On Saturday evening, a ceremony inside Children’s Mercy Park will unveil the eighth member of Sporting Kansas City’s hall of honor. The induction will look back on the past 17 years for Kerry Zavagnin, an assistant coach and former player who has been with the franchise longer than any other man.
The tenure has included two MLS championships — one each as a player and assistant coach — and three U.S. Open Cup trophies.
But the way Zavagnin arrived in Kansas City — a letter seeking a tryout — perhaps better describes him than any of the accolades. He considers it the moment that saved his career.
In 1999, Zavagnin quit Major League Soccer only two years into life as a professional. He terminated an existing contract with the MetroStars, declined to show up for preseason training camp and hit the unemployment market. He was 24 years old.
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“That decision was based on one thing — if I was just going to be a role player in MLS, it wasn’t something that interested me,” Zavagnin said. “I had higher aspirations.”
The move limited his options. He instead signed with the Lehigh Valley Stream, an expansion team in the United Soccer League, universally regarded as an inferior league to the one he had departed. Attending practices required a 90-minute drive each way, and the club failed to secure a home stadium, so Zavagnin often played on high school fields.
The Lehigh Valley Stream lasted one season before folding. Zavagnin was out of another job.
Then came the letter. He penned notes to several MLS clubs, asking each of them for a tryout. Kansas City Wizards coach Bob Gansler issued the only reply.
“Looking back, leaving MLS was the best decision I ever made,” Zavagnin said. “Because from that point on, I always looked at myself as the underdog. That pushed me to work harder than anybody else.”
It built a mind-set that defined his nine-year playing career with the Wizards. It eventually carried over into his coaching career, too.
“I call him a maximizer,” Gansler said in a phone interview this week. “He’s a guy who got every little bit out of what God gave him.
“When you looked at all the physical abilities and all that, I wasn’t going to send him to the Olympics to go win us a gold medal in the sprints or the high jump. But my description of a good player has always been a guy who makes people around him better. And that’s who he was.”
Zavagnin spent nine years as a holding midfielder with the Wizards, which later became Sporting KC. Former teammate and current Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes said Zavagnin was “a guy who people don’t realize just how important he was to the way we wanted to play.”
Nonetheless, he received MLS All-Star honors in 2004 and earned several call-ups to the United States national team.
“I knew from the moment I met him that he was very serious about the game,” Vermes said. “He was going to do everything he could to make the team.”
The coaching career started in his first season as a retiree. It was Vermes who hired him.
But the roots trace back further. Zavagnin secured his first coaching license when he was 23, and a few years later took over a high school junior-varsity team. In 2000, in his first training camp with the Wizards, Zavagnin was assigned a roommate.
It was Vermes.
“We talked all the time about wanting to run a club, and if we did, what that would look like,” Zavagnin said. “So this whole thing really started back in 2000.”
Vermes was the Wizards technical director when Zavagnin first joined the team’s coaching staff. When Vermes took over as the coach on a full-time basis in 2010, Zavagnin was the guy he picked as his top assistant.
Zavagnin has stuck in Kansas City ever since, though he acknowledges aspirations to one day be the man in charge. In the past two years, he has interviewed for head coaching vacancies in Houston and Chicago.
“I do want to be a head coach, but it has to be the right situation,” Zavagnin said. “The title is not something I’m actively chasing. I love it here, so this would be a hard place to leave.”