schedule.
Days later, the effects of the tactics put into place with the shudders closed at Pinnacle became very much public. Sporting KC responded with a 4-1 win against Minnesota over the weekend, the first half serving as possibly the best half of soccer the team has played this year.
Asked if he knew that response was coming, Vermes said, “I’m going to be honest with you — I didn’t know. I knew we did the work, and I had a talk with the team, as well. But sometimes talk is cheap. To me, the game is now the next assessment. As much as I felt like they had absorbed the message, it doesn’t matter what I think or feel. The next game is the assessment. They proved they understood.”
It wasn’t a fix intended for the short-term. The MLS regular season schedule marches on Saturday, with a trip to Portland, arguably the hottest team in the conference.
“They key now is let’s not let up,” Besler said. “Let’s not just have a really tough week of practice and play well the next game and then have to do the same thing all over again.
“How can we continue to build off that week of practice we had and continue to move forward? Because that’s the goal.”