More than a decade ago, as Peter Vermes presented a blueprint for Sporting Kansas City’s sustained, long-term success, he won over the club’s ownership. In fact, early into the conversation with his bosses, he was interrupted.
“We sort of said, ‘OK, let’s quit talking about it and go do it,’” Sporting KC principal owner Cliff Illig said. “We were 100 percent behind all of it.”
The vision centered around a staple, a reliable influx of talent that would not require outbidding teams for free agents nor encounter the challenges of integrating new players into Sporting’s style of play.
The future, Vermes insisted, was a thriving youth academy.
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Vermes spent the first half of his playing career overseas, and he was already planning his coaching career. He studied clubs’ models. He scratched notes onto a sheet of paper or a napkin. The plan always started with development from within. He would supplement that with international acquisitions, rather than the reverse.
On Thursday, Vermes and Sporting KC were to be recognized for both. The long-term vision. The one-year roster turnover.
Vermes will be named as the MLS Sporting Executive of the year, an honor selected by the chief soccer officers (technical directors, general managers and the like) at each of the league’s clubs.
Sporting KC’s academy will also be named the MLS academy of the year.
It’s the first year for both awards, established by a new league-wide CSO committee last year.
“What I’d say is special about it for me is that the votes come from your peers and the people who are doing exactly what you’re doing. That’s the humbling part,” Vermes said. “They’re saying we’re doing a pretty good job. To be recognized in that way, that’s what makes me proud.”
The awards fit two vastly different criteria — one honoring the senior team’s results in 2018 and the other the prosperity of a product focused on the future. But at Sporting KC, they’ve long been intertwined. The ownership ensured that much, placing one man in charge of both the day-to-day operations and the long-term outlook.
Vermes, the longest-tenured manager in MLS, revitalized the Sporting KC roster last offseason, bolstering an attack in need of help. He added Johnny Russell and Felipe Gutierrez. He re-upped Tim Melia, Ike Opara, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Ilie Sanchez and Roger Espinoza. At season’s end, Sporting KC sat atop the Western Conference standings. It broke a franchise record for goals in a season.
The team lost to Portland in the Western Conference Finals.
“To me, everything is mingled together. I don’t separate the technical from the business. We’re constantly combining the two,” Vermes said. “When you look back at all of the pieces that have to be right, that’s probably what makes it so rewarding.”
The academy, a project managed by director Jon Parry, is the biggest piece of what’s yet to come. But we saw the clearest glimpse of it yet last year.
Daniel Salloi, a homegrown product from the academy, led Sporting KC in scoring. Wan Kuzain, Jaylin Lindsey and Gianluca Busio made their MLS debuts as teenagers and figure to be reliable contributors in 2019. Tyler Freeman, 16, signed a first-team contract.
For a club that won’t be matching the revenue of the league’s biggest arms in Atlanta or Los Angeles, this is the layout.
“It’s how we’re going to build our club moving forward,” Vermes said. “It’s a vision from ownership on down. It’s about having the adequate resources from ownership and then applying those resources in the appropriate way and doing some things that might be innovate themselves.”
The innovation requires the club’s most significant investments, not the player rosters. Sporting KC continues to add to its academy staff. A year ago, Sporting KC hired Michel Ribeiro as a technical training coach who roams between the levels of the academy. The model has assistant coaches from its USL club, the Swope Park Rangers, spend regular time with the older academy teams, hoping to smooth the integration into the senior team.
It all totals Sporting Kansas City’s path toward remaining competitive with the league’s top-revenue clubs. A path Vermes relayed to his owners more than a decade earlier.
“I don’t think we’ve ever suffered from an inferiority complex when it comes to what big teams can do and what we can do,” Illig said. “Because of our smaller market, we don’t have all the economic capabilities that some other teams do. So we try to outsmart it. Our ownership group, we’re not afraid of complexity. We like people who can jump in and figure it out. We’re competitive people. We want to win. Peter’s incredibly competitive, too. He’s been a true partner with our ownership group. From day one, he’s fit in extremely well.”