Sam Mellinger

How Peter Vermes navigated Sporting KC through a changing MLS to this defining moment

They will fill every seat in every row, same as always, just with a few more layers. Those scarves will actually serve a purpose. Spiked hot chocolate instead of beer, perhaps, because kickoff is expected with the temperature around 34 degrees — perfect for storing meat but suboptimal for playing soccer.

That some 20,000 people will be there anyway to cheer Sporting Kansas City against Portland in the Western Conference final Thursday night at Children’s Mercy Park is a grand testament to the franchise’s success, the sport’s continuing growth, and a relationship between team and fan that should be the goal of everyone in pro sports.

“Anything over freezing I don’t think plays a factor at all,” Matt Besler said.

But this is about more than adrenaline serving as one of life’s best climate controls, more than playoff pressure, and more than Sporting’s push toward another trophy.

This is also about Peter Vermes — the coach and technical director and man most responsible for one of Kansas City’s great sports success stories — navigating the growing and changing league. His work here is probably under appreciated, and perhaps unmatched.

“By far,” he said, “this is the most talented group since I’ve been here as coach.”

This is Vermes’ ninth full season, and his words are undoubtedly true. Felipe Gutierrez and Illie Sanchez are game-changing talents in the middle, and Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi lead the best attack in franchise history. Tim Melia is among the league’s best goalkeepers, and Besler is a World Cup veteran who is playing as well as ever at age 31.

But that label — most talented group since I’ve been here — is also a little misleading. Because the talent across the league is significantly higher than even five years ago, the last time Sporting won the MLS Cup. Being more talented than years past isn’t so much the goal as it is the cover charge.

Vermes’ genius has always been his ability to maintain focus on the long-term future while differentiating between the tiny details — ignoring those that don’t matter, while dedicating himself fully to those that do.

Few can match his aptitude with that, a critical skill that would be valuable in any endeavor: from dieting to parenting, from building a house to building a perennial MLS winner.

This team is the culmination of a bold plan to remake not just the roster but the style of play, from pressing to counter attack to possession. The transition has been easy to miss because stars like Besler and Graham Zusi remain and the team has continued to win.

That this version is buoyed by so much talent simply makes the whole thing shine a little more.

“What’s so impressive about Peter is you never don’t know what your responsibility is,” Melia said. “I don’t think we always had the best ability to do what we’re doing now. We tried it in 2015 and it wouldn’t work, so we’d go back to that pressing style that was so familiar.

“But this is the way the game was going. Peter saw that, and was comfortable enough work toward that.”

Vermes’ changes came in more acute forms, too. Around the beginning of June, Vermes intentionally and practically wrecked his team in the short-term by intensifying practices. Injuries went up, lineups were adjusted. All of this for team alone in first place.

Success from the decision depended on factors outside of Vermes’ control. The players had to trust, the scope of injuries had to be limited, and the damage to the results had to have a short shelf life.

Vermes is well positioned to try things like this. He is the central decision maker over the entire soccer operation, and has built enough credibility to earn the benefit of the doubt. But that’s only because he’s been so apt at knowing what risks to take, and when.

“That can have a big time negative effect on (the players),” Vermes said. “They can start to doubt what we’re doing. We felt we needed to make the change because we needed to play games like the second leg against Salt Lake, and the game we just played in Portland.

“With that level of intensity, having that kind of courage and bravery in an opposing team’s place. All of those things we needed to be prepared for.”

The result is a current reality that Vermes said everyone in the organization would’ve enthusiastically accepted at the beginning of the season: win at home to advance to the MLS Cup (a week from Saturday, likely at Atlanta).

The nature of sports is that Sporting is still one win from answering the most cynical questions, and two wins from the ultimate proof. Because this franchise has long since passed the point where a playoff appearance is a success.

If that’s all it was about, Vermes would not have needed to change the roster or style or practice habits.

Taking it one more step, if being merely good was all that mattered the franchise would not have needed such a complete overhaul and rebranding eight years ago.

All of that was done for moments like this and, if the team is good enough, for the one that will come next and mark the end of the MLS season one way or the other.

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Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger is a Kansas City Star sports columnist.

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