Sporting KC

The gripping story behind Peter Vermes, Sporting KC’s uniquely intense leader

Two days after his club took over first place, Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes is reclining in an office chair and tilting his head back against the cushion, mimicking a pregame routine he implemented during his playing days.

“Picture this,” he says, and he closes his eyes.

It’s a team full of alpha males sitting on a bus, boisterous and loud. Several rows deep, Vermes is silent amongst the noise, spinning through a series of reflections. For years, he had built a hit list, comprised of those who dared to utter a bad word about him.

There was the writer who called him too old for MLS. “(Bleep) that guy,” Vermes thought, anxiously tapping his foot on the floor of his office as he reminisces. The player who mocked his position change in the twilight of his career. “I’m gonna break that guy in half.” The hometown club that traded him the previous offseason. “They can kiss my ass.”

Back inside the office now, his eyes are open.

There’s a smirk on his face.

“It still gets me going,” he says. “I’m telling you — before a match, that would absolutely wind me up. Wind. Me. Up.”

Vermes, 51, is the winningest coach in Sporting KC history, the longest-tenured manager in Major League Soccer and a member of the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame. He’s led Sporting KC to four trophies. And those who know him in both his former life as a player and his current one as a coach say little has changed. He is loud and in your face, just as he was then, an abstract thinker and free speaker, complete with a brash, New Jersey-born edge.

Vermes is the son of two immigrants, and his father believed in making his four children fight for everything they had, a quality ingrained in his youngest. He once sold a car to Vermes’ older brother, reacquired it for free, then sold it to Vermes for $750 on his 17th birthday.

“And let me tell you, by then, that car was a piece of s---,” Vermes says. “But in my family, that’s how it was.

“You want something? Well, you’re not getting it for free.”

WHEN VERMES WAS ABOUT 10 YEARS OLD, one of his older brothers got into a neighborhood fight and lost. He walked home, where he was greeted by his mom on the front porch. After the brother shared the story with her, his mother locked the front door. “You’re not coming in this house until you go back and beat that kid up.”

Vermes’ parents, Michael and Magdalena, tried to escape Hungary twice in the mid-1950s, as Soviet tanks took over Budapest. They were caught each time. By 1956, some of those fleeing were imprisoned. Some were executed.

On the third attempt, Michael and Magdalena reached a U.S. military transport and landed in a Hungarian refugee camp in New Jersey. Neither of them spoke English. They had no money. Michael traded his shoes to a local American so that his pregnant wife could eat.

Michael, a former professional soccer player in Hungary, learned the language, and soon thereafter started two businesses on his own — The Vermes Machine Company, a shop his two oldest sons still run today (Michael died in 2011), and an indoor soccer training facility.

“My dad was a tough son of a bitch — like a really, really tough son of a bitch,” Vermes says. “We were taught to grow up fast, taught to do things on our own. You had to become an adult quickly.”

By 13, Vermes was working for the family businesses. He also worked at a local Jiffy Lube, where his oil change station ran through cars more quickly than any in the Northeast. But he wanted to be a professional soccer player like his dad.

He joined the freshman team on his first day of high school in Delran, N.J. Half an hour into the first scrimmage, he had five goals. A day later, he was with the junior varsity. Another scrimmage. Four goals. Four assists. By the end of the week, he was on varsity.

His coach requested he still play the opener with the freshman team, which was facing a rival school. Delran won 2-1. Vermes scored both goals.

As he walked off the field, the coach pulled him aside and told him to hurry back after dinner — he was going to be dressing out for the varsity game later that evening. Between games, Vermes sat with his parents to eat and complained about his new “fitness freak of a coach.”

“Shut up,” his dad replied. “This is an opportunity. Why are you complaining?”

A few minutes into the varsity game, after being told he was there to watch from the bench, Vermes subbed into the match. Delran won 1-0.

Vermes scored the game’s only goal.

EARLY ONE MORNING A COUPLE OF YEARS AGO, Vermes arrived at Sporting KC’s Swope Park training facility around 5 a.m. The team’s technical staff had grown lax on maintaining the cleanliness and organization of the building, he thought, and he wanted to make a point. So he tore a few paper towels off a roll, wadded them up and placed them next to — not inside — trash cans throughout the building.

Then he waited.

Hours passed. Members of the staff walked by the paper towels throughout the day, but no one picked them up and put them inside the receptacle. By late afternoon, Vermes was fed up. He called a staff meeting — coaches, technical staff, everyone — and launched into a tirade.

“It wasn’t about the paper towels, obviously. It was about the culture he’s built here and not letting that slip,” says Brian Bliss, Sporting KC’s director of player personnel.

On his first day as Sporting KC’s coach, Vermes scrubbed the equipment room floor from his hands and knees. During his first practice, he returned to the fundamentals, and when a drill didn’t flow as planned, he lined the players up and ran them like an undisciplined high school football team. In one of his first matches, Vermes benched a veteran player because he skipped a training session with a sore leg, a move Vermes perceived as a way to avoid practicing. It irked some of the players, who believed the message had cost them a victory.

“He put everyone under pressure right away,” says Sporting KC midfielder Roger Espinoza, drafted by the club in 2008, a year before Vermes took the coaching job. “He’s always been like that. He knows how to push players and get the most out of them. You have to be tough. He doesn’t make it easy on guys. But he knows who can handle it.”

The Vermes-led environment in Kansas City is defined by four core principles. All employees under the Sporting KC umbrella must put the team above themselves; they must display a strong work ethic; they must be intelligent in their craft; and they must pursue excellence daily. These are requirements, not preferences.

Vermes loves the New York Yankees, and not just because they win. One of his favorite sports stories is outfielder Johnny Damon signing with the Yankees in 2006, then immediately shaving his beard and cutting his long hair. “Here’s this guy making however many millions, and he had to adapt to their environment, not the other way around,” Vermes says.

Earlier this season in Kansas City, a player left a team function early to watch a World Cup match. He was penciled into the starting lineup, with Sporting KC missing its top two players at his position. Vermes benched him, instead offering a rookie his MLS debut.

“We needed that guy. Peter could’ve easily said, ‘Let’s get through this game and I’ll handle it next week,’” says Kerry Zavagnin, a Sporting KC assistant coach and former teammate of Vermes’ with the Wizards. “But if he’s compromised the culture one time in favor of winning a game, I don’t remember it.”

VERMES FIRST INTERVIEWED FOR A SPOT ON SPORTING KC’S STAFF without even realizing it. Team co-owner Robb Heineman lured Vermes, then a youth soccer coach in Overland Park, to a meeting under the appearance that he needed someone to run some youth fields in the area.

But Vermes made a strong impression. So three days later, during a follow-up meeting, Heineman asked Vermes to edit the structure of an MLS front office. After Vermes made a couple of tweaks, Heineman slid the piece of paper across the table.

“OK, so which job do you want?” Heineman asked.

Vermes pointed at the head coach.

“You can’t be the coach,” Heineman replied. “Because I gotta fire that guy. And I don’t wanna fire you.”

But after three years as Sporting KC’s technical director, Vermes took over as head coach, too. He brought the club its first MLS Cup in 13 seasons. The franchise has won three of the past seven U.S. Open Cup titles. “The good news is it looks like we’ll never have to fire him,” Heineman quips.

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The success lies within the details. Vermes stashes notebooks of old training sessions, looking for trends should something go awry. He researched the best time to give the players water breaks during practice. He took a course studying millennials so he could learn how to best communicate with his players. In practice, he argues with the whistle of his assistant coach, Zoran Savic, because he believes calling a weak foul during practice could make the team soft for an upcoming game.

“He’s the most competitive guy I’ve ever been around,” Savic says. “He just wants to win every single inch of everything.”

Vermes is among the most demanding coaches in sports, let alone Major League Soccer. There is a running joke that playing right or left back in Kansas City is the hardest position in the league. It requires a player to situate himself by the Sporting KC bench — and therefore Vermes — throughout a match.

Vermes rarely sits during a game. He never quiets.

“I think I had a similar coaching style that he had — tough but fair,” Bliss says. “With one exception.”

Which is?

“He talks louder.”

Vermes’ teams absorb the personality he displayed as a player, a career that included representing the United States men’s national team at the World Cup in 1990, its first time qualifying for the tournament in 40 years. He was the first American to play in Hungary and Holland’s top divisions.

Vermes has always had an affinity for lions, the king of the jungle. On the field, he was in charge, whether he wore the captain’s armband or not. He was high-strung, demanding and even intimidating. “A lot like he is now,” says Bliss, who played with Vermes at the World Cup and the Olympics.

He engaged in a fistfight with more than one teammate. If he determined a player was “cheating the game,” something as simple as cutting corners while running laps, he wouldn’t let it go. It was one of the reasons Wizards coach Bob Gansler acquired Vermes in 2000. He was searching for someone to disrupt a locker room he thought had become too relaxed.

“I don’t wanna say I was a prick,” says Vermes, pausing to consider the right word choice. “Well, maybe some might call it a prick.”

During his final season as a player in Kansas City in 2002, Vermes was benched for a match without an explanation. A day before the game he was scheduled to sit out, Vermes slide-tackled Zavagnin — his own teammate in a small-sided scrimmage — stole the ball, dribbled it down field and scored.

“It was one of the worst tackles I’ve ever faced,” says Zavagnin. “And it was from a guy playing on my team.

“But that was vintage Peter Vermes.”

TWO SUMMERS AGO, someone suggested to Vermes that he take up a hobby. They had suggested a men’s soccer league, but he knew that couldn’t possibly end well. “I can’t turn it off and just play for fun,” he says. “My wife won’t even let me play board games with the kids.”

So instead he started working out. Within a couple of weeks, he was training for an Ironman triathlon .... as a recreational activity. He wakes up at 5 a.m. every day to work out, after falling asleep at midnight the night before, and then he works out again in the afternoon.

“I knew if I was in the office at 6 in the morning, he’s already completed a workout that morning,” says Mike Jacobs, who worked as a Sporting KC assistant technical director before leaving last summer to take over as the technical director for Nashville SC. “He holds everyone to a high standard, but he holds himself to an even higher standard.”

Vermes clings to a tight inner circle. He jokes that he doesn’t have many close friends outside of his Sporting KC staff, but there’s at least a hint of seriousness to this. He encourages disagreement within that circle so that he can consider a subject matter from every viewpoint, igniting heated arguments almost every day. He always holds the trump card, of course. The final decision stays with him.

“He surrounds himself with people he cares about, and he’s fiercely loyal to them,” says Rob Thomson, Sporting KC’s chief communications officer who has worked for the club for more than two decades. “He doesn’t care about getting the credit — he just desperately wants the team to succeed, and everyone within the team, including everyone on technical side, to succeed.”

On a rainy night in Philadelphia in 2015, Vermes boarded a bus in a champagne-soaked suit. In the front seat sat the U.S. Open Cup trophy, the third of four championships in his stay.

“Enjoy it,” a player told him as he passed.

Vermes quietly laughed to himself. He had already turned his attention to the team’s MLS regular-season match that weekend. He told Zavagnin that he wasn’t necessarily happy they had won a championship. He was just relieved they hadn’t experienced the misery of losing the match.

“I don’t think anything will ever be good enough for him to rest. He spends his career chasing,” Zavagnin says. “If you drew a (blueprint) when he came here in 2000 and told him he’s going to win four championships, have this stadium, this facility, you’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty good. If we could get there, wow.’

“But we’re here, and he says, ‘More. We need more.’ I don’t believe he has a tipping point where he says, ‘You know what? We’re good. We finally did it. We made it.’ I don’t believe he has that in him.”

Sam McDowell

Sam McDowell covers Sporting Kansas City, the Royals, Chiefs and sports enterprise for The Star