A couple of seconds before the final practice of the preseason, Krisztian Nemeth put on a sock hat and gloves and walked onto the Children’s Mercy Park field. As he crossed the sideline and looked up, Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes was waiting.
“Hey, hey,” Vermes said, getting his attention. “I know you’re ready. You’re ready for this.”
Sporting KC is counting on it. Even gambling on it, to a certain extent.
The top two strikers from last season are gone — Khiry Shelton left for an overseas opportunity, and Diego Rubio was traded to Colorado as part of a three-team deal. Sporting KC finished 13-5-6 with one of those two in the lineup in 2018.
It’s a lot to replace. Sporting KC had the finances to explore the transfer market in search of the right successor at center forward. Instead, Vermes and the front office elected to stick with the guy they have, a player who has scored just twice in the past 19 months.
“I wanna prove them right,” said Nemeth, who joined Sporting KC during last summer’s transfer window after playing with the club in 2015. “I don’t like to look back, but I just know it’s going to be better this year than last year. I’m going to play better.”
Nemeth declined comment when asked about his tenure in New England, a 12-month stop that could be best described as rocky and more accurately as a flop. It included just seven starts and one goal over parts of the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
As Sporting KC entered its preseason schedule in Arizona, Vermes planned on having a conversation with Nemeth about looking forward. Forget the past, he would say, while reiterating confidence in Nemeth’s abilities. He presumed that would be the challenge in rebuilding Nemeth back into the player he was once in Kansas City, the man who scored 10 goals in 23 league starts in 2015 before a transfer to Qatar.
But upon seeing Nemeth on the field for the first time, even in a training session, Vermes realized the talk wouldn’t be necessary.
“I could tell he was already a different guy,” Vermes said. “He walked in here confident.”
Vermes scratched the item from his agenda, other than the occasional remarks that came Wednesday, 24 hours before Sporting KC opens its season in the CONCACAF Champions League against Deportivo Toluca. But the point remains:
Nemeth rediscovering his form, which will have a major impact on the success of Sporting KC’s season, is as much of a mental provocation as anything else.
“I know the quality of player he is,” Vermes said. “He still has that in him.”
Admittedly, Nemeth, 30, thought he would move past the mental block last August, when he rejoined Sporting Kansas City following a trade with New England. It seemed like the move to revitalize his career. He had been here just three years earlier and enjoyed the best year of his life. Only 18 months later, he was counting down the days toward a possible return.
But he started just four games over the final three months of the season. He fought through a sports hernia injury that barked on every sprint. He never really appeared in-sync with the flow of the team.
“That’s why it’s good to start a new season. It’s a fresh start,” Nemeth said. “Last year, there were so many things, but I don’t want to make excuses. In the end, there were a lot of little things that were probably not right. Now I put it to rest and start the season fresh mentally. I’m really positive and excited.”
The Sporting KC franchise that Nemeth departed in favor of Qatar in early 2016 is the same one to which he has returned now — but in name only.
Sporting KC has evolved its style of play over the past three years. In his first Kansas City stint, the club played more direct soccer. The wingers played inside. The team was told to unleash its scoring chances quickly.
It’s a different lay of the land now, even if the same man is in charge. Vermes emphasizes possession and creating the best possible scoring opportunity. It’s a style that the manager feels suits Nemeth perfectly, but it will require adaptation.
Because there’s one more thing.
Nemeth is playing a different position. He was a winger in his first stay in Kansas City, the one that made him attractive to overseas clubs. He’s atop the formation now. The pressure to score goals, or at least help create them, is on him.
Sporting KC’s offense depends on it working out.
“Even when he was here, I thought that was his best position, but we had a guy that couldn’t play any other positions, so it made sense for him to be more like a second forward at the end of the day,” Vermes said. “But he can do a lot of things that a lot of forwards have a problem with. He can score, but he can also give a final pass and do a lot of different things. Over the course of the season, you have to look at the full body of work. And he has all the qualities to help us in a lot of different ways.”