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Sporting KC’s Vermes on New Signings, Player Recruitment and Analytics

Peter Vermes confirms there are “a lot” of embers in the fire when it comes to player signings. Plus, he talks analytics, recruitment & injuries.

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Credit: Thad Bell

About one third of the 2024 Major League Soccer season has come and gone. Sporting Kansas City have played 11 of their 34 regular season games and results have been below the standard the coach, players fans and media have set for the team. Sporting KC find themselves in 10th place in the MLS Western Conference. They have just 11 points through 11 games with a 2W-5L-4D record.

Outside of their US Open Cup win on Wednesday against a third division foe, they haven’t won a league game since March 30th against Toronto FC.

That’s compounded by their relatively inactive primary transfer window, which closed in April. Sporting KC made just four additions in the 2023-24 offseason.

The team signed backup left back Zorhan Bassong, SKC II stand out Alenis Vargas, MLS veteran Memo Rodriguez and 2024 SuperDraft pick Ryan Schewe. All but Schewe have seen the field for the first team, with Rodriguez making the largest impact putting in 411 league minutes and two assists. After that is Vargas’ 62 league minutes and a goal. Bassong has a single cameo in the opener (though he played significantly in the Open Cup) for just 16 minutes.

It’s not like Sporting KC didn’t try to make moves in the offseason. They were “in the mix” for midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who landed with the Chicago Fire. According to the KC Star, they actually had four targets before targeting Acosta, that all fell through.

That isn’t going to make anyone feel better, particularly with the secondary transfer window still more than two months away (July 18th to August 14th). However, Taylor Twellman, who seems particularly well connected to someone inside of Sporting KC, said, “Summer. Watch” the other day in response to my colleague Mike Kuhn.

That got me to thinking about what the plan is for this summer, since moves take so long to come to fruition. I find myself thinking back to an interview I did with Vermes in 2019. Particularly to this quote and its reference to “riding horses” has stuck with me.

“There are a lot of guys that, first off, don’t want to come to Kansas,” Vermes said. “They don’t know where it is, what it is, they think people are riding horses. They really do. Now, no problem if I can get a player here on a recruiting trip, then it’s totally different. I can sell a player in two seconds. But the other side of it is, most players when they want to come to MLS, they’re thinking New York, they’re thinking California, West Coast. That’s what they are thinking. For us that’s a challenge in itself. Right? We might find five guys that we really like that fit our team really well but if they don’t want to come, then they don’t want to come. So that’s another hurdle that we have to overcome.”

Friday’s Media Availability

I had the rare opportunity to go to a midweek media availability to follow-up on that quote from five years ago, how hard it is to still bring in players and how that process is coming along. Instead of pulling quotes, I’ll just give you the conversation in its entirety, only lightly edited for clarity.


KC Soccer Journal: “There’s a couple months until the transfer window re-opens but fans are always curious of what kind of additions are going to be made and you’ve talked about it can take a while for it to happen. What kind of embers are in the fire right now?”

Peter Vermes: “A lot. A lot, I mean there’s a lot. Looking for improvement to your roster never stops. It never stops. We’re constantly trying to improve the teams in different ways. And so, for the next window it’s exactly what we’re trying to do, and we’ve been trying to do it ever since the primary window.”

PJ Green (Fox 4): “What’s that process like, just scouring the whole world, scouring different continents at a time?”

Vermes: “It’s a couple different things. One is there are certain leagues we follow because we think that league maybe relates well with their players coming into our league and those guys can play in this league and adapt really quickly. The other thing is we might go to certain leagues for certain positions because they play in a way that we like, or we think will adapt and adjust to us quickly.”

“The other is that, sometimes you have to be careful in going to some of the more obscure leagues. If a lot of players don’t transfer out, that means they may not do well once they leave their own country. So, there’s a lot of different things you have to take into perspective. And then there is always seeing a player live… I always say look, it’s first identification. Identification, the first part of that is, ‘hey, do you like the player?’ Then you have to do the evaluation and say these are all the things that the player meets.”

“Then it’s the recruitment. Then it’s the execution of the contract. then it’s the onboarding of the player to the club. So, there’s all these steps that we have to go through. It’s a real process. And again, the easiest comparison is when you look at the NFL, you’re just going to college football. Whereas we’re the entire world. And not only are we proactive in what we’re looking at, like different ways, different leagues, different teams, whatever. Then you have all the agents that are presenting you with players so that you’re constantly going through players regularly.”

KCSJ: “There’s a lot of talk of analytics in the world when you’re looking for players. How much are you all using analytics to find the players? Or is it more you find them then you use analytics on them afterwards?”

Vermes: “I would say it’s a combination of both, but it’s more the second piece. I mean, we’re first always finding, ‘do you like a player?’ And then you can compare them. An example would be, let’s say you’re getting a goal scorer. You can compare his goals to games ratio, that type of thing. But you can also take him in comparison to if you came into our league, compare him to the top strikers in your league. So, there’s a lot of different ways that you can look at it and we do.”

“And what we do is when we finalize, let’s say I’m presented with five central defenders, then we narrow it that down to maybe three for a lot of different reasons, because financially, all these different things you’re looking at. And then compare those three guys against each other and kind of see who’s the best and keep going from there. So, it’s a combination of everything.”

KCSJ: “You once told me a few years ago that you’ve got to convince people that people aren’t riding horses around Kansas. Is that still a problem?”

Vermes: “I would say that it’s changed somewhat. I would still say that when you’re talking to a lot of guys from foreign countries, they don’t know where Kansas City is. They don’t know. I think our staff does a great job in the fact that we put together a great recruiting video for the club. It’s not just the team, it’s also the city. Once they see that, it kind of changes their perspective very quickly.”

Nate Bukaty (Apple TV): “This is anecdotally. I’m just thinking there have been a couple of players that even came into the league this year that I’d hear people say, well, ‘the analytics say this guy’s goalscoring is going to translate to MLS and that he’s going to kill it right away’ and then maybe that player doesn’t produce at that level. How consistent is it? Because it’s obviously an imperfect science. He’s going to a different team and all that. Do you feel pretty good about the numbers being able to say, if this guy’s doing this in X league, then he’s going to do it here?”

Vermes: “No. No, I don’t. Because I don’t think you can rely on just one thing. If you look at a player, you watch them on video and then you do the analytics. Whatever you do on your analytics for that player in that position and let’s say everything says, ‘everything’s great.'”

“If you don’t go see that player live, more importantly sit down and talk with that player live, you can make a huge mistake. Because what you don’t find out is who they are and what their made of. What they are passionate about and what their ambitions are. And those are really important things. And I will trust myself in making that decision all day. The read of the person and what they’re going to actually contribute and bring. I’d rather– again, you don’t negate all the other stuff– but getting in front of somebody is incredibly important.”


Analytics

The word analytics can mean so many things. I keep hearing about how the Vancouver Whitecaps have hired the best guy and built their own data model to find players a few years ago and we’re seeing it come to fruition. They sit in fourth place, just three points out of first place with a game in hand, despite not spending wildly.

I find myself wondering if Sporting KC are doing that as well. It feels more like they are looking at the numbers after the fact more than before, while Vancouver may be letting the numbers drive them to players.

Vermes also gave a very simple example of goals to games ratio. Likely that is just him not wanting to give away any secrets, but it also makes you wonder what sort of numbers they are using. With so many leagues and players in the world, it seems like it might be useful to build a model that looks for certain traits you want in a player at a certain position. Then, let the ‘computer’ find players that fit a specific profile and then watch tape and narrow down who you can target based on budget, their availability and a multitude of other factors.

Then again, I don’t know anything about anything when it comes to these data models. It’s definitely something I’d like to learn a lot more about.

Other Factoids from Training

  • Daniel Salloi was participating fully in the final 15 minutes open to the press after leaving the Union Omaha game with an injury.
  • Remi Walter, Dany Rosero and Kayden Pierre were all missing. Vermes said Pierre picked up an ankle sprain in the game. The kid can’t catch a break!

And I’ll leave you with this. In a longer discussion with Erik Thommy, Nate Bukaty had asked him about Bayer Leverkusen and their success this year and the success of German players as a whole. Which led to this exchange.

Thad Bell: “Do we need more Germans in MLS?”

Thommy: “I would say yes. (laughter from all in attendance.) I’m always happy if some guys over there join the league because I know there are a lot of good players.”

Thad: “Are you gonna recruit any to Kansas City?”

Thommy: “I mean look, if someone wants to come, I’m there. If they want to speak to me, no problem. I’ll be happy.”

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