The Full 90

Soccer always special to Sporting KC’s Vermes

Sam Mellinger
Sam Mellinger

The moment happened so quickly.

A snap of the fingers, a clap of the hands. Here and then gone, all in a camera’s flash. A man’s life changed forever in a fraction of the time it takes to pour a cup of coffee. Peter Vermes still thinks about it, you know. Not every day. But, yeah. He still thinks about it.

June 14, 1990. The United States against Italy in the Americans’ first World Cup since 1950. Peter’s date with history. The Italian Walter Zenga was the consensus best goalkeeper on the planet, but with thousands screaming in person and millions more watching on television, Peter sprinted in on the left side and kicked the deflection as hard as he possibly could toward an unmanned part of the goal.

When his left foot hit the ball, Peter felt that rush. He knew the feeling: The ball was going in. The United States was going to take a lead against the host nation in the World Cup, a Miracle on Grass one decade after the U.S. Olympic hockey team beat the Russians and who knows what would happen after that? Peter would be a star, for one. Instantly. He’d be on the talk shows. He’d give speeches at schools. He’d be

The Guy Who Scored The


But, well, Zenga had earned his reputation for a reason. Even now, watching the play on video, it’s hard to see exactly how Zenga stopped what amounted to a point-blank shot.

Peter doesn’t know either. He shakes his head, the moment that would’ve changed his life forever gone but never forgotten.

“It was going in,” he says. “I mean, I thought it was going. I really did.”

Peter can’t know exactly how his life would be different had he made that goal. The only thing he’s sure of is that he wouldn’t be here, in Kansas City, the brains and sweat and personification of what could be the greatest success story in the history of Major League Soccer.

Lunch is in front of him, but Peter is here to talk about soccer. This is his life, and not just the part in which his Sporting Kansas City team sold out all but one game this season. Peter worked his entire life for this, to be in charge of all things soccer for an eight-figure operation on the front side of what finally looks like the sport’s mainstream emergence — both nationally, with new network television contracts, and locally, with booming youth programs that Peter himself started.

So the pasta can wait.

Peter traveled the world for this chance. He didn’t always know he’d be coach and technical director of a team that is now a back-to-back MLS conference champion and among the favorites to win the league title.

But soccer always meant something special to him, something big, something beyond even a pioneering career as a player.

He wears his hair neatly cropped, and the stubble on his face is there by choice. His words are direct, firm and confident. This is how it always is with Peter. It’s what he knows. His life has been mostly soccer since his first organized game when he was 4 years old. Actually, it’s been this way even longer than that, since the moment his stern pro player of a father first put a ball near his son’s foot and told him to kick it.

At a corner booth in this restaurant, Peter has hijacked the sweeteners to make a point about how he wants — needs, really — Sporting KC to operate. It’s a simple point, actually, about how the first string (white sugar packets) is important, but you always need a strong backup (pink Sweet’N Low) in case of injury, and depth even behind that (blue packets of Equal) to give the organization options.

Peter could’ve made the point without the props. But he didn’t get here by taking chances. Didn’t push Sporting this far by leaving details to interpretation.

“This is the way it has to be,” he says.

Back when Peter Vermes was just a boy, maybe 12, he was helping his father with something in the back yard. He can’t remember what the project was, exactly, but he remembers his father saying he couldn’t play until they finished. Peter agreed.

Soon after, a friend came by and asked if Peter could play. Peter told his friend no but still got grounded for a week because he got asked.

This is Peter’s worldview, one cultivated from birth by a father who knew nothing other than direct, forceful and unapologetic. This is in the Vermes DNA. Michael Vermes stood up against the Soviet occupation of his native Hungary. With his name on a list of wanted men, he fled the country on his third attempt, and the Vermeses settled in New Jersey.

Peter was a soccer prodigy. He won’t say it in those words, but that’s what he was. He scored five goals with four assists in his first game as a high school freshman, so the coach moved him up to junior varsity the next day. He scored four goals with four assists in that game. The next day, he played another JV game, scored a couple more goals, and then was told to suit up for the varsity game that same night.

Michael didn’t want his son playing two full games in the same evening, and sent Peter to tell the coach as much. Peter played all but two minutes of the varsity match anyway. It was the only time he disobeyed his father, who died of cancer last year. Peter’s mother, Magdalena, died when he was 19.

Soccer eventually took Peter around the world. He was among the first Americans to play in some of Europe’s best leagues, once literally living at the stadium so he didn’t have to commute to the only place he ever wanted to be.

Peter says he enjoyed every second of playing soccer, but also that he never felt the choice to do much else. That juxtaposition is a pretty good description of his life: all soccer, largely because it’s all he’s ever wanted.

“I don’t have a lot of things outside the game, to be honest with you,” he says. “I just don’t have much else.”

Peter does not mean that literally, but putting it this way is telling. He met a nice girl named Susan through soccer, back in high school, and they’ve been married 22 years. Peter escapes what can be a suffocating work life long enough to hang out with his college-age son — they saw a late-night showing of “Taken 2” together recently. His daughter is a starter at Rockhurst University, and he never misses a home game.

Soccer and family. This is all Peter knows, all he does, so it’s hard to tell where the sport ends and his life begins.

He almost found out last summer, when his bosses nearly fired him.

This is, technically speaking, the 17th season that the same Major League Soccer franchise has played in Kansas City. But it’s just the second year of the version that anyone outside of a passionate but small fan base has paid much attention to. In the glow of consecutive conference championships, it’s easy to forget that the movement to rebrand the Wizards started like a slug.

Sporting Kansas City won just one of its first 11 games last year, and it’s fair to blame part of that malaise on the frequent-flyer schedule the team played while awaiting completion of construction at Livestrong Sporting Park in the Legends retail area of Kansas City, Kan. But it’s delusional not to think the team was also woefully underachieving at the worst possible moment.

A gorgeous new stadium and fan-first philosophy are great, but the whole thing rings hollow if the team stinks and the first few months of Sporting’s reboot stunk. Peter’s players gave up 16 goals in their first seven MLS games of 2011. His arrest for DUI, in August of the year before, only complicated matters.

“We’ve always been clear that ultimately it’s about the results,” Sporting co-majority owner Cliff Illig says. “Peter’s never been confused about that.”

Peter’s no dummy. He heard the noise and knows his bosses had every justification they needed to fire him. The man who oversees every detail — from the fastest way to the office, to how equipment is packed for training camp, to whether a backup midfielder is mentally over a red card from two months ago — no longer had control.

Maybe it’s false bravado, or revisionist history, but Peter swears he didn’t think about his bosses making a decision that would turn his life on its head.

“Never,” he says. “Not once. And I’m not (fooling) you.”

Part of why the Sporting ownership group kept Peter around is that the man and the organization are so deeply entwined. Peter first came to Kansas City in 2000 via a trade from the Colorado Rapids. He brought with him a shining past as a forward, but soon made the rare-for-soccer transition to being a top defender and helped the then-Wizards win the MLS Cup his first year in town.

He became technical director after the 2006 season, and when the team fired its head coach three years later, Peter convinced his bosses to give him that job, too. The duality doesn’t always work, in soccer or other sports, but two very full-time jobs for Peter gives the organization a seamless cohesion between the field and front office.

The result is a soccer operation constructed and operating as a personification of the child of Hungarian immigrants, of the boy who not only was grounded because a friend asked if he could play but who accepted the punishment, and of the man who used a playing career to not only live out a dream but prepare for the afterlife of an athlete.

“That’s very true,” Peter says. “Yes.”

That means Sporting must not only win, but win a certain way. Peter’s players press, and don’t flop. They attack, and don’t apologize. They are perhaps the fittest team in the league, because winning a ball in 10 seconds rather than 30 is hard work. Good players have come and gone with the skills but not the stamina to play the way Peter demands.

“He’s what we need, and it’s done us well,” forward C.J. Sapong says. “I was a little intimidated at first. He comes across as a hard-ass, but he brings the best out of you.”

The result is a successful team with a style that sells tickets, built as the virtual mirror of a man who might not be here if not for a moment two decades ago that is never far from his mind.

We’re back at that kick, the one that would’ve changed Peter’s life forever. He’s thinking about it now, about the feeling he had when his left foot struck that ball just right, how he just knew it was going in and how the other side of that fork in his life’s journey would’ve put him in a very different place.

He cannot know for sure what he’d be doing now, or where he’d be doing it. Peter guesses he’d be overseas. Maybe he’d be on TV. Maybe he’d be involved in one of the European leagues.

All he knows for certain is that he wouldn’t be here, in Kansas City, at this restaurant with pasta going cold while he talks about the success story built in the straight-ahead, never-apologize image he inherited from his father.

He smiles. Pauses.

“My life would be different,” Peter says. “I know that. But I don’t, in my mind, think it would be better. I don’t think it could be better.”