Sporting KC

‘We have fight left in us.’ A glimpse inside Sporting KC’s battle to regain confidence

The monologue began as the answer to a question, and Peter Vermes presented it in a state-of-the-union sort of response. But by the time he concluded, you could sense the audience had changed, no longer simply a reply to a reporter but instead a message he has already presented to his team.

As Sporting Kansas City heads into a home game with first-place Los Angeles FC on Wednesday, it sits tied for last in the Western Conference. It’s a far cry from the meeting in the season opener four months earlier, a match at least one national analyst called a conference championship preview.

So the point of monologue was this: With half a season to go, you’re capable of getting it back.

“I know what everybody thinks, and I know what everybody is probably expecting (on Wednesday),” Vermes said. “But I still think we have some fight in us. We aren’t done.

“I still think we have a really good team. But it’s one thing for me to believe that; it’s another for them to believe it. They have to start believing and playing that way. Because they can. They can do it. No doubt in my mind.”

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This is a glimpse of how Vermes and his staff have occupied their time during the most challenging stretch they’ve encountered over the past eight years. Forget the film work. Forget the tactics of the game.

He’s coaching mentalities. More so than ever before, he says. Three years ago, Vermes wondered if he spent too much time talking to players. It’s reached new levels in 2019, and by necessity. On Tuesday morning, he met individually with multiple players, each conversation taking a different approach. Some in an office setting. Some on the field. Some during breakfast or lunch.

“Our confidence level is going to be the key to bring it back for us,” said striker Krisztian Nemeth, the subject of one of the meetings Tuesday. “We have the power and the potential.”

Vermes expressed a desire to “have a big heart and a short memory,” shying away from long-term repercussions for any player’s bad outing. As Sporting KC navigates its most uphill playoff fight in a decade, he is outwardly more positive, certainly by design. With a team lacking conviction, he is the stoic leader.

Inside the Pinnacle training center walls, his method requires a chameleon approach.

“It starts with self-evaluation with the player,” Vermes said. “What is he doing? What is he not doing? Is he realistic about it? Because we can all fake it out here. It’s OK to have the machoism and push your chest our and say you’ll be fine. But are you? What’s really in your head? It’s different for every player. But once I find that out, that’s when you can come up with the solution and attack it.

“Almost always, it’s truly a very simple solution. Almost always. Sometimes coaches make it complicated. Sometimes players complicate it. But there’s almost always really simple solutions to it.”

For Nemeth, he said he’s looked back at the first couple of months, when he was in top form, to remind himself he can be that player once more. Others have enacted similar methods.

That will be the root of Sporting’s fight to emerge from the Western Conference cellar and into the playoff mix. The roster will remain primarily in place, with perhaps an exception or two. Again on Tuesday, Vermes remarked the upcoming transfer window will be more about getting his own players back than adding new ones. Johnny Russell and Jimmy Medranda might be ready when the Chicago Fire visit Children’s Mercy Park this weekend. Vermes expects Roger Espinoza and Erik Hurtado back within a month.

The solutions, therefore, must come from within.

“It’s not like some fairy is gonna come over and sprinkle some magic dust on the team and then everything is going to be fine,” Vermes said. “That’s not going to happen. We have to find ways to get out of this and get better. I don’t like it, but I fully accept the challenge.”

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