“Patience is required for crafting a work that resonates and contains all that we have to offer.” Rick Rubin, record executive & producer, author
After Sporting Kansas City had capped off an eye-opening run to gain home-field advantage in the Western Conference Playoff Wild Card match – a first in MLS history for a team who had gone winless in their first ten – a handful of players remained in the locker room. The 3-1 Saturday night victory over Minnesota United had finished; the post-game celebrations, a visit to the Members’ Club by a few, and the press conference had been completed.
One of those players was 16-year veteran Graham Zusi.
To his right, 27-year-old winger Daniel Salloi was asked by Daniel Sperry of the Kansas City STAR, “How have you guys stuck strong together throughout even in the harder times?”
“I’m going to be honest. I don’t even know,” began Salloi.
“The thing that is really hard and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning to work on becoming yourself.” Anna Quindlen, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and best-selling author
Sporting Kansas City Manager and Sporting Director Peter Vermes heard the boos. He heard the “Vermes Out” chants and the “Hey Vermes, it’s all your fault” from The Cauldron during and after game #10 played on April 29, a 2-0 home loss to Montreal Impact.
And so did Sporting Club’s ownership. That group of six had questions. Previous to Salloi’s comments after last Saturday night’s match, Vermes revealed some about his interactions with ownership around that challenging time before and after the Montreal loss.
“I appreciate the fact that our ownership group had faith in the staff because it’s very easy at times in our profession when you don’t get results, to lose confidence and to lose faith…,” he stated. “Obviously, they had questions. I had answers. We had great conversations. I think it ultimately led to where we sit today. So, I appreciate that, but that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been here so long and [why] I’ve chosen to stay here.”
Nine MLS club managers were fired or parted ways with their club in 2023. Countless more have fallen by the wayside in the 15 years Vermes has been Kansas City’s head man. Fifteen years. In February, Sporting signed Vermes to a 5-year extension, tying their fate to Vermes until 2028. To some, perhaps many, the tenure is too long, has become detrimental to Sporting moving in time with an ever-evolving league. For those some, their patience with Vermes has grown thin, or vanished altogether.
It may be, however, that Ownership agrees with Rubin’s statement on the requirement of patience to craft a form of art. But it is likely more, because more is required for their type of art. Each member of Sporting’s ownership – all entrepreneurs themselves – know that the building of a framework, of habits and practices that anticipate, maintain, and promote are also required to create and sustain a work of art that “contains all that we have to offer”.
“It’s not about perfect. It’s about effort. And when you bring that effort every single day, that’s where transformation happens. That’s how change occurs.” Jillian Michaels, fitness expert, businesswoman, and author.
As Zusi continued dressing, Salloi came to his takeaways from Sporting’s revival “…you let pressure go and get to that point and try to focus on yourself. So, everybody is doing their part and working as a team. It sounds cliché, but that is what it is… Results will always go your way if you just focus on yourself.”
Getting your own house right
Wondering what other forces lay behind Sporting’s shunning of what was surely frustration and doubt and questioning and anger, my focus turned to Zusi. The midfielder turned right back has lived firsthand the challenging growth of a rookie, the club’s rebranding, a number of championships, and a great many failures. Who was behind the scenes – beyond the captaincy of Johnny Russell, the lead-by-example of Erik Thommy – who was a big factor in this team’s turnaround?
“What has been incredible about this team over the years, and not just this year, is that there has been a very large leadership group,” Zusi intimated. “Yes, Johnny wears the armband for us, but he will be the first one to tell you that group of guys talks every single day about what we need to do; what needs to be better as a group; what is strong with the group; what potentially, later on, could be an issue or a non-issue. It’s something that we do every single day.”
Be certain that shared leadership does not happen within every team, or within every organization, or even within every household, and it should be appreciated, celebrated, and emulated.
“That leadership group – sure, guys have come and gone throughout the years – but there has been a group of five or six guys constantly that have so much input towards leadership,” continued Zusi. “All these guys lead in a different way, but all of that is recognized by the group as instrumental in its own way. That’s what I love about this team over the years, there is always that solid core group of guys who know that their impact is so worth[while] and is taken from every single guy in the room.”
Because team leadership is enabled in a broad sense, each player becomes invested knowing they have an impact either uniquely or via their comrades in arms. Each person’s contributions are valued. And as Vermes meets with that group regularly, it means he does not dictate, perhaps because those above him do not dictate because they know there is a daily framework of habits and practices in place.
That daily framework also leads to an openness and a confident freedom to air what might otherwise cause a tear in the team’s fabric.
In the press conference that followed last Saturday’s MLS Decision Day win, Team Captain Johnny Russell spoke of what occurred within the team after that April loss to Montreal:
“We came together as a team. We spoke a lot. We got a few things out in the open that probably needed to be said and everyone had a platform to speak…,” he said, before revealing that Sporting is not afraid to face facts together. “There was probably a couple of home truths spoke as well.”
What followed, a 2-1 win at Seattle Sounders, revealed the team’s character and the work that would be put in by all. “I think you could see the spirit we showed,” Russell stated. “[Seattle] is such a hard place to go [to and win] and that moment showed that we weren’t out. We didn’t give up.”
And that was the start of the comeback. Sporting would go 12-7-5 the rest of the way.
“And that’s just down to everyone: players, staff, training staff, everyone involved at the club who has sacrificed, put in the time, put in the work, not given up, kept the belief that we were still capable of doing it,” Russell closed.
Later in the locker room, Salloi added, “There were many, many times in the year where [the fans] stopped believing. That’s why I’m happy for our locker room. You look around; we didn’t stop. We worked hard together, and that’s what matters.”
Getting your own house right inspires effort and allows all within to become their best selves.
“But I hope that either all of us or none of us are judged by the actions of our weakest moments, but rather by the strength we show.” Ted Lasso, Premier League Manager and Kansas City native
Sporting Kansas City is not a perfect organization. One can disagree with the tactics, with the theme of player acquisitions, and we have.
In the 19 years (on and off, mostly on) that I have interacted with this club, the feeling throughout the club, through each individual one meets, is that they are together, that they believe in what they are doing as a whole. The proof is in the players that have stuck around and those who have come back. The proof is in the success the club has had over the years, as inconsistent as it has been at times. Because struggle is inevitable.
One cannot deny the bonded belief. It is an energy, a continuous thread, and only those who have not bought in have been, rightfully, cut away. There is no dictatorship within Sporting Kansas City, but a culture of leadership shared broadly.
Battle tested, Battle ready
Wednesday night’s shootout victory over San Jose Earthquakes propelled Kansas City into the playoffs proper and a best-of-three series with rivals St. Louis CITY. During the regular season, St. Louis took the series two games to one (each a win for the home side), outscoring Sporting 4-0 and 4-1 in the wins.
All leads to the next step on the road to glory. And Sporting is ready.
“I think we’re a little bit different than other teams,” said Goalkeeper Tim Melia after Wednesday night’s win. “We’ve been under maybe a little bit more pressure than other teams because our games have been so important for the last month. We’ve had some failures; we’ve had some success. So I hope that now that we’re in a place where every game is a must-win and we’ve already kind of been through those battle-test type games, that it gives us the confidence to play the way we want to play.”
Said Salloi, ”It’s a new chapter. In this sport, you have to forget about those last games and then keep it going. As I’ve said, they won the first three-game series. Let’s see who wins the second one.”
Sometimes a talent gap is too large to overcome, a plan’s execution too overwhelming in its scheme of disarray. Sometimes a series of unfortunate events is too much to bear, the conflagration of a moment too powerful. But Sporting Kansas City has the tools to win out, forged through daily application. Now it will come down to putting it all together.
Talent has to hit the same rhythms to unleash its ultimate effectiveness, that is execution. When that execution has a solid backbone of validated effort, belief, and personal investment, it can be a tidal wave.