Peter Vermes is sitting behind a meticulously clean desk in his meticulously clean office. Not a fleck of his shortly cropped salt and pepper is out of place. Sheets of paper stack neatly behind him. An unopened banana sits on a napkin which, by the looks of him, is as indulgent as he goes.
At the moment, Sporting Kansas City’s coach and technical director knows the sale of Dom Dwyer for a market-shifting $1.6 million in allocation money is the biggest story around his team and Major League Soccer. Vermes will talk about that, about why he was comfortable not receiving a player in return in the middle of a trophy chase. And about how he’s been preparing for years to walk away from his club’s most marketable player, and his belief that the league didn’t want him to do it.
But, first, a story about Neal Patterson — the Oklahoma farm boy who co-founded Cerner, became a billionaire, bought Sporting, hired Vermes, and never gave him or anyone else who worked for him an inch before dying of cancer last month.
This story is from 2009. Vermes was the technical director, which is soccer speak for general manager. He’d actually finished that season as coach, too, but assumed he’d hire someone else full time. At least, he assumed that until the ownership meeting.
“Why did we make that change and what’s the outlook?” Patterson asked. He never said anything that wasn’t direct.
That’s when Robb Heineman began talking. He’s the CEO of Sporting Club, and at the time, the one who most often spoke publicly for the ownership group.
“No, I don’t want to hear from you,” Patterson interrupted. Then he pointed at Vermes. “I want to hear this from you.”
“This is your fault we’re in this,” Patterson said. “And I want to know how you’re going to fix it.”
Up until that point, Vermes had no plans on coaching. But here, Patterson challenged Vermes. Challenged his knowledge, his ability, his worth. Vermes never asked, but he’s sure Patterson wanted to see how he’d react.
Anyone who knew Vermes a little bit — and by then, Patterson knew him more than a little bit — would’ve known exactly how he’d react.
“I’ll tell you how we’ll fix it,” Vermes snapped back. “I’m going to (freaking) coach the team, because I know what we need, and that’s it.”
This is how Vermes became coach, and part of how the club went from the fringe of MLS to one of the league’s model franchises: Patterson essentially double-dog dared Vermes to take the job.
Which brings us to how Vermes just did something that perhaps no other man in charge of a major professional sports team would — sold one of his team’s two All-Stars while at the top of the standings and without getting anyone with a pulse in return.
Not just that. Vermes thinks Sporting got better in both the short- and long-term by doing it.
“When am I looking for a guy’s replacement?” Vermes says, repeating the question. “Look at my board back there.”
He points to a large, white, magnetic board — maybe three feet by four feet. It’s against a wall in a back corner of his office, but never far from Vermes’ mind. Each position is listed at least three deep, and on the bottom of the board the same for the Swope Park Rangers, Sporting’s reserve team.
The board changes regularly, guys moving up and down based on injury or performance or anything else, and Vermes is as obsessed with the second and third lines as he is the first. He always knows the next guy coming up, because in some of the most important ways, depth influences how the top of the roster is handled.
Vermes stole the idea for the board and much of how he handles his roster from the NFL. Everyone talks about the Patriots getting rid of guys a year too early instead of a year too late, but Vermes traces the philosophy back further than Bill Belichick’s fame.
The trick, in his mind, is knowing the typical shelf life of each position, and taking an emotionless — Vermes doesn’t like the word cold — view of the relationship between a player’s rising salary, value to his team, and value to other teams.
If everything goes right, the player becomes a star, and the team has an opportunity. Vermes sees this as when pro football teams separate from each other.
“Now at that moment, the question is: does that NFL team have the balls to trade him off and get the most value for him?” he says. “Or do they become the team that actually pays him the highest salary ever made as a football player? That’s the big question.
“And for me, the only way you can ever make the decision to trade him off or move him” — and here Vermes nods toward that board — “is because you have put time into the twos and threes.”
You see the point Vermes is trying to make. Fans around Kansas City and even many around MLS may have been surprised he moved Dwyer without receiving a player in return.
But — and here’s the answer to the question Vermes repeated a while back — he starts thinking about how he’ll replace someone as soon as they get to that one line.
“Yeah,” he says. “These things I say, they’re not just (expletive).”
That goes beyond merely building a roster, though.
Over the last few years Sporting has shifted — even some who regularly watch MLS missed this — from a high-pressure and quick-striking club to a more defensive posture with higher possession. Dwyer is, in soccer parlance, courageous with scoring chances and best suited for a club that serves its striker on counterattacks. He was a terrific fit.
But by now, Sporting has shifted away from those serves and more to the build-up. Forwards who can connect passes, and maintain possession, are of greater value to Sporting now. That’s a move away from Dwyer’s strength and toward his weakness.
Dwyer’s contract goes through next season, and they discussed an extension. Vermes would’ve been happy to have Dwyer long-term, but the team’s shifting strategy and the player’s natural ambition for the most money meant the two sides were never particularly close.
But negotiations stalled. A story about it came out in the media, one Vermes suspects was leaked by Dwyer’s camp to put pressure on the team, but the upshot was Vermes’ phone started ringing from other teams interested in a trade.
Four teams showed more interest than anyone else — Orlando, D.C., New England and Columbus — which drove the price higher than it otherwise would’ve been. Vermes also had another advantage.
Presumably, other teams assumed Vermes would have strategic and marketing reasons not to do a deal. But Vermes has never thought much about the marketing of specific players to sell tickets, and he’d been subtly working on the strategic part of this for years.
“It’s probably like art,” Vermes said. “I’m not an art guy. But I’m always amazed. There’s a painting on the wall, and some guy says it’s worth $10 million or $50 million. All due respect, I’m not an art person, I wouldn’t pay that. But someone would. And the objective in this business is to find someone who will.”
Vermes is smart and honest enough that he almost certainly chose that analogy intentionally. Because the price Sporting got is two to three times more than the previous biggest deal in league history.
Dwyer is making $600,000 this year. Some of the $1.6 million in allocation money is not technically guaranteed, but the clauses are such that Vermes says “100 percent” he expects to get all of it.
So, in plain terms: it’s enough to buy two Dwyers, maybe three, and Vermes has proved better than most at finding good players. And that’s not all.
Originally, Sporting and Orlando agreed on a deal that would’ve sent $1.75 million to Kansas City. But $150,000 of that was to be in what is called “new value” money, which the league said could not be used in this type of deal.
At first, Vermes sensed enough resistance that he believed the league didn’t want the sale to be made.
“Pretty much,” he said. “There was so much of a gap, I just felt they thought, ‘We don’t want this deal to go through because it’s going to change the market.’”
The deal is complicated, and not just for the structure of the finances. In the sense that its most visible player is now gone, and the relatively unknown Diego Rubio is first in line as the replacement, the deal reshapes what Sporting Kansas City is to so many.
But in the sense that Vermes has spent years preparing for this, and sees it as staying true to how he runs the club, the deal is a perfect and tidy illustration of what Sporting Kansas City actually is.
Mention that last point to Vermes, and he smiles. The deal went through. He’d been challenged, same way Patterson did those years back, and he’d responded. The whole thing is so purely Vermes, too. Different, calculated, gutsy, open to shock if you don’t know his reasons and unapologetically efficient if you do.