Real Salt Lake: Sporting KC transformed under Vermes (with video)
Sporting KC finished No. 2 in East and are built for the future.
Published: December 4, 2013 02:35PM
Updated: December 4, 2013 11:18PM
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Sporting Kansas City's Oriol Rosell (20) defends against Real Salt Lake's Joao Plata, right, in the first half during an MLS soccer game on Saturday, July 20, 2013, in Sandy, Utah. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Peter Vermes has been on a journey, several of them actually, during his time associated with professional soccer in Kansas City.

The 47-year-old, now in his fifth season at the helm of his former club, Sporting Kansas City, helped the franchise win its only title with the then Wizards in 2000. He was named the MLS Defender of the Year and earned a spot on the MLS Best XI before retiring two years later.

But Real Salt Lake’s opponent in Saturday’s MLS Cup final took time to rebuild its own brand under Vermes, who was the club’s technical director for three years before being named interim manager in 2009. Sporting took its lumps in 2009 and 2010, when it failed to qualify for the postseason.

Things suddenly took a turn.

It made a run to the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2011. A year later, a 63-point Sporting KC side crashed out of the playoffs in the quarterfinals in a disappointing loss to postseason rival Houston.

Sporting took the next step this season.

“It’s obviously been a tremendous experience to live through, for sure,” Vermes said.

Sporting Kansas City, spearheaded by a talented core group with Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Benny Feilhaber, Claudio Beiler and Aurelien Collin, is in its third MLS Cup final in franchise history. The East’s No. 2 seed found its best form at the most opportune time of the year.

It’s a long cry from a few years ago when Sporting was trying to find its new identity, both as a team and a franchise.

“You’ve seen a club go from 19th on the list in most categories, and I don’t mean just on-the-field type things, I mean merchandising, ticket sales ... we’ve made a significant turnaround in all aspects of the club,” Vermes said. “So much of it has to do with our ownership group, their vision and commitment.”

Sporting’s patented approach on the field, coupled with rising U.S. national team stars Zusi and Besler, have formed a foundation to build around, even with the recent departures of stars Roger Espinoza and Kei Kamara to Europe.

“We have a group of guys that are very committed to the philosophy of the team,” Vermes said. “When there’s one man’s absence, there’s another man’s opportunity.”

Sporting forward Dom Dwyer, whose goal against Houston propelled his side into the MLS Cup final, said the Kansas City community has bought into the progression of this core group of players.

“It’s huge for the city,” he said. “I’ve only been here two years, but I’ve seen it grow. A lot of people are just not saying it’s the Chiefs or the Royals — it’s also Sporting.”

Much has been made about the different styles of the two sides in the MLS Cup — RSL’s attempt to be as fluid as possible versus SKC’s penchant for physical, aggressive play that led the club to lead the MLS in fouls committed.

Jason Kreis sees the matchup differently.

“I think it’s mostly just about fight,” he said. “It’s about willingness to do whatever it takes for each other to keep the opposing team out of the goal. And they’ve been very, very good at it the past couple years ... a very well-organized team, a well-coached team and they’re all on the same page.”

How Sporting Kansas City got here

No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference

Regular season • 58 points (17-10-7)

Eastern Conference semifinal • Defeated New England on 4-3 aggregate

Eastern Conference final • Defeated Houston on 2-1 aggregate

Leading scorer • Claudio Bieler, 10 goals

Leading assist man • Graham Zusi, 8 assists

MLS Cup

RSL at Sporting KC

Saturday, 2 p.m.

TV: ESPN