Sporting KC won’t fire Peter Vermes, owner tells The Star. But something must change

The first time Peter Vermes interviewed with Sporting Kansas City, before the club had even adopted that name, he thought they would seek his help with managing some youth fields.

By week’s end, though, ownership had slid a piece of paper across the table, the drama fitting of a movie scene, and asked what job on the MLS team he wanted.

He pointed to the head coach.

That wouldn’t work, they told him before the about-face three years later, because that job could expose him to an eventual dismissal.

I’ve shared that nearly two-decade old story once before, but never in this context:

Has that time come?

He’s aware you’re asking that question — and aware that you’re probably providing your own answer to it. So is ownership, for that matter.

Of course you’re asking that question. We all are. Sporting KC occupies last place in the Western Conference with Vermes’ 15th full season nearly half-exhausted.

While his initial 12 produced four trophies and the third most points in all of Major League Soccer over that stretch, this one didn’t come completely out of nowhere.

It is a 2023 redux, absent the excuse of an injury-plagued roster.

There’s a staleness to the club, and, unironically, that’s not the last time I’ll use that word in this column.

But first, let’s get to the primary reason you’re probably here: No, Sporting KC is not firing Peter Vermes, owner Mike Illig told me this week, and it does not appear as though the club is particularly close to making that move.

Instead, Illig says, the makeover will come in a different form. There’s the opportunity for a roster renovation this offseason — three-fourths of the roster is either out of contract or carrying a team option — and Illig says the club is prepared to take advantage. It’s the potential for an overhaul, and one they say they will embrace.

We’ll see. It’s past due.

But the point, at least at the top here before we delve further, is ownership has concluded it prefers Vermes be an instrumental part in shaping that overhaul rather than a casualty of it.


“He’s accountable for all results at the end of the day, and he knows it and he wears it,” Illig said. “But if I’m rebuilding, Peter’s good at rebuilding. I still have a tremendous amount of confidence in Peter’s ability to be who we need him to be.”

Earlier this week, I walked into a Kansas City restaurant to meet with Illig, this topic pre-arranged. He opened with the obvious.

“It’s déjà vu all over again, isn’t it,” he said.

Well, yes. Illig and I had an eerily similar conversation almost exactly one year ago. Same topic. A struggling team. A manager’s future in question. That team eventually turned it around once they had the full complement of the roster.

This one already has its healthy roster, for the most part. And yet, we meet again.

Troubling, isn’t it, I wondered out loud.

“Yes,” Illig replied. “None of us expected to be here.”

We’d be kidding ourselves to think of this as a short slump. In a 29-team league, Sporting KC ranks 24th in points per match since the start of 2022.

That covers 2 1/2 years — with ownership kindly sandwiching a 5-year extension for Vermes into the center of it. The back end of 2023, when they came an eyelash shy of an appearance in the conference finals, looks more the outlier inside the last 30 months.

A model of consistency has transformed into an organization in flux —one mirrored in a state of, what’s the word again, staleness.

How did this happen?

What’s next?

If the manager doesn’t change, what will change?

It’s important you hear from ownership throughout this column, because I realize those are the targets of the (legitimate) questions you have.

My conversation with Illig a year ago, for example, tapped into a consistent phrase: Vermes did not have his full “toolbox,” a reference to the most expensive players on his roster being sidelined with injuries. If that rationale has been subtracted now, and it mostly has been, why has the same conclusion to retain the coaching staff been reached?

“I think the message is ‘for the time being.’ We’re always evaluating,” Illig said. “Everybody going to have their opinion of what we should do, and the easy button (to press) is to fire Peter. But in the scheme of things, am I better off with someone else leading a reset, or do I allow Peter, who’s done it before, to reset?

“I don’t generally agree with a change in the middle of the season. It’s incredibly disruptive, other than sending a message.”

The inverse is true, as well, though. There is a message in sticking with the status quo and expecting different results.

To which Illig replied and underscored: There will be change, just not the change that has developed its own hashtag on social media.

Illig is adamant that he anticipates the roster will embrace a vast overhaul over the next three transfer windows, unlike anything the club has seen in the past decade, as he phrases it, and the opportunity is there. The expiring contracts will provide uncertainty but flexibility. More on that in a minute, because it’s an important component in all of this.

Back to the job description for a moment, though. While Sporting is sticking by Vermes as a manager, the club remains committed to stripping away other titles, most notably whichever one technically places him in charge of player personnel. Vermes has long worn too many hats — ones that put him in charge of the day-to-day management of the team, the long-term roster building and the academy, among others.

Whatever you think of his job evaluation, we have to agree there are too many jobs to evaluate.

Sporting is late to that party, by the way, and their late arrival is in part because of a delay after they attempted to hire Gavin Wilkinson before the public rebuke.

“It is an absolute need, and it is going to be filled,” Illig said.

That ongoing search ought to focus on a candidate who can fully remove the personnel job from his plate rather than taking a small bite.

The days of one person — any one person — holding that many roles in MLS have passed. In fact, over the past few years, there’s a lot that has passed SKC by.

That’s the crux of the problem, the common thread that weaves through nearly every pressure point.

In some ways, the club hasn’t moved on from what sparked its success, even as that success has moved on from the club.

Sporting, through Vermes, built that model of consistency — the one that the league’s commissioner once used as an example for its future teams — but as the rest of the league grew and evolved, Sporting has remained idle.

A key example: The days of creating your own capital for acquiring players with in-league trades — such as parting with Dom Dwyer and Ike Opara during the peak of their careers in exchange for allocation money — as a primary driver of roster building are long gone. It’s not enough.

The rest of MLS teams are shopping outside the league, comfortable to pay a premium, while Sporting KC hasn’t reached that checkout counter for awhile now.

The club has navigated three straight transfer windows — two years — without paying a transfer fee to add a starter. That’s despite losing playmaking midfielder Gadi Kinda last year, a departure that inexplicably came without a replacement.

To be frank, it’s a bit baffling that’s not a bigger talking point of the Sporting conversation. If you’re diagnosing how it becomes so stagnant on the field, don’t overthink it — it has been stagnant in the transfer market, with staff, with players.

“If you focus on how we’ve done it historically, Peter’s always done more with less,” Illig said. “We’ve gotten players on free (transfers) or taken reclamation projects and turned them into stalwarts.

“When there is a need to spend, we’re not afraid to spend.”

And now?

“This seems to be a moment that warrants spending, given there’s been some latency in participating in the last three transfer windows,” Illig said. “Let’s see how the next three transfer windows go.

“Because it’s time, right?”

Time, as in this summer, for starters, Illig said. The team is most closely looking for central defense and winger help. Any makeover would not come in one swoop, he noted.

But that has to be part of the internal response. Regardless of who is in charge — Vermes, a replacement, whoever — that’s a reality. It’s why the narrative that one broad stroke of a change at the top is simplistic.

The other hand? Pointing in that direction does not absolve those standing in another.

Whether or not Vermes is part of Sporting’s 2024 problem, it’s factual to say he has not provided a solution. Or at least that he has not yet.

This roster has not been altered enough, as I mentioned, but I’ll also remind you it is nearly the same group that proved capable of a deep playoff run just last fall, nearly the same one that produced the best record in the Western Conference over a five-month stretch last summer, and, heck, the exact one that started this season playing some pretty good soccer, even if the results didn’t necessarily show it.

But what was in that room has since been lost, and with it any sort of confidence or determination. Here’s something I never thought I’d write about a Vermes-led team: The veterans play without a lot of energy. They’re as boring to watch as they are frustrating.

Their identity — born from his identity — used to be the unrelenting effort. You might beat Sporting, but it was going to take every ounce you had because you knew you were going to get every ounce they had.

The same manager who deserves credit for that identity has to absorb some blame for the one that plays without any semblance of urgency — even when they’re trailing in a game. So does player leadership, by the way.

Vermes has called out his team’s effort more than once, but it’s been take-your-pick on when to speak up. It’s not just about the roster. It’s about what that roster is giving and willing to give — enough that I asked Illig if he can be sure Vermes hasn’t lost the room.

“No, I know he hasn’t,” Illig said. “I’ve talked to a lot of the guys on that. No one has said that. In fact, they’ve gone out of their way to (say) that’s not the case.”

Vermes has recently benched his former starting front threeAlan Pulido, Johnny Russell and Daniel Salloi, three of the four most expensive players on his roster — and it’s gotten so bad this year that my only question of that decision is why it took so long to make any sort of sweeping change, if for nothing else than to search for a spark. As those three have combined for $6 million but just six goals, Sporting has whiffed on an opportunity to develop the depth of the roster.

Everyone has a piece of this. You could rearrange the order of my critique, and I wouldn’t argue. But I would argue if you don’t include all of it.

The big-picture evaluation should prompt a consensus — there’s a lot of blame to go around — but where that evaluation leads will certainly prompt anything but a consensus.

Sporting, for now and for the last 15-plus years, has determined the manager won’t change.

But something must.