Felipe Hernandez rewarded for sticking it out with Sporting KC
If there is one thing that Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes doesn’t make, it’s excuses.
He prefers facts.
And as Sporting KC clings to its playoff hopes by a thread, sitting six points adrift of the final spot heading into Sunday night’s match at the L.A. Galaxy, Vermes can list several reasons why his club finds itself in such a precarious position.
To start, one must go all the way back to the 2017 U.S. Open Cup. Sporting KC had just defeated the New York Red Bulls 2-1 on home soil in the championship and booked a spot in the 2019 CONCACAF Champions League.
Fast forward to February 2019; two weeks before Sporting KC kicked off its MLS campaign, Vermes’ squad faced Mexican side Toluca twice in the Champions League.
“I had to ramp up the team from a play perspective and then all four aspects: Technically, tactically, physically, psychologically,” said Vermes, who’s squad emerged a 5-0 winner on aggregate over Toluca.
The victory meant Kansas City then had to squeeze in two more games against Panama’s Independiente during the first month of MLS play. Once again, Sporting ran out 4-2 winners on aggregate, which then set up a further two semifinal matches against eventual champion Monterrey, the eventual 10-2 winner via aggregate.
Contrast Sporting KC’s loaded early schedule with those of other MLS teams, which were slowly kicking into gear, simply looking to peak by the time the playoff push came around.
“In a matter of four to five months, we’re in the semifinals of the MLS Cup and we’re in the semifinals of the Champions League,” Vermes said. “There’s a lot of clubs that would like to be in that position.
“I’m not saying that it’s not something that I don’t respect or have admiration for, I do — obviously I want to win,” he continued. “But I also know the effect it has on the team when all of a sudden, early on in the season, you’ve already lost and you didn’t win something.”
Sporting KC’s early season Champions League run also had a secondary effect: injuries.
Throughout the summer months, Kansas City was placing as many as seven players on the injury report: Johnny Russell, Graham Zusi and Jimmy Medranda were all listed. Roger Espinoza and Erik Hurtado also missed much of the first half of the season through injuries, preventing Sporting KC from having a full bench for a couple of weeks.
“I don’t think that Major League Soccer teams are built for a large number of injuries for long periods of time,” Vermes said.
And even with Kansas City’s rich youth system and Swope Park Rangers to pull from, some of those who were given a chance simply didn’t deliver. Graham Smith has done a good job securing a spot next to Matt Besler, while Gianluca Busio has impressed enough for his tender age, but nearly forgotten names such as Andreu Fontas, Nicolas Hasler and Gedion Zelalem all failed to make the step up to the first team. Kelyn Rowe didn’t even last a full season before being traded to Salt Lake City.
“I think that when you look at those two things, they almost counter each other in a negative, not in a positive,” Vermes said. “You expect guys to step up and take those spots.”
When Sporting KC’s main contributors finally returned from injury, they were expected to get back up to full fitness in the middle of the summer heat.
Ultimately, it’s easy to say Kansas City drove the train of success headlong into a perfect storm in 2019.
But Vermes isn’t looking for sympathy.
“Those are just facts,” he said. “I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for us or anything like that, we are in the position we are in, and we have to figure out a way to get out of it.”