Peter Vermes and Alan Pulido - Sporting KC at Houston Dynamo - Oct. 3, 2020

Peter Vermes previews Minnesota battle: "They’re a lot better than when we played them last time"

On the eve of his team’s monumental Western Conference Semifinal showdown with Minnesota United FC on Thursday night at Children’s Mercy Park, Sporting Kansas City Manager Peter Vermes joined Sports Radio 810 WHB host Soren Petro for a wide-ranging interview focused on the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.

Sporting and Minnesota will renew their regional rivalry on primetime network television, squaring off at 7:31 p.m. CT Thursday with live national coverage on FOX. The winner will progress to the Western Conference Final against Seattle Sounders FC next Monday, Dec. 7.

As the highest seed still alive in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, Sporting Kansas City holds homefield advantage for the remainder of the postseason. That could bode well for obvious reasons—among them the fact that Sporting boasts a perfect 6-0 home record versus Minnesota since the Loons joined MLS in 2017.

But Vermes asserts that this particular version of Minnesota United FC—the one that boasts a nine-game unbeaten streak and hasn’t loss since Sept. 23—is the best to ever visit Children’s Mercy Park.

“They’re a lot better than when we played them last time,” Vermes said of a Loons outfit that took a 1-0 road loss to Sporting on Sept. 13. “For one, they are healthy across the board. (Emanuel) Reynoso is fit and he has fit in well—he’s pulling all of the strings. The way that their front four goes forward, there’s an incredible amount of improvisation and creativity.

“At the same time, we’ve got some quality ourselves. The big thing is being attentive to them and trying to minimize their counterattacks.”

A prevailing storyline surrounding the contest is the fitness of Sporting striker Alan Pulido. The Mexican star suffered an injury toward the end of the regular season and missed Sporting’s first playoff game against San Jose. When asked about Pulido’s current status, Vermes kept his cards close to the vest.

“It’s truly a day-to-day thing because whenever you increase the load on the player, it’s all about what the reaction is the next day,” Vermes said of Pulido. “His load has been increased each day, and each day we’re monitoring how he responds. The thing you have to consider is, as much as his knee is doing well and he’s ahead of schedule, he’s also been out four to five weeks. So there’s an overall fitness piece that I have to consideration. What I don’t want to do is stick him into the game and then he hurts something else. That’s what we’re trying to manage in figuring out when to bring him back. That’s why it’s day-to-day.”

In addition to looking ahead, Vermes also reflected on Sporting’s previous playoff encounter against the San Jose Earthquakes—a thrilling 3-3 draw on Nov. 22 that was decided via penalty kicks. The hero that day, of course, was Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia, who saved all three San Jose penalty attempts to spur his side to victory.

“Never as a player or manager have I seen a keeper stop the first three PKs—and to do it the way he did it. He was so commanding,” Vermes said of Melia’s penalty-saving heroics. “It takes a lot to impress me on the field and I will say—that impressed the heck out of me. That was big-time.”

Vermes spoke glowingly of Melia’s career trajectory—an unlikely path that the goalkeeper forged as a long-time backup and temporary league pool goalkeeper before blossoming into a star with Sporting as a 2015 newcomer.

“There is no one way to get to the top,” Vermes said. “There are so many different paths, and Tim has shown that you can forge your own way there. The bottom line is that you have to work your butt off, and then when the opportunity comes, you’ve got to be ready for it and you’ve got to execute at that moment.”