Peter Vermes couldn’t enjoy Sporting Kansas City’s magical 2011 season as much as he would have liked.
But that goes beyond his detailed, hyperanalytical approach to his job as the team’s coach — an insatiable drive toward perfection that can never really be attained and, therefore, is never really finished.
Vermes, the son of Hungarian immigrants who fled their home as Soviet tanks overran Budapest in the fall of 1956, finds his coaching success diminished by the backdrop of personal tragedy as the man who shaped him wasted away in Hungary ravaged by cancer.
Vermes’ father, Michael, whose influence forced Peter to reach previously unknown heights for a U.S. soccer player, died Sept. 3.
Two days later, Vermes coached Sporting KC to
a 2-2 draw
against the Los Angeles Galaxy, who would go on to win the Supporter’s Shield and MLS Cup. But he never hinted publicly at the emotional turmoil bubbling within.
“Of course there was an emotional toll,” Vermes said. “No matter how you look at it, it’s something that is going to be on your mind all the time. But at the end, there really wasn’t much that I could do, so I tended to focus on the job. Things are a little sour for you at that point, but as the coach I had to be able to separate the personal things and business. It’s not the easiest, but I think I did a decent job with that.”
To understand Peter Vermes, it’s imperative to understand how his parents arrived in the United States, because that is the source of his life’s inspiration.
Michael Vermes played soccer for Honved, a first-division team in Hungary’s top professional soccer league, alongside eight players who started for the 1954 World Cup runners-up.
But Michael was also a revolutionary, who stood his ground against Soviet occupation when bombs began dropping in October 1956 — one leveling the home of his wife, Magdalena, when she was working at a supermarket 10 blocks away.
By November 1956, it was no longer safe for Michael to stay in Hungary, but the first two times he and Magdalena, who was pregnant with the couple’s eldest child, Irvine, tried to flee for Austria they were stopped by the Soviets.
The Vermes family knew well what would happen if Michael, who was being actively hunted by the Soviets, were caught again. Vermes’ maternal grandfather had been kidnapped by the Soviets, who tortured and interrogated him for six months.
“They knocked out all his teeth and almost killed him, but one day six months later they came to the house and just booted him out of a truck,” Vermes said.
Fortunately, Michael and Magdalena, who died when Peter was 19, escaped on the third attempt and eventually were flown by U.S. military transport to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, where a Hungarian refugee camp had been established.
“When I was a little kid, I used to go back (to Hungary) a lot,” said Vermes, who was born in 1966 and is the youngest of four children. “Probably eight summers I went back and a minimum five I stayed for a month or more in Hungary, which was during the communism days. So, I understood the environment they left and I saw where they grew up.”
Making it across the Atlantic Ocean only signaled the start of the hardship for Vermes’ parents, who didn’t speak English and arrived with no money.
“My dad actually had to trade his shoes for one day’s meals — breakfast, lunch and dinner — so that my mom could get her nourishment back up after not being able to eat for as long as she did,” Vermes said.
Soccer would become their saving grace.
“The only way he got out of the camp was somebody said, ‘If you come play with my team, I’ll sponsor you with a job in the trade to which you belong,’ ” Vermes said.
Eventually, the Vermeses settled in south New Jersey, where Michael owned and operated an indoor soccer training facility for 30 years.
It’s also where he taught his three sons, including Michael Jr. and Peter, about the game he so dearly loved.
“Soccerwise, my dad pushed the hell out of me, but it never felt like pushing because I loved it so much,” Vermes said. “He wasn’t one of those guys on me to train, because I did that on my own, but he was critical of my play. He would tell me what I did wrong. He would tell me what I had to do to fix it, but then he’d let me go do it.”
It’s a style of coaching Vermes deploys with Sporting KC.
“We all make mistakes,” Vermes said. “The difference is how to respond after them and what do you do after them. It’s the same thing with me and the players. I know they are going to make mistakes in games. I get it, but if we’re provided the road map to be better and not to do that the next time, my expectation is you won’t. That’s where I’m probably demanding.”
Of course, Peter will tell you that it’s not the lessons he learned about soccer from his father that had the greatest impact.
“My dad was old school — and I mean old school,” Vermes said. “I’m not talking about the guy who would say he traveled 5 miles to school uphill both ways. He was
old school. He was very stern. It was his way and no other, but there was also a level of work ethic that was instilled in all of us as kids.”
It led to a strained relationship at times.
“It was very tough growing up, because he was on my (butt) every second,” Vermes said. “We were doing a project in our back yard once, and my dad had said he didn’t want any of our friends coming over. While we’re out there, a friend of mine came to the fence and asked if I could come out and play. I told him I couldn’t do it, but my dad grounded me for a week because he came over to ask me to play. That’s just how it was.”
But that tough love also gave Vermes a drive to succeed few can match.
“As long as I’ve known him, I’ve heard stories about his father and how he came to the country with basically nothing and the work ethic that he had as well as the determination,” Sporting KC assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin said. “It certainly trickled down to his son.”
The prodding from Michael also pushed Peter to become an All-American at Rutgers and the first U.S. player to join first-division teams in Hungary, where he signed with Raba Eto in 1988, and the Netherlands, where he signed with Volendam two years later.
During a visit to Hungary in April 1977, Vermes and his father were on hand at Ferenc Puskas Stadium to watch Hungary topple the Soviet Union 2-1 in a World Cup qualifier.
“I remember telling him, ‘One day, I’m going to be in this stadium playing against Hungary,’ ” Vermes said. “Think of the odds. First off, can you make it to that level of play? The next is the U.S. has to create a game against Hungary, which they accept. It’s amazing how it all happened.”
But 13 years later, Vermes, who was the 1988 U.S. Soccer Federation player of the year, did just that.
That same year, Vermes realized another of his father’s dreams when he suited up for the U.S. in the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
“I would not have reached the heights as a player that I did if it wasn’t for him,” Vermes said. “There’s no way.”
Vermes’ father was proud. He said so a few times, though admittedly not many.
Even if he wasn’t around to say it, surely Michael would have been proud at how Peter handled his father’s death and molded Sporting KC into a championship contender.
“He was a different kind of guy, and everything was about working hard and making sure you took care of things,” Vermes said. “Letting other things affect what you’re doing was not accepted for my father. You’ve got to do what you’re supposed to be doing and deal with the other things at another time. That’s the way he was.”
Like father, like son.