Peter Vermes has been a central figure in the development of American soccer over the past 30-something years, as a player, as a coach and as one of the game's foremost thinkers.
The son of Hungarian immigrants who escaped to the United States as Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, the Delran, New Jersey, native was among the first Americans to play for clubs in Europe, a key member, as a forward, of the 1990 World Cup team -- the first U.S. team to qualify in four decades -- a standout defender in Major League Soccer, and the man behind Sporting Kansas City's successes over the past decade and a half.
Vermes, whose passion for the game came from his father, Michael Vermes, who played for Honved in the Hungarian top tier, was pivotal in the MLS Cup crown the Kansas City Wizards, captured in 2000. He became the club's technical director in 2006 and took over as head coach in 2009 and won the 2013 MLS Cup and perennially fields one of the league's best sides. He is the longest-serving head coach in MLS history and is fourth on the list of winningest coaches, with 160 regular-season victories. His teams have won four Western Conference regular-season titles -- including last season's -- and three U.S. Open Cups and are again one of the top contenders for honors in 2021.
Vermes, 54, spoke to Soccer America about his career as a player and coach, on developing a winning culture, on the evolution of the sport in America, on what that 1990 World Cup team truly accomplished, and on the diligence and day-to-day work that's required in the pursuit of excellence.SOCCER AMERICA: Sporting Kansas City had a very good season in a weird year last year, has two first-place finishes in the Western Conference in the past three years, and you're battling for the top spot again this year. How did you approach this offseason in terms of what you want Sporting to become?
PETER VERMES: The philosophical approach is very similar each year. In this profession, the idea is that you have to continue to evolve. That doesn't mean that you change to change. But you have to continue to evolve. You individually. You have to evolve your group, meaning your team. You have to continue to have a pulse on where the league itself is moving to, as well. And if you can be in advance of that, you're better for it.
Where I think it changes, where the nuances are, is where you think you need to improve your team, whether it be goalkeeper, backline, midfielder, up front. And so that's where I think the craftiness comes into play. Because you also have to manage the dollars and figure out where [to make moves] -- you usually can't get everything you want. And we've never been in that place of getting everything that we want. We're just not a spending club, like a lot of clubs are. We have to do it in a different way.
So it’s been a combination of a few things here recently. Part of it has been acquiring like we've done in the past. And it's kind of been our M.O., in that it's acquiring players that we think are really good value [and] somehow there's a bargain in there. A lot of times it's like they're a free transfer or what have you. So that's one place. And it's still trying to keep your team with experience and players that can have a real impact very quickly because they've already proven that they can play at a high level.
You're really trying to continue to evolve our appropriate pathway and [with] the talent that we're trying to develop within our organization, to continue to cultivate them up the ladder and then eventually on the first team. And as much as we sign quite a few players [from the Academy], I tell them quite regularly that just because you sign a contract doesn't mean that you've made it or makes you a professional. What makes you that is by the consistency of day in and day out of training and improving and then eventually starting to have an impact. And an impact just doesn't mean you're playing in the game. It means you're helping the team win, because ultimately that is our objective. And that's the simplest objective: At the end, you need to win.
SOCCER AMERICA: Kansas City didn't seem to have a real culture, or a consistent culture, in its first decade. In creating a culture -- developing the “Sporting way,” perhaps, what were the biggest things you had to install, how did that evolution occur, and how is that evolution continuing to occur in developing that culture?
PETER VERMES: I would agree with you. I don't necessarily think that there was one here. And I think that the word “culture” and a few others, like “people development” and “leadership,” I think a lot of those words are really used a lot, but I don't think that they actually are implemented or actually really exist in a lot of organizations. I'm not talking about just sports. I'm just talking about business in general.
I think everybody talks about it, but I think it in a lot of respects, it doesn't exist or it exists in a very poor way. And I think it's not because I think people are oblivious to it or that people are not aware that it's something they have to do. But I think one of the fortunate things that I have had, and that is the fact that if you want culture and then you want sustained culture, there has to be consistency in the personnel, the people that are at that organization. And so the fact that I've been here a long time has obviously been a big help to at least trying to create a culture.
The first thing you have to do is sell it to your people and the people that you work with every day. You have to sell that to them. ... And everybody usually is open to hearing [about it]. “OK, sounds interesting.” If you lay out the culture and you're pretty good at laying it out, then obviously things are going to happen that are directly related to that culture in a good way, and then also ones that are conflicting with it. Are you willing at that time to either point them out, “this is directly in line with who we are,” and give recognition to that? And if they're not and they're in contradiction to it, are you willing to take the steps necessary to make sure that you deal with it, not sweep it under the rug or ignore it?
I think culture is an ever-living, breathing thing. It doesn't stop. It's never finished. It's just like a team, you're constantly trying to evolve. First off, finding the right personnel that want to work in the environment that you're trying to create. Because if that's the environment that they would like to work in every day, then they're also going to be more apt to protect and defend it when times come of adversity.
The final piece is that you then have the players, right? And so we've had some players that have been at this club for a really long time. And they've been at the club for a really long time not just because they're good and not just because they won, but because they also embody a lot of those core values that are directly associated to our culture. And so they are everyday an example to the rest of the players that come into the club.
I remember when I first took over the team here, I was amazed at the players that we brought in to trial with us. How on the first day they were all really hesitant. And then the next day they were almost basically running roughshod and doing whatever they wanted to, because they saw that there was there was no leadership, there was no culture within the group. And so that was the most important thing that we needed to establish first, so that when players came here, they understood that there was a certain set of core values that go with being at this club, how you conduct yourself, and then what it means to be a Sporting Kansas City player. And it's taken a lot of time to build that. And it's very uncomfortable for a lot of people, uncomfortable situations where you've had to deal with those examples that were contradictory to what we were trying to do. And sometimes that [meant] having to part with some people as well.
After he starred at Rutgers University, Peter Vermes' playing career included stints in Hungary, the Netherlands and Spain. His 1996-2002 MLS career included stints with the MetroStars, Colorado Rapids and the 2000 MLS Cup title win with the Kansas City Wizards. As coach, he guided Sporting Kansas City to the 2013 MLS title and three Open Cup titles (2012, 2015 and 2017).
SOCCER AMERICA: You've had several players really key to that process, guys with real character, guys like Matt Besler and Graham Zusi? How important were they and others like them in building and maintaining that culture?
PETER VERMES: I was a player at one time, right? And now I'm a coach. And I don't step across that line forgetting what it was like to be a player.
The coach, the coaching staff, the support staff, all of that is incredibly important to the overall success of a club. But at the end, it's the players. It's about the players. It's not about the coaches. It's not about the coaching staff, it's not about the support staff, it's about the players. You need players that are brought into that culture, that understand the importance of it on an everyday basis.
And then once they embody that, do they now help to protect and defend that when the coaching staff or the support staff are not around? When they're around with the rest of the teammates in the locker room? Where, you know, they're at an event where we're trying to promote the club or what have you? How do they conduct themselves?
I'll never forget what a really good friend of mine said, one of the coaches for Barcelona, who unfortunately passed away, whose name was Tito Vilanova. We had played together in Spain [at Figueras in the early 1990s], and I went over there in 2012 or '13 and spent about two and a half weeks with Tito. And I asked him at lunch one day, I said, “You have so many fantastic talents at your disposal. What's it like at the end of each week when you decide on your roster? How do the other players respond that are not in?” And he said:
“It's really easy when I have guys like Andres Iniesta or Xavi and leave them out of the lineup. First, they don't say anything. Second, they continue to play at the level that they do every other day. And then third is that if it's 20 minutes into the game, if it's halftime, if it's the 75th minute or the 89th minute and I ask them to go into the game, they get up and get ready as if it was their first opportunity to ever come into the first team. And they give everything that they have. How can anybody else on the team say anything?”
And that example is what you strive for within your group. But you have to be consistently vigilant in making sure, because you're signing young kids into your team, and they're starting new ... and you've got to start over with those guys, and you've got to constantly be on them. It's a little bit at times like parenting, right? I mean, you have a child and you get him out of diapers and now you get them to school, and you have another one, and now you're starting all over again, you know what I mean? It's like that. It's not like, you know, “Oh, I parented this one kid, and they've learned everything up until now. So the other kids are going to just do the same.” That's not the case. And it's the same here with all the players.
SOCCER AMERICA: In your time at Kansas City, how would you say the way you see the game, your principles of the game or your philosophies have evolved?
PETER VERMES: Every year it continues to evolve. It just does. The league continues to get better, the quality of coaches continues to get better. The players coming to the league, the players within the league and the development of these young kids through the pro-player pathways of teams continue to get better. So all of that is an incredible challenge on a regular basis.
The changes have been in so many different ways. There's so many different moments that have changed, like, [how I see] the phases of the game. At one point, I used to think about the phases of the game as when you have the ball and when you don't have the ball. Then it was when you have the ball, when you're transitioning from when you have the ball, and you don't have the ball. And then you go into defense and then when you transition from defense to offense. And then when you're attacking, when you attack to defend transition, when you defend to attack transition. Then you have defensive set pieces, you have attacking set pieces.
All of these things become more and more a part of the overall organization of your team and then the details that go along with it. And so you spend an amazing amount of time, and the advancement of technology with whether it's being able to track data with the players, meeting their physical data, then you also get the data on the field, and you're constantly using all these sources of information.
The one thing that for me has not changed, and that is I stay loyal to my eye, to how I see the game. You know, if I watch the game and then I watch the game again on video, my eye doesn't lie to me. I see what I see. And that's why I think this game is so great, because every time a player has the ball, he's the quarterback, and he can make decisions.
As a coach, I still have sort of this idea in my mind's eye of how I would like to see our team play. And the ultimate challenge is how close can we get to that idea in my mind's eye, that picture that's in my mind's eye. And that's what you're constantly working towards. For me, the evolution is sometimes not even year to year, sometimes it's daily. And it also has to do with managing your people, because that is changing all the time for me. The more things that I can understand about the individual, the better I can communicate with them.
Learning those things, over the years, has become much more at the forefront. My early years, I was I was like, “Hey, this is the way we're doing it. You get on the ship if you want to sail with us. And if you don't, then hopefully when you get off, you have a life preserver or a lifeboat, because this is the way we're doing it.” And it's not from a mean way. I was very focused on where I wanted us to get to. And obviously I still am. But I also understand that there's a lot of other nuances that go with it, because when you're somewhere like I've been for as long as I have, it also could be really easy for players and staff to get stale around me. Not stale to me, but vice-versa, me stale to them. So I've had to, I think in a lot of respects, sort of reinvent myself many times over. And a lot of times it happens also with different teams and different rosters that you put together.
SOCCER AMERICA: You obviously can be pleased with how you played, with results, with the success that you have. But can you ever be satisfied?
PETER VERMES: That's actually a really good question. You know, I watched this great interview once, many, many, many, many years ago, and it was with Arsene Wenger, and he was asked a question: “There's a lot of people that aspire to be a manager one day. And so if you had the ability to give them some advice, what would it be?” And he sat back for a second and collected his thoughts and he said, “Well, the first thing I'd say to you, are you willing to suffer?” And, you know, I started laughing so hard because, I mean, I could not have picked a better word.
When you're in this position, you suffer everything. You suffer a training session, you suffer a film session, you suffer a conversation with someone because you know that all of it has a cause and effect onto what you're doing. You suffer with it because you know that you're waiting for the outcome, because the result is Saturday night and what's going to happen with all the things that led up to that. I would say to you that for me, it's I don't know. I would say probably not. It's hard to be satisfied because you're on to the next thing that you want to win.
What I would say is that what time has allowed me to do -- and I think maybe it's a little bit [during my time as] a player, towards the end of my career, I really started to do something that I never did before. And that was I started to try to enjoy the moments. I always loved playing, I always loved training. I never, never complained about that stuff. But I didn't realize how much I enjoyed it, because I never allowed myself to that moment. And I started to realize that towards the end of my career, it's one of the reasons why I think I was able to play for as long as I did, because I actually had the enthusiasm and everything for it.
What I do now is I tend to try to enjoy moments here and there, more so than I used to. But they're very short-lived. I always say that when you win, the next day's coffee tastes unbelievable. It's like the coffee the next morning is just like out of this world. And the day that you lose, the next morning, you don't even want a cup of coffee.
SOCCER AMERICA: Having a father who had played professionally, who brought the game with him when he came to this country from Hungary -- growing up with that -- how much does that inform who you are as a coach and how you see the game?
PETER VERMES: I have two things that really helped me: my upbringing by my parents and I believe that I've always been a student of my experiences in soccer and in life. No doubt that my father's passion for the game, his enthusiasm for the game was infectious for me. Absolutely had a major influence on me.
At the same time, as I said, I've always been a real student of my experiences, and so all the people that I played for over the years, I really paid attention. And those experiences, I believe, have helped me immensely in knowing what I wanted to do and what I didn't want to do if I ever became a coach. And I have tried to use those experiences. The last thing is that there's no doubt that my playing career has helped me immensely as well, because a lot of times I try to put myself into the players' position. I say, if I was a player right now and I was hearing this from me, how would I respond. Or how would I deal with this if I said, hey, we're going to go and do this? How would I respond? And I use that. And I think it really, really helps me to make good decisions.
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SOCCER AMERICA: You're renowned for being disciplined and having a strong attention to detail. Does that go back to childhood?
PETER VERMES: It actually does. I don't know, I've always been, like, really, really meticulous. I actually can remember being a little kid, being 8, 9 years old. And I stayed home from school because I was sick and had a temperature. And I remember my mom coming into my room and saying, “What are you doing?” Because I was supposed to be in bed, and I was taking all of my clothes out of my drawers and folding them and then reorganizing them, putting them back into my bureau, and then same thing in my closet.
I mean, what 8-year-old, 9-year-old kid would even think about doing something like that? Organization and stuff like that has always been very, very important to me. But I also think it's my personality, and my personality is that, for sure. I don't function well without having things planned out and lined up. And it's just who I am.
SOCCER AMERICA: You played quite a bit for Bob Gansler, who was born in Hungary. In what ways did he influence who you became?
PETER VERMES: I had Bob with the national team and had Bob here [in Kansas City] for three years, and the things that always stuck out to me about Bob is, one, his wealth of knowledge of the player pool in the United States. I'm talking about club-soccer kids all the way up to professional, and it's astounding. And not just knowing this kid played at this club in this state.
The other is that when Bob had the ability to have to be a coach at the youth level, the college level, the professional level. And not just the top-flight, but it could be USL or whatever, having that under your belt. National teams. It just makes you a well-rounded coach with incredible experiences that you can adapt and adjust to a lot of different situations. And there's no doubt for me it was really important.
That's why I spent time in the youth game. It's why I assisted at Rutgers University for a year. I wanted to get knowledge. It was an incredible experience for me to be with Sigi [Schmid] with the U-20s. All of that was to get knowledge at all the different levels, because I think it helps a tremendous amount to be able to heighten something for a player and you can also water it down for a player, depending on where they are in the process of acquiring a skill or a concept. Sometimes you can make it more advanced and sometimes you have to simplify it. And I don't necessarily know if you're able to do that if you've only ever coached at a really, really high level and with high-level players.
Bob did that. I could see that in him. Bob, you know, he had a lot of different little sayings. He kept the game really simple because he knew that you could confuse and cloud guys' minds, because they don't think the same way a coach does. And I thought Bob was excellent at building a roster.
Sigi had the same quality, [finding] the partnerships on the field. You know, right back and maybe right-central defender or right back and right winger -- there's these partnerships. And it's not necessarily always the best players that make the best partnerships. It's sometimes people that complement each other in certain ways or have an understanding. Where the routine that they have in their possession complements the other. And that's another piece that, for sure, Bob and Sigi had.
Bob really understood also the leadership, how important it was to have extensions of the coach on the field to have success. I learned a tremendous amount from them, for sure.
SOCCER AMERICA: You played at Gyr in Hungary, at Volendam in Holland, and for Figueras in Spain. How did those experiences impact your game and the way you see the game?
PETER VERMES: Hungary really turned me into a pro. And to understand that it's my career and I have to be the one to take responsibility in it, and you have to fight for what you want. Hungary really, really, really helped me with that piece, and it was great because I was young and it was a perfect time to learn that, because it helped me for a long-term career.
Holland really was incredible for my development, my individual development, but also in my understanding of the game. At that time, Ajax was a huge club, PSV Eindhoven a huge club, especially in the international game and Champions League and all that. The level of soccer there was fantastic. The coach that I had [Leo Steegman] was tremendous. I learned so much from him about the style of play, formations. And then he had an incredible way on the psychological aspect with players.
Spain, there was a real calculated way of training to prepare a game, to prepare a team for a game, and our coach [Argentine Roberto D'Allesandro] was incredibly, incredibly meticulous when it came to the organization of the players on the field and for the players to understand their responsibilities. You know, when the ball was here, when the ball was there -- just unreal. And we had a really successful team that year that I was there, and that really helped me as well.
The fact that I was someone who really paid attention, because I was so interested in coaching, I had such different experiences at each. But they all helped to shape who I am today.
SOCCER AMERICA: You're one of the pioneers in American soccer, as one of the players who took us from being an amateur team, an amateur nation, into a professional nation and a nation that can compete internationally. When you think back to that time, especially with the national team and heading to the Italy -- that first World Cup in 40 years -- what sticks with you? What are the things that you're most proud of or that you take with you as you follow the steps along your career?
PETER VERMES: You probably said it. I look back at that time, and, you know, we had no business qualifying [for the 1990 World Cup]. When I say that, I don't mean that we have no business qualifying because we weren't good enough. We had no business qualifying because we didn't have [professionals]. I mean, Bob Gansler doesn't get the credit that he deserves on this, but he took a bunch of college guys and made them believe that they were capable of achieving this, this qualifying that hadn't been done for 40 years. He was past that. I mean, he was tough, but the guys believed. The guys believed in it. The guys didn't go and bitch and moan, go, “Oh, we got to run again?” We knew if you want to be there and you want to accomplish this, this is what we have to do
I'm really proud to be a part of that group of guys, because that group of guys, I believe, are the ambassadors, the ones that understood that there was a responsibility in trying to help this game grow. And part of that was first being able to achieve this first big step in front of us, trying to qualify for the World Cup in 1990, which helped to lay the tracks for everything thereafter. When you look around the league, even today, you look around the game, and how many of those guys from that time period are still involved in a really meaningful way in the game?
It means a lot to me to be a part of that group, because we're all still ambassadors of it, we're all still helping it grow, we still have the same motivation. And I'm proud to be at least named amongst those guys, because there's a lot of really impactful people that were a part of that group.
SOCCER AMERICA: Do you often think back to that shot that should have beaten Walter Zenga?
PETER VERMES: I don't. But you know those movies where it's kind of like the guy has a chance to kind of rewrite history. This is his senior year and he was up to bat, two strikes and three balls and the bases were loaded, his team just needed to get the winning run or whatever? And he just struck out? And his life goes on and it's crap and whatever. And then he goes back and he hits the home run and blah blah blah, and it's all great.
You know, when I ever think to that moment, I think to myself -- and I really, truly believe this -- and that is that Italian team was so much better than we were. And there is a time when you have to be honest with yourself. You have to self-reflect, and when you do that -- I mean, you can self-reflect and bullshit yourself or you can self-reflect and be truly honest -- what I would say is that we got everything that we could out of that game and we didn't deserve anything more. And I don't mean that in a bad way. I mean that in a good way. They had the penalty shot [by Gianluca Vialli] they didn't score. They were all over us in a lot of ways.
What I would say is I think my shot was a representation of two things. One, it was we were close, but we're not there. And the other representation is that we're close, and you guys keep pushing because you're close. You know what I mean? Like you're on the verge of something. And, frankly, we were, we were on the verge of something. That's how I think about it, and I think that opportunity in that situation led me to where I am today. And so I don't need the movie to rectify it, if you know what I mean.
SOCCER AMERICA: Within that prism, when you look at the talent that we have today, the young players playing in Europe and well at big clubs, the kind of excitement that's developing around this U.S. team, just this current generation of players. How do you see that in terms of responsibility, and how gratifying is it to see?
PETER VERMES: I'll answer the second question first. It's an incredibly proud time because, look, it doesn't get said often, but I was the first player -- you know, I think [Paul] Caligiuri will try to challenge -- but I'm the first guy to play Division 1 soccer in Europe that was American-born. And to see that you have guys now playing in Champions League games and doing well and playing for some of the biggest clubs in the world, and they're American-born, they're American guys, it's tremendous. It's tremendous. I think it's fantastic. And I think, hey, there's a lot of us that sort of went that way when people would laugh, like, “What are you even thinking about going over here and doing this?” And we found a way.
And so now those guys are in a much different world, and they're starting to show that America does have players of this kind of quality. It brings a lot of pride to me. It really does.
On the other side is the area that I hope continues to find its way back to what we had. And that is it truly meant something to us. First off, to wear the jersey and to represent our country. It really, really meant something to us. It was everything to us. And we gave everything that we had. And I hope that standard is always met and that bar continues to raise with each cycle the players, because it is a privilege to play for your national team and to represent your country. And it should never be looked at anything less than that.
SOCCER AMERICA: With the infusion of foreign coaches and the way MLS has evolved, especially the last five years or so, is it more difficult to win than than it was before? And in what ways have the challenges changed?
PETER VERMES: I think it's always been difficult in this league to win, because there is so much parity. It's a little bit of a Catch-22 because there's a lot of parity. And there's also situations where you come up against teams that just obviously have the ability to outspend a lot of the other teams. And so they have the chance to kind of buy this quality.
But what happens is that there's times when that team can come in and run roughshod over a team. And then there's other times where the teams are playing against them is considered the underdog, and they find a way to battle and compete against that team. And so that's why I think it becomes a very difficult league to win in on a consistent basis. But I don't think that's changed from all the other years. I think the quality continues to go up, but I think the quality goes up, you know, across the board. And so everybody has to find a way to compete.
I think where the difficulty in this league is at the moment is that it's moving really fast in a lot of different areas, and I think that when you look at travel, climate, altitude, distances and the amount of competitions we're playing -- and that continues to increase -- and how the player is getting pulled so many different directions between their national duty for their country and then the duty for their club and then the multiple competitions they're in. That's where it's different and it's more difficult today than it probably has ever been.
SOCCER AMERICA: Especially with roster rules being what they are. In Europe, in such situations, you bring in more players. Can't do that here.
PETER VERMES: Correct. And we don't have that seamless transition where you can take kids from your second team and bring them up and play them in a game, which at some point we've got to get to that, because that's helping foster the development of these young players.
SOCCER AMERICA: You've certainly had success at Kansas City and experiences you couldn't have envisioned when you arrived in 2000. You won an MLS Cup championship as a player in 2000 and as a head coach in 2013. Does one mean more than the other? Or do you see them differently because your role was very different in each?
PETER VERMES: Yeah, it has a lot to do with the difference. When you're a player, as much as you are on a team, your responsibility is to worry about yourself and do your job, right? When you win it as a coach, you're responsible for all of it. You're responsible for every player, you're responsible for every staff member, you're responsible for a lot. And everything has to fit in place to get to there. And so I think the satisfaction at the end is much different as a coach than it is as a player.
I'm not going to say one's better than the other, but there's no doubt there's a much more encompassing satisfaction when you're a coach, just because of the amount of people that you have to get centered and focused on that goal. And that's not an easy thing to do over the course of the season. But what I will say is there's another piece, though, when I was a coach, and was that we've had an incredible ownership here [with Clifford Illig, Robb Heineman, Pat Curran, Greg Maday and the late Neal Patterson]. I spent a lot of time with them over the years and even leading up to 2013, and I was a consultant for them when they were considering buying the team, so I have known that from the very beginning of all this.
And I remember when I became the coach, my soul, my desire, my enthusiasm, my motivation increased so much more to want to win a championship for them to really feel what it's like to win, because it's a completely different feeling than building a company or what have you when you win something like that. It's just a different level of satisfaction. And it was great when we won in 2013 to see that satisfaction on the face of the owners, how they felt, that was a really important thing and and they deserved it.
And, you know, we've won quite a few Open Cups and things like that over the years. And all of those things, they celebrate because they know also this is why they got into this. And they also know how difficult it is to win. And so when you do, you need to enjoy it. And they sure have and they sure deserve it because they've been incredible owners, unbelievably committed to this city and the sport. And then the club. It's just incredible what they've done.
That was a big, big thing for me to be able to accomplish that for them.