Sporting KC's Peter Vermes reaches 600th MLS game: "I have a fear of failure"

Peter Vermes never wanted to leave the MetroStars.

A New Jersey native – albeit growing up much closer to Philadelphia than North Jersey where the MetroStars were based – Vermes found a home with the club upon returning from Europe to play in MLS' inaugural 1996 season. He spent just that one year with the team, though, before being traded to the Colorado Rapids in exchange for Kerry Zavagnin and a player to be named later.

Vermes was less than happy and even blamed Zavagnin, given that the MetroStars sought him in return and, ostensibly, valued him more.

“I didn’t want to leave the MetroStars, I was pissed," Vermes told MLSsoccer.com during a lengthy interview this week. "I thought of Kerry like it was his fault. I wanted to kick his ass, is what it came down to.”

Vermes spent a few seasons in Colorado before being shipped off to the Kansas City Wizards, a team then regarded as among the worst in MLS. Vermes wasn't too keen on that, either, but off he went to join his new club in Bradenton, Florida for preseason ahead of the 2000 season.

When he showed up and checked into his hotel, Vermes had no clue who his roommate was going to be. He got to his room, saw empty beds and, thinking nothing of it, went to sleep. Vermes' roommate, unbeknownst to the then-veteran center back, had arrived for preseason overnight.

Opening his eyes the next morning, Vermes looked over to discover his new roommate was none other than Zavagnin.

"We've been friends ever since," Vermes said happily. Zavagnin has been an assistant on Vermes’ Sporting Kansas City coaching staff since 2009.

Those were Peter Vermes' first memories of joining the club he has become synonymous with.

The next morning was his first training session, the first time he represented the club in any capacity, the first steps on the road to changing their culture and direction. His first year, Kansas City won MLS Cup and the Supporters' Shield. They were the club's first-ever trophies, a decade before their rebrand and move to Children's Mercy Park.

Now Sporting's head coach and sporting director, Vermes will embark on his 600th combined MLS game as a player or coach on Friday night against Orlando City SC (6:30 p.m. CT | FS1, FOX Deportes). He's second in league history in combined games played and coached, trailing only Jason Kreis.

“I truly did not know," Vermes said of Friday's milestone. "The only thing it says to me … is I’m still around. I’m still participating in the game, helping it grow. I’m very proud of where Major League Soccer is today.”

After retiring following the 2002 season, Vermes officially re-joined Sporting in 2006 as technical director. He was named interim head coach in 2009, kicking off a remarkably long reign in a field where lasting more than a couple of years is perceived as an achievement. Indeed, Vermes is the eighth-longest active tenured manager in the world.

"That stat doesn’t necessarily mean so much, except for my longevity here," Vermes said. "It doesn’t just have one meaning, it has multiple meanings. It shows I’m a committed person to what I set out to do. It says I believe in the project I’m with, it says the people who hired me believe in what I’m doing. Those are the important things to me. And to be able to stay somewhere for this period of time, you have to have some type of success. That’s what it means to me.”

Vermes has enjoyed plenty of success. Despite possessing far from the biggest budget in MLS, he's helped build the club into a powerhouse, one that's failed to qualify for the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs just once in the past 10 seasons. He's brought home several trophies, too, including an MLS Cup (2013) and three US Open Cups (2012, '15, '17). Nearly every piece of silverware Sporting have lifted involves Vermes either on the sideline or on the field.

His public persona is as something of a drill sergeant. He cuts the figure of an intense, demanding and controlled presence on the touchline. That aura has followed him off the pitch. He joked that his wife often gets asked if he’s really like that all of the time. Players and their families are surprised to learn he’s not always the intense guy they see on television.

Vermes is also the face of arguably the best MLS-related gif. Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star wrote a wonderful story about it at the time, where Vermes joked "that was a little Jersey coming out, for sure."

“To be honest, I don’t really think about it,” Vermes said with a laugh. “I can’t hide who I am.”

Vermes works insatiably, describing his drive to win by borrowing a couple of quotes from Michael Jordan during our interview. He noted he has a type-A personality, which would surprise absolutely no one.

It all fuels the success he’s enjoyed in Kansas City, keeping his ideas fresh and providing a bottomless reserve of motivation to prevent stagnation. After missing the playoffs in 2019 for the first time since 2011, Vermes immediately guided the club back to a part of the standings fans are more accustomed to, finishing first in the Western Conference in 2020.

The goals haven't changed in 2021, nor have the expectations. With star striker Alan Pulido leading the lines, and with longtime Sporting veterans like right back Graham Zusi, midfielder Roger Espinoza and goalkeeper Tim Melia still aboard, the club's expected to again compete near the top of the Western Conference.

Vermes has adapted with the league as it's changed. His early success came via a core built through the SuperDraft, headlined by center back Matt Besler, Zusi and many more. Then in a a notable departure from that strategy, Pulido arrived last winter as the club smashed their transfer record to acquire an in-prime Mexico international. All the while, Sporting have been one of the top clubs in MLS at developing and giving minutes to homegrown talent, as midfielder Gianluca Busio and fullback Jaylin Lindsey have carved out important roles with the team.

“You have to have the inner drive to have to want to compete and be successful. … For me, it’s out of fear,” Vermes admitted. “I have a fear of failure, I know myself. That’s an inner drive, or call it an insecurity, call it whatever you want. I’m really fortunate. I’m good at some things, I'm not good at some things. I’m good at hiring smart people around me. They are extremely motivated also.”

Zavagnin has been there almost as long as Vermes, while fellow assistant Zoran Savic also joined in 2009. Technical director Brian Bliss returned to the club in 2016.

"Look, I’m in a very volatile profession," Vermes said. "I don’t take my job for granted, I’m incredibly fortunate and privileged to do what I do every day. I really believe that. That’s not just a freakin’ layup to say because it sounds good."

One day, of course, it'll come to an end. It's not likely to be soon, but Vermes has the future of the club on his mind all the time, not just for when he's in charge.

“It sounds crazy, but I think about succession planning at the club," Vermes said. "I spent a long time building something here. Whenever I leave, I don’t want to see it fall and crumble apart. I want to leave it in a place where whoever takes over, can take it to the next level.”

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