Ten days before his team takes the field for a Western Conference quarterfinal showdown against the San Jose Earthquakes, Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes joined MLS ExtraTime for a wide-ranging discussion with host Andrew Wiebe that fans can watch below.
Sporting has earned a No. 1 seed for the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs during an unprecedented year in which MLS clubs have navigated a variety of difficult circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s the year of inconsistency,” Vermes said. “I think the most difficult thing in sports is that coaches and players live for consistency. That’s what they’re striving for in everything that they do. When you have none of that, it is a challenge every single day.”
After busting out of the gates with consecutive wins in late February and early March, Sporting and the rest of MLS were out of action for four months before returning to the pitch in July at the MLS is Back Tournament in Walt Disney World. The last phase of the season consisted of a congested schedule in home markets, and although the month of September was turbulent, Sporting caught fire down the stretch by going 6-1-1 in their last eight games.
In 2019, Sporting’s club-record eight-year playoff ended with a 22nd-place finish in the Supporters’ Shield standings and an 11th-place finish in the West. Vermes’ men climbed to third in the Shield table and first in the West this season, good for the biggest year-over-year improvement in league history. Vermes attributed part of the 2019 setback to injuries but also said that Sporting has benefited from a number of breakout players across the roster in 2020.
“It’s hard to try to achieve success and be consistent when you’ve got 15 players out injured,” he said. “Even now, we have four players out who are all mainstays. Felipe Gutierrez has been out all year. (Alan) Pulido has basically played in 11 of 21 games. (Graham) Zusi got an injury after he played a ball, so he got surgery and he’s out for months now. Gadi Kinda is out and I’m hoping he’ll return for this first playoff game. Those are all starters—the money guys, if you will.
“This year, the difference has been that our young guys have really taken a big step forward. They took a jump I never expected them to take as fast as they did. I expected them to (improve), I just didn’t expect it to happen as fast as it’s happening at the moment.”
Despite their perch atop the West, Wiebe pointed out that select pundits and fans across the league have been hesitant to give Sporting credit for their accomplishment—in part because of the unbalanced MLS schedule. Vermes, of course, is undeterred by the doubters.
“You don’t achieve first place because you’re a bad team. I’ve been doing this for a long time, both as a player and a manager. I don’t know how that happens. If we were a one-hit wonder—a team that had been poor over a number of years and then suddenly, out of nowhere, we achieved this? OK, sure, doubt it.
“At the end, I don’t really care. What matters is how we think about our team, how our guys think about themselves and how they go into their games. Just look at our last game of the season where we’re playing in a blizzard away from home. We have to win to get first place. First off, that’s our rival. Salt Lake is one of our biggest rivals—I think still a really good team and a team that always gets up to play us. We haven’t had a lot of success there and we go into that environment and find a way to win in a very, very difficult situation. And by the way, we changed the way we played to win that game. I had to throw our game plan out of the window because of the conditions on the field, and the guys were able to change on a dime.”
Moving forward, Vermes’ sole focus isn’t what the media are saying about his team. It’s the San Jose Earthquakes. The Round One showdown is slated for 3 p.m. CT on Nov. 22 at Children’s Mercy Park, pitting the hosts against an up-and-down San Jose outfit that placed eighth in the West under head coach Matias Almeyda (click here for tickets).
“It’s a new season now,” Vermes said. “Whether you’re first or last into the playoffs, it doesn’t really matter. It’s a new season. Our game on the 22nd is a final, and that’s how we have to approach it. San Jose—I don’t care what anybody says—I actually think they’re a good team. They work their butts off on the field, they have a good mentality and they play with their manager in mind. Everybody can say what they want, but when you get into the playoffs, it’s very difficult.”
When asked to provide an injury update on leading scorer Alan Pulido, who joined Sporting in last December on a club-record transfer fee, Vermes kept his cards close to his vest but praised the Mexican for his exceptional professionalism since arriving in Kansas City.
“I never expected his work ethic to be as high-level as it is,” Vermes said of Pulido. “I never expected him to compete the way he does every single day in training and in everything that we do. He really cares. He really cares, and that has been an incredible example for our team.”
As for Gianluca Busio, an 18-year-old Sporting KC Academy product who has blossomed into a regular starter in 2020, Vermes was just as complimentary. Busio has played no less than three different positions over the course of the season—holding midfielder, central midfielder and winger—and his head coach has been pleased with the teenager’s performances in each spot.
“From game to game, he was able to keep the physical, technical, tactical and psychological (aspects) at a high level. Even now, I don’t want to consider leaving him off the field because he’s played so well. You want to get your best players on the field, and he’s one of those guys.
“I’ve been incredibly impressed that he’s been able to play multiple positions on the field at a really, really high level and excel. It tells you a lot about his attitude and his soccer IQ. Those things have taken a huge leap forward.”