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Sporting KC’s Peter Vermes returns to MLS Cup, this time as manager

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, at 7:58 p.m.

— Peter Vermes’ office is tucked away in the back corner of the Sporting Kansas City training facility at Swope Park. He works there almost every day, though the space still looks desolate. The walls are bare. His desk holds only a few items that could be packed away in a tiny box.

Vermes, in his fourth full season as the Sporting KC manager, was inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame in October. His playing career included a Major League Soccer championship with the Kansas City Wizards in 2000, a league defender of the year award the same season and a World Cup appearance with the U.S. men’s national team.

None of those honors are on display in his workplace.

“I’m a sparse guy, and I just don’t like to necessarily spend a lot of time looking back — whether it’s good, bad or indifferent,” Vermes says. “I’m more inclined to pursue what’s ahead.”

That seems appropriate this week, but it’s not quite so easy. Sporting KC will play host to Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup at 3 p.m. Saturday in Sporting Park.

And while Vermes says he’s focused on what lies ahead — his first appearance in the MLS Cup as a manager — it’s moments like these that force a look into the past. Even if it’s only a brief one.

It was 13 years ago that Vermes and the Wizards captured the first and only MLS championship in franchise history. They ended a championship drought of more than a decade for Kansas City major professional sports teams.

Sporting KC has the opportunity to do the same.

“Every once in a while something like this will come up,” Vermes said. “And it will sort of reminds you of the opportunity you have, just like we had back then.”

The similarities between the two teams are lacking.

In 1999, the Wizards finished last in the 12-team MLS, totaling only eight wins in 32 matches.

One year later, under new coach Bob Gansler, they went from worst to first behind one of the best defenses in league history. The Wizards opened the season on a 12-match unbeaten streak. They edged the Chicago Fire for the Supporters’ Shield, and then defeated the Fire 1-0 for the MLS Cup.

Sporting KC has taken a much different route to this MLS Cup. While the club has recently experienced regular-season success, it has fought through poststeason growing pains in Vermes’ coaching tenure.

Houston upset Sporting KC in the 2011 and 2012 playoffs before Sporting KC earned payback two weeks ago in the Eastern Conference finals.

“It’s a completely different path,” said Sporting KC assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin, a midfielder on the 2000 championship team. “This process has taken a lot more time. This team has grown up together. It’s taken a few years to get over the hump. When you look at how it’s gone, it certainly has been the building of a culture.”

That culture has spread across the city, something the 2000 Wizards weren’t able to enjoy. In their championship season, the Wizards averaged only 9,100 fans per game at Arrowhead Stadium, which marked the second-lowest total in the league.

Sporting Park, meanwhile, is set to welcome its 36th consecutive MLS sellout Saturday.

“It was just a fad when we won,” Vermes said. “I’m not sure how much the city really cared. This feels more real. It’s taken on a life of its own. We’re very relevant right now in this city.”

Added Zavagnin: “We didn’t have the support in the community these guys have, nor did we need it. We wanted to do it for ourselves.”

The Wizards relied on a defense that allowed only 29 goals for the season — eight fewer than any other team in the league.

It was anchored by Vermes, who was named the defender of the year, and goalie Tony Meola, who won the league’s MVP award. The team also included Hall of Famer Preki, along with Mo Johnston, Chris Klein and Miklos Molnar, who scored 17 goals in the regular season and postseason.

“It’s a group that not every single guy hung out with each other or was great friends,” Vermes said. “It was a group that when you walked inside the white lines, you knew not to touch any of our guys because we were coming after you. There were a lot of alpha dogs on that team.”

Vermes included. And while he may not think back on that season often, it provides meaningful lessons.

Now more than ever.

“That (2000) team, we were there to win. It was all business,” Vermes said. “Leading up to the game, our preparation didn’t change too much. We tried to stick to what got us there.

“That’s what I’ve done here. It’s not as if we want to re-invent the wheel. We have to stick with what we’re good at and make sure we’re sharp and ready to go on Sunday.

“Because if I can tell the guys anything from my experience, it’s that these opportunities don’t come around too often.”

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