Sporting’s Vermes reflects on career before soccer Hall of Fame induction

10/11/2013 6:10 PM

10/11/2013 6:10 PM

Peter Vermes is not a braggart. Despite his decorated resume, he doesn’t boast much about his career accomplishments.

Ask him about scoring in the United States’ 2-0 win against Mexico in the 1991 Gold Cup semifinals, though, and Vermes can’t help himself.

“It was a great goal. It really was,” Vermes said. “I came inside and I hit a ball with great topspin over the top of the keeper into the far corner, and it really gave us the cushion that we needed.”

Let’s set the stage. A year earlier — in 1990 — the U.S. national soccer team earned a spot in the World Cup for the first time in four decades. But the Americans qualified without having to face Mexico, which had been disqualified by FIFA for using over-age players in a youth tournament.

Mexico came into the Gold Cup, a tournament featuring national teams from around the region, with a 23-2-4 record against the U.S. Vermes’ goal was the final nail in the coffin in Mexico’s first shutout loss to the Americans.

“Mexico is a good team, but I think it was the first time we really put a chink in their armor,” Vermes said. “That was a turning point for U.S. soccer, and I’ll tell you why: It was one thing for us to win, but it was also the way we won. We really actually dominated the way we played the tournament. We had never really dominated teams in our region before. We truly dominated teams.

“We gained a level of confidence that I think was a turning point to say, ‘We’re not just here to play and show a good performance so we don’t get embarrassed. We’re here now to play to win and we have the capability of doing that.’ ”

Vermes, now the 46-year-old coach and technical director of Sporting Kansas City, was the captain of that U.S. team. That’s one of the many reasons he’s being inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame here on Friday.

In a way, Vermes is a founding father of U.S. soccer. Much has been written about the 1990 World Cup being a huge step forward for soccer in this country, and he was part of that squad.

But the building blocks of that team could be seen in the U.S. Olympic team in South Korea in 1988, the first time the Americans played on that stage in 16 years. Vermes was with that team, too, which tied twice (including against powerhouse Argentina) and lost to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

While the U.S. team was 0-3 at the 1990 World Cup, Vermes started all three games and nearly scored against host Italy in a 1-0 defeat.

Vermes was a trailblazer overseas as well. He was the first American to play in the Hungarian and Dutch first divisions and spent time in Spain.

While with Volendam in Holland, Vermes scored five goals in 28 matches.

“When he went over there, he just would not be denied,” said Bob Gansler, who was Vermes’ coach with the 1990 U.S. team and later with the Wizards. “I’m sure he endeared himself in time, and it was not a matter of going over there and overwhelming the coaching staff at Volendam with his bag of tricks, but once again, he knows how to play the game. He knows how to coach the game and he knows what is essential.”

Vermes returned to the U.S. when Major League Soccer started in 1996 and soon thereafter, the international striker switched to central defense in New York.

After Gansler was hired by the Wizards, he jumped at the chance to acquire Vermes. His addition to the team helped the Wizards win the Supporters Shield and MLS Cup in 2000 — Vermes was the league’s defender of the year.

How many players can say they’ve scored a big goal against Mexico as a striker and also been honored as defender of the year?

“There’s nothing too much that should surprise us about Peter once he puts his mind to it,” Gansler said. “We can talk about his talent and his work ethic and his conscientiousness and his everyday inclination to do well. But he’s driven. He’s absolutely driven. That’s his main attribute in life.

“Talent, work ethic, he leaves nothing to chance.”

Gansler said that when Vermes was on the field, whether it was practice or a game, he wasn’t easily distracted.

That dedication has followed him to the coaching ranks, but Vermes admits he’ll have to set aside thoughts of Sporting KC’s next game.

There is Friday’s induction ceremony to consider and a playing career to look back upon.

Vermes admits there are times he gazes around Sporting Park and reflects on how much the game has changed since he made his debut for the U.S. in 1988.

He is grateful for those who have made financial commitments to MLS, such as Sporting KC’s ownership group. But he also remembers individuals from a quarter-century ago who were essentially volunteers trying to sow the seeds of soccer, whether they were in the U.S. Soccer Federation, the coaches or the players.

Vermes’ gruff New Jersey demeanor vanishes into wistfulness when he ponders how different it would be to start his playing career now, when soccer is thriving, rather than in his era when it was still relatively unknown.

Ultimately, he wouldn’t change a thing, and today’s soccer players are better for Vermes having set the groundwork for today’s game.

“You would be surprised, I actually think about that the most,” Vermes said. “Having started with MLS, playing with the United States prior to MLS even being on the map. Having to go overseas and start my profession because there wasn’t a viable league, I’ve seen the progress of the game in this country and I’ve been a part of it. It’s very special to me.”

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