A neatly kept office is nestled in a back corner of the Swope Park soccer training facility. Its beige walls are bare except for a few commemorative flags neighboring the light switch.
Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes has his name on the office door, and if there’s a life for him outside this workspace, it’s illustrated only with a single photograph of his family, which his wife framed and insisted he place on the shelf. He doesn’t much care for photos. The same for trophies. “I look forward, not backward,” he says.
Almost on cue, his phone buzzes on the wooden desk. He recognizes the number as belonging to an international agent. They have been calling a lot lately.
Two English Premier League teams used agents last week to gauge Vermes’ willingness to depart Kansas City. A European country’s men’s national team has expressed interest in Vermes taking over its coaching duties and replicating his player development model on an international level.
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“When anybody is interested in you, you would be lying if you said it wasn’t intriguing,” he says. “At this moment, my focus is on Sporting Kansas City.”
Vermes fills many jobs here — coach, general manager, analytics guru, player scout. The priorities change in the offseason. It no longer is about week-to-week game preparation. It’s about remodeling a roster to best compete in a league that has seen an influx of expensive talent over the last year.
According to figures released by the MLS Players Union, seven of the eight highest-paid players in MLS this season were newcomers to the league.
Sporting KC used significant funds to lock up its own players to long-term deals over the last year — U.S. men’s national team regulars Matt Besler and Graham Zusi and leading scorer Dom Dwyer — but in the arms race to acquire high-dollar transfers, it has yet to enter the field. None of Sporting’s players ranks among the 29 highest-paid MLS players.
How long will that remain true? How long can Sporting KC afford for that to remain true and stay competitive?
“Regardless of where league economics are, we’re just never going to be that team that’s out there spending 5, 6, 7 million bucks on a player. We’re just not,” Sporting Club CEO Robb Heineman said. “I feel like we’re never going to be all that competitive in that marketplace.”
Might there be a middle ground?
In an interview with The Star last week, Heineman expressed the need for Sporting KC to reinvigorate the core of its team with outside additions. Heineman said that already this offseason the club had made offer sheets for three European players. All three would require transfer fees.
Sporting KC does not have a player on its roster with a transfer fee attached. Instead, it typically targets out-of-contract players, which has limited its international searches.
“I would say we have a different inclination than we had at the end of the season the last couple of years,” Heineman said. “But we had that same inclination in the last summer (transfer) window, and we just didn’t get it done. We’ve got to solve that. This winter window is important for us.
“This is a year when it’s time to reinvest. We’ve been active. We’ve been in Europe a couples of times. We’re looking at guys on the wings and finding some other guys in the midfield and finding another central defender.”
Currently, Sporting KC’s highest-paid outside acquisition — any player it didn’t initially acquire through the MLS SuperDraft — is midfielder Benny Feilhaber, whose 2015 salary is $362,187. Every other MLS team had a more costly outside acquisition on its books this season.
Sporting KC engaged in talks with U.S. men’s national team star Michael Bradley before the 2014 season, but it wasn’t able to match Toronto FC’s offer of $6.5 million per season. Bradley is the third-highest-paid player in the league, behind Orlando City’s Kaka ($7.2 million) and Toronto FC’s Sebastian Giovinco ($7.1 million).
Absent the high-priced acquisitions, Sporting KC has nevertheless enjoyed success under its current formula. It won the MLS Cup in 2013. It won the U.S. Open Cup in September, its second in four seasons. And Vermes this year became the club’s all-time winningest coach.
MLS teams are paying attention. Heineman said he has received “tons of inquires around Peter” from teams inside and outside MLS and acknowledged “an undercurrent about whether Peter could go to the (U.S.) national team some day.”
Vermes’ contract expires in 2017.
Top assistant Kerry Zavagnin is a wanted man, too. He has interviewed twice this month for the Chicago Fire’s head-coaching vacancy and is still in the mix for the job. He interviewed for the same position in Houston last offseason. Vermes considers Zavagnin an integral part of Sporting KC, whose prosperity depends on thriving in the SuperDraft, scouring the international market to collect under-the-radar players and getting more out-of-league veterans who may have slumped elsewhere.
The club’s four highest-paid players — Roger Espinoza, Besler, Zusi and Dwyer — are former draft picks, all made during the current coaching staff’s tenure. Its No. 2 scorer from this season — forward Krisztian Nemeth — scored only 18 goals in eight years before Sporting KC lured him to MLS. He scored 16 goals across all competitions in 2015 and worked his way back into Hungary’s national-team picture.
Nemeth wants a raise this offseason after making $250,000 in his first MLS season. Heineman said overseas teams have called seeking to acquire Nemeth in a transfer. It isn’t out of the question that the club could sell, as it did with former players Uri Rosell and Kei Kamara, who returned to MLS this season in Columbus and tied for the league lead with 22 goals. Heineman recognized that Nemeth’s production outweighs his contract and called it “an interesting case” for the offseason.
“I can’t tell you what that magic number is going to be, and if it’s going to work for both sides,” Vermes added.
The odds of finding a like-for-like replacement for a player such as Nemeth aren’t as high as they once were, even as Sporting KC has shown success in past searches. As the league’s talent grows, the pool of international players from which to choose shrinks. On a spectrum ranging from sure-fire impact players to high-risk ones, the fulcrum leans more toward risk.
The club has increasingly focused on developing its own talent — a movement driven by ownership funds. With the addition of the Swope Park Rangers, a United Soccer League team that is set to begin play next season, the plan is for young athletes to maneuver through the academy, then use the Rangers as a minor-league development team before joining Sporting KC.
The long-term outlook reflects Vermes’ vision, though a man known for his candor sidestepped questions last week regarding his long-term future.
In the short term, the plan isn’t necessarily a quick fix to keep up with clubs that are rapidly increasing payroll. A willingness to tap the transfer market could alter the scale.
But the margin for error remains slim.
“As that avenue opens, we still have to try to find incredible value for what we’re spending, because we’re never going to draw the David Beckhams of the world here,” Vermes said. “We have to do it differently. We’re still going to use the academy, the draft, domestic leagues and international leagues to build our team. None of that goes away.”