Sporting KC’s 2023 season on the brink (and stunning recovery) affirms Peter Vermes

Amid Sporting KC’s wretched start last season, going winless in its first 10 matches while scoring a measly three goals, some vocal fans took to booing the team off the field and chanting “Vermes out” in reference to longtime manager Peter Vermes.

They weren’t alone in their frustration and doubt. Principal owner Mike Illig told The Star’s Sam McDowell the situation was “embarrassing,” and the club contemplated a dramatic change

If Vermes was flinching inside, though, it wasn’t apparent. In fact, the fallout only seemed to fuel his resolve and conviction.

And not just in the sense that he has what he called a “vengeful” side as Sporting began to hoist itself out of the abyss into a stunning late-season run that proved to be the actual signature of the season. That defiant part of him flashed after Sporting on May 13 beat Minnesota 3-0 for its second straight win, compelling him, he said Tuesday, to have “my say” before fans in the Boulevard Member’s Club of Children’s Mercy Park.

“It’s who I am,” Vermes said. “I can’t play the two-faced game.”

But who he is is far more multifaceted and deep than that.

Something he demonstrated anew last season with an uncanny combination of steadfastness and adaptability that affirmed his resume — including one MLS Cup and three U.S Open Cups (and 11 postseason berths in the last 13 seasons) — and underscores why he’s now in charge for a 16th straight season.

Given that the substance and duration of his ongoing term perhaps is underappreciated, consider this:

In Sporting’s season opener at Houston last weekend, Vermes became the first MLS coach to reach the 500-match plateau. He’s the longest-tenured coach with one club in MLS history.

For that matter, he’s the fifth-longest currently tenured coach with one franchise in any of the five major American men’s sports leagues — behind only Gregg Popovich of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs (since 1996), Mike Tomlin of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers (2006), John Harbaugh of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens (2008) and Erik Spoelstra of the NBA’s Miami Heat (2008).

And, as of this season, he’s the longest-tenured pro coach with a Kansas City franchise, surpassing Hank Stram’s 15 seasons with the Chiefs that includes when they were the Dallas Texans.

Last season was testament to just why, and Vermes offered a glimpse at the subtle hows of it as he spoke about the constant need to adapt and adjust with the context of a broader scheme: His teams, he noted, always play the 4-3-3 with a holding defensive midfield.

“It’s just the way I play,” he said, speaking at Sporting’s preseason media day ahead of its home opener on Saturday. “But … there’s so many different nuances that go within that style of play that it can look so many different ways.”

When it was looking more and more like his ways either weren’t resonating or effective last season, Vermes saw something different.

Call it stubbornness or call it astute, but he proved correct.

All at once, Sporting was decimated by injuries and struggling to acclimate new players. For all else that might have been improved in the meanwhile, Vermes believed it was just a matter of time.

But he still had to keep the culture afloat, if there was hope to get to the other side that took them to the Western Conference semifinal.

“I really don’t see many teams coming back from that,” Sporting captain Johnny Russell said. “I think a lot of teams (would have) collapsed and their season’s over.”

Even with Vermes under what Russell called “immense pressure” at the time, he persisted in the message of belief.

Not just expressing hope, by the way, but true faith.

“What happens is that it takes so much work and so much time to build confidence, and you can lose confidence so quickly,” Vermes said. “And so when we weren’t getting the results, and the guys were feeling the pressure, I kept telling them, ‘Look, I’m here to tell you: You’re going to be fine, I believe in you guys.’

“It got to a point where I know I believed in them a lot more than they believed in themselves … But I truly did. Sometimes, it just takes a little time. And I know in this business not everybody wants to give you time. But that’s what it took.”

It also took a little something else mixed in.

“I think Peter changed last year,” Sporting star Daniel Salloi said, later adding, “I think he knows how to get to people. But what’s difficult is maybe you have a team for many years that responds differently than other teams, especially in today’s world.

“He comes from when he was a player; it was completely different how you triggered players than it is now.”

But Vermes, he said, had the “intelligence and knowledge to recognize he needs to evolve in that as well. And I think that last year was a perfect example. He kind of, like, took a step back but also controlled us in a good way. And it worked with us.”

Vermes will tell you that over the last several years he has put a premium on trying to understand how his players, from so many different cultures and backgrounds, are wired and motivated differently. And that adjusting to that is crucial to bringing out the best in them.

He’s also trying to get out of the business end of the operation, noting there is an ongoing search for a sporting director. He pointed to changing preseason training to “set a different tone,” presumably alluding to being more tactics-focused with a healthier team.

Meanwhile, though, he’s still a resolute leader — a trait burnished all the more after a season that ultimately had to be not just among his most challenging but most fulfilling and inspiring.

Along the way, longtime Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia said, he came to see that Vermes has even more resolve than he already thought he did.

“Last year was an incredibly difficult season for everyone, for him probably the most out of all of us,” Melia said. “But to stand up in very, very bad team moments and still show a willingness to kind of believe in us, I thought was impressive. …

“Not a lot of people probably would have done that in that scenario.”

But Vermes isn’t like a lot of people.

He’s a rarity to be appreciated — all the more after being so doubted last season.

“He saw the long game …” Russell said. “(And) I think we showed that we still had his back. We still wanted to play for him. And that remains the same. Nothing’s changed.”