The longest-tenured manager in Major League Soccer walked onto a college campus, a note pad and a pen in his hands. On this day, Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes was a student, attending a lecture on millennials.
The university presentation — at a location he wishes to keep secret — was a case study involving real-life situations, and the professor therefore sought class-wide contribution. Vermes had hoped to remain incognito, as he put it, but, “You know my personality. I had to participate.”
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And so for more than an hour, Vermes read, studied and discussed the examples, trying to better ascertain the best method of approach with millennials.
“You look at the case study before you talk to anyone and (devise) your own opinion. Then you listen to someone lecture about it and think, ‘Holy cow, I would’ve handled that completely differently,’” Vermes said. “That part was a really interesting learning experience.”
There was a purpose to Vermes’ exploration into the millennial generation, and it’s potentially valuable to the way he manages his soccer team.
Sporting Kansas City, without a playoff victory since 2013, underwent perhaps its most significant turnover in a single offseason since Vermes assumed the head coaching job in 2009. The team will open the 2017 season at 6 p.m. Saturday at D.C. United. Its roster turnover possessed an easily recognizable theme.
In a quote nearly yanked from a popular coming-of-age movie, Vermes points out that while he is a year older — he turned 50 in November — his team has become considerably younger.
Sporting KC added 10 players this offseason who average 23.7 years old. The 12 players who departed this winter average 29 years in age.
Vermes’ study of millennials qualifies as one of several steps to ensure the youth movement does not equal a rebuild.
“That didn’t even enter my vocabulary,” Vermes said of a potential rebuild. “One of the biggest things about my job is that I deal with all kinds of situations with players — it’s not just X’s and O’s. I just want to make sure I understand how they tick so I can do my best to manage those situations.”
Vermes expanded his studies into another segment during the winter — culture. More specifically, he researched how to establish and maintain a productive locker room core without allowing distractions to obstruct the progress. From the front office to the players, Sporting KC has long credited its culture as essential to its six consecutive playoff seasons.
Coupling the two areas of analysis together — millennials and culture — Vermes has implemented some changes in structure, the players say.
Cell phones — a “distraction” for millennials that Vermes didn’t encounter during his playing days — have been outlawed during team meals and workouts, forcing interaction between teammates. Players cycled through new roommates during the preseason, when in the past they were able to select their own.
“Peter works extremely hard on a lot of different aspects of community, team, all that kind of stuff,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “Peter has been here a long time, and he wants to protect what he’s built here, even with all the new guys coming in.”
Vermes has put the onus on coaches to change — or at least tweak — some behavior, too, based on his offseason education.
The players have taken notice.
“The dynamic between the players and coaches right now is the best that I’ve ever felt,” Besler said. “There’s an understanding that there are going to be times when we’re going to lean on them, and there are going to be times when they’re going to need to lean on us. There’s a give and take with everything we do.
“The relationship between all the coaches and all the players has been extremely healthy in the preseason.”
Besler and Roger Espinoza — who shared captain duties last year — have been asked to take ownership of ingraining the new players into the culture.
And there are a lot of them. Sporting KC has 10 players on its roster who did not finish the 2016 season in Kansas City. It’s likely at least two of them will start in Saturday’s opener.
Espinoza said it has reminded him of the 2012 team — a year in which Sporting KC won the U.S. Open Cup, finished atop the Eastern Conference regular season standings and reached the conference semifinals.
“In 2012, we had a very young group,” Espinoza said. “Now these guys are really young. They have a lot of energy. That’s great. It keeps the older guys young. The culture changes in that way. They bring a lot more energy, (and) we are a team that brings a lot of energy to games, (so) that’s going to help us a lot.”