Sometime during the middle of June, a single sheet of paper came across the desk of Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes. An inventory of nine names was typed across it, comprising an injury list that would leave the club shorthanded for an upcoming match. Vermes would need to place three teenagers into his starting group, perhaps the least experienced lineup in his tenure, and he knew who was to blame.
Two weeks earlier, he had tweaked the practice routine. The details of those tweaks are “trade secrets” that he has no interest in publicizing, but the general purpose was to incorporate drills that emphasized competing and enhanced the intensity of each training session.
The adjustments derived from a long-term plan.
They crippled the short-term one.
“Honest to God, we sat in a meeting in the war room, and I remember saying this to the other coaches: ‘I think we’re all going to have to understand that we’re probably going to take two steps back before we take any steps forward. Is everyone OK with that?’” Vermes recalled. “Everyone said yes, but then when some things started to happen, like injuries and some other things, I think we all start wondering, ‘Should we have gone this way?’”
Complicating the wonderment was Sporting Kansas City’s standing. The club was in first place when Vermes altered practices. Alone atop the West.
But Vermes didn’t have a mid-summer top-of-the-table position in mind. Instead, he thought of this time of year — the MLS playoffs.
It was a scoreless draw with Columbus that actually prompted the move, a game in which Vermes didn’t think his team competed hard enough for a full 90 minutes. And that made him question how the team might respond to the grind of the final few weeks of the regular season and the playoffs, matches the embrace an accelerated intensity.
Sporting KC captain Matt Besler recalled the statement as catching some players off-guard, considering where they resided in the Western Conference. “But the point was made what the expectations are.”
It wasn’t a ploy to fire up a team. Wasn’t a one-week adjustment. Four months later, Sporting KC is still heavily emphasizing competing during its practice sessions.
The labor-intensive days remain.
And after those early lumps, the standing has returned. Sporting KC takes the No. 1 seed in the West into the MLS playoffs on Sunday, when it travels to face Real Salt Lake in the first leg of the conference semifinals.
“It might be a subtle change, but I know it’s made the difference. I know it has,” Vermes said.
Just ask the players.
“We don’t change too much, but we always adjust something. And this change, it was difficult in the beginning,” midfielder Ilie Sanchez said. “The first weeks, it’s not that you don’t understand why, but it’s tough to do it. But then you get used to it. And you start feeling the results on the weekend, and then you start trusting more and more what you’re doing in training. And now I think we’re in good shape for what’s coming now.”
For the first time since 2013, when it last won the MLS championship, Sporting KC is in form heading into the playoffs. In the three previous years combined, Sporting KC put together only one winning month from August through October. Vermes says the training modifications weren’t made to combat the problems of old — they were strictly about what’s best for this year’s group — but it’s hard to deny the comparison.
To close out the 2018 regular season, Sporting KC outscored its final three opponents 9-2.
“There’s something different about this group,” Vermes said. “Sometimes teams after a bad result, sometimes the team is unwilling to be self-critical and self-evaluate and are almost a little defensive when it comes to criticisms. This group has actually been very good at understanding there are certain aspects of our game that have to get better.
“The trusted it was the right thing — because what I believe is that we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did at the end of the season here. You take your lumps then (in the summer) and avoid taking them later.”