In the summer of 2007, Krisztian Nemeth signed a multiyear contract with Liverpool, an English Premier League soccer club that has won more European trophies than any other English team. He was 18 years old, a Hungarian scoring sensation and already The Next Big Thing.
He had been heavily courted by several clubs, even an American team in Kansas City, Mo., a town of which he had never heard. The Liverpool decision was an easy one.
“Big things are expected for the Hungary hotshot,” the club wrote in an online news release announcing the signing.
Over the next seven seasons, as a naive teenager waited for his career to blossom into stardom, Nemeth was shipped out on loan five times. His development stalled. Liverpool lost patience and then lost interest.
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But the club from Kansas City — which had since shifted its home stadium onto the Kansas side of the state line — renewed its pursuit.
“When I saw he left Liverpool, I started thinking about him again,” Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes said. “That was our opportunity.”
The unknown town supplied a launching pad for Nemeth, who is third on Sporting KC with nine goals and second with six assists this season, his first with the team.
That’s just in MLS games. Nemeth has added four more goals and one assist in the U.S. Open Cup.
Sporting KC will play Philadelphia in the Open Cup final at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Chester, Pa., a chance to win its third Open Cup championship.
Nemeth has scored in every round of the tournament — a competition he didn’t know a lick about until migrating to the United States.
A fruitful relationship. But one that nearly didn’t exist.
Vermes attempted to lure Nemeth for a visit to the Midwest last summer, and he hoped Nemeth would bolster the Sporting KC roster as a 2014 midseason transfer. But Nemeth wasn’t interested in a move to the United States, unless maybe Los Angeles or New York were in the conversation.
A bit of luck changed the situation.
One of Nemeth’s former teammates tried out with Sporting KC, and he reported back with rave reviews. It wasn’t a coincidence that Nemeth agreed to a visit shortly thereafter. He would come for one week.
“I came to see the facilities and talk to Peter,” Nemeth said. “After that I was totally confident with the situation and playing with Sporting.”
The contract was official before the week concluded. But there were more hurdles before he could earn playing time.
Nemeth had spent his entire soccer life playing central forward, a position occupied on Sporting Kansas City’s roster by Dom Dwyer, fresh off a record-setting 22-goal MLS season. Nemeth would need to beat out Dwyer to earn regular time, he figured, and after bouncing around seven clubs in seven calendar years, he wasn’t exactly beaming with confidence.
“Maybe a little bit of my confidence was broken. Maybe I was not ready for that big step,” Nemeth said. “All those things taught me a lot of things. I think it was a good experience, and I’m a better person and a better player because of those situations.”
Sporting KC implemented a routine for Nemeth to follow in the preseason, along with his teammates. They focused on improving his training habits, preparing him for a physical game and instituting a more consistent rhythm of play around him.
“He came from a club that has five or six guys waiting in each position, so if they don’t see you’re coming along the way they want you to, they don’t spend the time to develop you. They don’t need to. They can just buy another guy,” Vermes said. “You have to get those players back into the habits of good training, working hard. And if they come in with the right mentality to do those things, that’s how you build confidence.”
Success helps, too.
Early in the preseason, Vermes moved Nemeth to outside wing, with Dwyer remaining in the middle. Nemeth has 13 goals and seven assists across all competitions, the highest combined total for a newcomer in club history. He was voted the MLS player of the month in May.
The consistency earned him a summer call-up with the Hungary men’s national team — a moment he calls the highlight of a career that failed to take shape in Europe.
It has been rejuvenated in Major League Soccer, where perhaps he is once again The Next Big Thing.
Sporting KC vs. Philadelphia in the U.S. Open Cup final
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday in Chester, Pa.