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Are Sporting KC Rotten at the Core?

A look at Sporting Kansas City’s many potential problems that may still leave us with more questions than answers.



Sporting KC, Children's Mercy Park
Children's Mercy Park | Credit: SevenOne Mag

This is a guest post by community member Jeffrey Jarchow (formerly J.Wm at TBT). The thoughts and opinions are his own. 

There’s a local park, with fields and lakes and picnic areas. Central to this park is a large tree. Everyone gathers there and marvels at the strength, the endurance, the beauty of the tree. Seasons come and go, but the tree is always there.

One night there’s a windstorm, nothing that people hadn’t seen before – but they go to the park and the tree has been toppled. How could this be, they ask? Looking closer, they find the stately tree was a façade – it was rotten at its center.

Is Sporting Kansas City that tree? Let’s examine the various aspects of the organization to see if fertilization and judicious pruning is the answer or if a new planting is required.


SKC have been the beneficiaries of stable ownership. There haven’t been significant changes since the team was purchased from the Hunts. Ownership also isn’t a sideshow; there’s no Merritt Paulsen distracting from the franchise. This allows for steady direction but can also result in a lack of creativity and/or fresh ideas. Such continuity can be very positive – see the Chiefs, Patriots, baseball Cardinals – or it can be disastrous (the Rockies and Pirates to name two).

A strong franchise has a ‘next-man-up’ mentality. A trusted lieutenant moves along and there’s a seasoned assistant ready to step into the vacancy. However, with this comes the possibility of becoming inbred. Mike Brown didn’t have a fraction of his father Paul’s football acumen in Cincinnati; neither did Bill Bidwill in Arizona. Is Mike Illig the right person to help lead SKC, or does he merely have the proper surname?

Jake Reid became president in 2016; SKC were US Open Cup champions the following year. Yet, he hasn’t been able to build on what Robb Heineman built. Results have gotten steadily worse in the five seasons since: although there have been three seasons in the top five of MLS, there have been two sub-20 finishes with no USOC championships. Compare this to three top fives and never finishing lower than 10th in the seven previous years.

Does a background in revenue generation adequately prepare one for club presidency? The Ronaldo move is illustrative: great for merchandise sales, ticket sales, and buzz; however, it was not at all what the team needed. Either the executive needed to put the brakes on such a plan – or it was a very telling move, that ownership and senior management were more concerned with increasing profits than putting a competitive team on the pitch.


Some of these concerns extend to the technical staff. There’s a lack of turnover in the staff; additions all seem to be former players (who played under Peter Vermes) or those with past connections to the team. Many successful franchises see their assistants poached, but not SKC. Why is Kerry Zavagnin still here? Yes, he’s a Sporting legend (and this is not at all a suggestion that he’s a problem) but if he’s so highly regarded why hasn’t he been in demand elsewhere? Paulo Nagamura did land a managerial slot in Houston but was fired. Is the SKC approach ineffective or simply out of vogue throughout the league?

A stable group that tends to not look outside itself is susceptible to groupthink. Similar backgrounds and experiences can lead a group to come to similar conclusions, even if the group members see themselves as independent. Consider how Vermes bristles at or evades media questions. Is he unaccustomed to being questioned; are his staff afraid to voice contrary opinions? If not, are they listened to?

Does Peter Vermes have too much authority? Combining the Sporting Director and Manager roles in a single person sounds as if it’s a good idea, guaranteeing there’s no disconnect between player acquisition and the needs of the squad on the pitch. However, the reality appears to be far different.

Why can’t Vermes the SD find players Manager Vermes will play? How many signings languish on the bench, not making an impact? How many players are brought into the academy or SKC II and never sniff the senior roster? Admittedly, identifying potential that is realized is an inexact science. For a team that recognizes it doesn’t have the intrinsic appeal of larger, more glamorous destinations and needs to develop from within, the academy has been ineffective. MLS Next Pro is not providing a pipeline – and SKC’s U22s don’t seem to be contributing except in bit roles. Either the Director has whiffed on the signings, or the Manager is unwilling to incorporate them.

The SD isn’t a monolith, though. His VP of Player Personnel is Brian Bliss, another former player with ties to SKC and Vermes. Although his resume looks impressive, with experience on the international stage and MLS silverware 15 years ago, his most recent results before coming on board are far less so. He oversaw Chicago turning into a dumpster fire, yet Vermes thought he was the guy that could help.

What has Bliss brought? The team’s average position is 10th since he’s came onboard in 2016, with 2 sub-20 finishes. There’s the one USOC Cup in 2017 (with a squad that was 11th overall). SKC have missed the playoffs by a wide margin two of the last four years, and are well on their way to missing again. Is it a coincidence, or are Bliss’ contributions leading the decline?

One bright spot appears to be Sead Karaselimović, Director of Scouting and player recruitment. He’s Paris-based, and SKC have had more success in finding players in lower European leagues. Is it enough, though? Short-term, certainly, but there’s nothing to keep other teams from mining the same leagues – and then we circle back to SKC’s recruiting obstacles.

The technical staff seem to have the inability to imagine or implement new approaches, or even to recognize when changes are needed.

(A quick aside: many readers are going to have far more technical knowledge than this author. I’m not going to delve into whether a 4-4-2 would be a better fit for these personnel than a 4-3-3, or if it makes sense to use a false 9 or a double pivot. Those are topics far beyond my pay grade. You don’t, however, need to be a Cordon Bleu Chef to know when a meal isn’t good, though.)

Do the staff even know anything different? This is hyperbole – of course they do. Is it hubris that they don’t even try? In fairness, they’ve morphed into 4-5-1 on defense this year, and it looked as if they were using a four-man front line at the end of the Colorado match. However, just because something worked 6 years ago doesn’t mean it’s appropriate now. It’s fair to ask if SKC have the players to effectively implement Vermes’ 4-3-3. If not – why is that?

SKC are 3-6-1 in postseason since MLS Cup. They’ve played ten postseason matches in nine seasons; seven seasons if you only count seasons where they qualified. They’re primarily one and done. Whatever was done in the past is no longer effective, especially if your goal (as stated) is silverware, not merely getting an invite to the dance.

The Greatest Strength, and the Warning Signs Within It

This article has looked at some of the perceived weakness of the organization; are there strengths, reasons to think the tree might still be viable? Location isn’t one from a recruiting standpoint, though players tend to speak well about their time here. The World Cup coming to KC in 2026 will certainly raise the profile to some degree; it won’t hurt and might help.

The Compass Minerals National Performance Center is state of the art. No doubt that is a selling point for the team. However, that’s not a sustainable advantage; there’s nothing keeping another franchise from duplicating it, though it hasn’t yet happened.

The recent results aren’t attractive. This wasn’t the case ten years ago. Players want to play for a winner, and knew they had a chance to compete for championships here. Conversely, a squad that is mid-table at best is a tougher sell.

Passionate fans are a huge plus, but there are dangerous vibes there too.

The game day experience is still organic. This provides an energy that doesn’t exist when everything is choreographed. Thankfully, SKC hasn’t yet embraced the slick corporate presentations of, say, Atlanta. However, enthusiasm in stadium seems to be forced and waning. The DJ, the guy who makes the announcements on the message board – is this part of a trend towards to a more scripted experience, or just what a younger, growing demographic prefers?

The Cauldron chants and songs haven’t changed in ten years. Do they need new blood? Some nights this season it sounds as if the South Stand is livelier than the vaunted Cauldron. The KCC is certainly no longer intimidating. At the Seattle match they got punked by Jordan Morris; this would have been unthinkable only a few seasons ago.

Is the Cauldron tamer? Are they afraid to push the envelope? Are they being sanitized by the club? An X-rated section isn’t the answer, but there should be an edge to a supporters group. Is the more reserved nature a byproduct of the Ultras getting banned for the incident early last season? The club has made it clear they will enforce some standard of conduct. It wasn’t publicized exactly what caused the ban, but there had to have been something beyond the statements publicly attributed to the group (“Not good enough” and “We deserve better”).

Without passion – preferably adoration, but even anger – what’s left is apathy. A dispirited fan base that sees no hope. A disinterested fan base that will find other things to do. A disengaged fan base that will be difficult to win back. A death spiral that leaves ownership wondering when and where it all went wrong.

Is the SKC tree rotten at its core? The signs are there – the canaries in the coal mine are falling silent. Is the right team in place to make the necessary changes? Their inaction and unwillingness to even acknowledge issues would suggest not.

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