Will dim season fuel Sporting KC to make changes, even at manager? We asked the owner

·6 min read
Nick Tre. Smith/file photo/Special to The Star

Late Sunday night, Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes walked onto the field at Children’s Mercy Park, and the club acknowledged a milestone none of his peers have reached: 500 matches in charge.

It’s a signature of a franchise’s stability, but only 24 hours later, not enough time to even appreciate the accomplishment, the club fell into a more unbalanced present.

As in, last place.

Sporting is uncharacteristically bad this season, worse than any other team in its league at the moment, for reasons we’ll explore. But off the top, we don’t want to lose the headline because that’s probably why you’re here:

This dud of a season will not affect Vermes’ long-term standing with the organization.

That’s not just my opinion.

From the owner:

“You know, I don’t read much of it, but people tell me how the social media stuff says I’m getting rid of Peter,” Sporting KC principal owner Cliff Illig told me recently, and then he chopped his hand through the air. “Ain’t gonna happen.”

Before being asked for his reasoning, Illig continued: “Peter is very thoughtful. He’s very well organized. He has a long-term plan — not only for what we do with the senior team, but what we do with the supply chain for younger players.

“So I’m not panicked or anything. We need to get through it. And I think we’ll come through a lot stronger than we were before.”

That initial social media reference came without prompt, by the way, because that’s where these kinds of reactionary calls for change have become most commonplace. It’s a bridge too far in this case, though it’s not the worst thing in the world to have a fan base so invested in a franchise once left for dead that they are angry about what they’re watching in 2022.

After all, there’s reason for some frustration. Sporting has obtained all of 16 points in 19 matches. The team has a losing record at home with the schedule more than half exhausted and, for the first time in eight seasons, it’s lost three straight home matches.

Even if losing striker Alan Pulido and midfielder Gadi Kinda to season-ending injuries contributed to the last-place standing, it would be oversimplification to deem those breaks the sole sources of these results. The issues stretch across all three lines, each of them too vacant of the sort of elite talent that has poured into the league in recent seasons.

Vermes, in his role as both manager and sporting director, owns the responsibility of the roster he constructed, as well as the preparation for those times — like right now — when not every member of that roster is available.

At times this season, Sporting KC has appeared to go through the motions. It was obvious enough that captain Johnny Russell earlier this year termed one half of play a disgrace, pathetic, unacceptable, embarrassing and a capitulation, and he hardly needed more than one breath to do it. After defining their 2021 season with comebacks, Sporting has yet to gain a point when conceding the first goal this year.

That’s the reason we’re having this state-of-the-union conversation now, in other words.

“Obviously, from an on-the-field standpoint, it’s disappointing,” Illig said. “We just got whipsawed between the two (designated players) out for the year. Not making excuses. This is sports. Stuff happens. ... You just have to make the adjustments, and we feel pretty good about how things are going to shape up (in the long term) with Peter in charge.”

Vermes’ handprints are woven into the fabric of an organization that transformed itself from an afterthought (and that’s being kind) when he arrived more than a decade ago, to one the city has embraced. Ironically, in that way, he’s created the passion that sparks some of the backlash he’s experiencing now.

But in the fuller tabulation, Sporting Kansas City has made the playoffs in 11 of the past 12 seasons, though it is heading toward its second miss in four. Since Vermes took over on a full-time basis his dual roles, Sporting has won four trophies. Yes, three of those are U.S. Open Cup titles, one the more coveted MLS Cup. The team is 4-for-4 in finals. Since his first full season in 2010, Sporting KC has finished with a negative goal differential only once (again, that will be twice after this season concludes).

There are few professional franchises that have achieved this kind of consistency in any sport, and that’s not a lesson I should need to share with anyone in this town, even as you’d certainly like to see some of the same continuity spread into the postseason more often. Those are the kinds of resumes you seek when looking to fill vacancies, not create them.

Moving forward with the full body of work — and that’s the phrase Illig used in highlighting Vermes — isn’t about rewarding the past success. It’s about studying past success and deeming that, guess what, it just might be an indicator of future success. It’s also about what should be an obvious admission — this season isn’t the norm.

The big picture has to account for something — for more than anything, really — even as we can all agree this group whiffed on 2022. Rather than change at the top, that type of admission will be the important piece in keeping 2022 an outlier to an otherwise consistent force. Sure, the Pulido and Kinda injuries, coming before the season even began, were curveballs. They just happen to occupy the goal-scoring and play-making positions Sporting needs most. I’ve heard that point, understand that point and won’t argue that point.

But this too is true: Sporting is often a model of getting the most out of what it has, and that is far from an accurate descriptor this year. And if two players can so significantly alter the course of the season, that’s an indictment of the surrounding pieces on the roster. Sporting brought in seven players this offseason — Ben Sweat, Uri Rosell, Logan Ndenbe, Kortne Ford, Robert Voloder, Marinos Tzionis and Nikola Vujnovic — and none has been a game-changing piece.

On a team that is last in MLS in scoring, that group of newcomers has combined for one goal. On a team that is third-to-last in goals allowed, five of those seven play on the defensive half of the field. One offseason cannot comprise that kind of track record on the whole. When it does, this is what you’re left with.

Two more additions — 22-year-old forward William Agada and 27-year-old midfielder Erik Thommy — are on the way this month. It’s looking more and more as though those arrivals will be too late, but the intention is to keep them around. Sporting will welcome back its two designated players next season, at the latest.

As a coach, Vermes has never missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, and the list of those more irked than he is by this year’s results is blank. Vermes has actually never finished in the bottom half of the league in back to back seasons.

You see, these are the kind of facts that spin an absurd element into any conversation about a potential change.

Turn that conversation here: How do you ensure 2022 is an anomaly? How do you ensure this talk is short-lived?