I'm going to get this out of the way right here at the top: I'm sure Peter Vermes is a lovely guy. I'm sure he's caring and attentive to his family, committed and compassionate with coworkers, and warm and genial in all his dealings with strangers. I'm sure he's a friend to the animals, and donates most of his free time to helping those less fortunate. I'm sure his players love him.
I'm also sure that he's a mammoth douchebag.
It's a persona that's obviously working for him on a lot of levels. He's got Sporting Kansas City hosting the MLS Cup final in a few days; they'll be favorites, since they're at home. His teams play with a swaggering aggression familiar to fans of basketball in the Midwest - this is the full-court press on grass, a vivid and unsubtle bet that they can dish it out longer than you can take it. "WELCOME TO BLUE HELL," the supporters' group banner reads, and you can bet it is. Sporting has made its bones with this balls-to-the-wall pressing football, such that they are now mentioned among the leading exponents of the style.
There's something a little different about Sporting's pressure, though, and it starts with the guy at the top. The Bielsa school of thinking leaders are the foremost proponents of this kind of very aggressive pressing football in the world game; but as people, they tend to the professorial, tinkerers and theoreticians. Vermes' old-school steel-gray flat-top haircut, his verbal and physical vocabulary of aggression and victimhood, recall a different forebear, and a very American one: basketball legend Robert Montgomery Knight.
I don't recall exactly the first time I attended a press conference with Bobby Knight. It was probably 1992 or thereabouts - the Calbert Cheaney years, maybe? I dunno. The thing I remember was the heartbreak.
See, I grew up in Indiana, in a home where there was a black-and-gold ‘P' on the wall. My uncle belonged to the John Purdue Club and had season tickets to basically everything. Indiana was where ‘that asshole' was the coach. And yet, and yet ... by the time I reached middle school, I realized Indiana was where it was at in terms of great basketball. I kept it a secret for years - internally thrilling at the movement, the clear detail of preparation of the Hoosier teams year in and year out, but never letting on. Purdue, ever the foil; Indiana, the true thing, man defense (but such communication!), motion offense (but such cunning patterns!). I was in love with the crimson and cream.
Somehow, despite the chair-throwing, the tantrums, the bullying of a secretary, despite the clear evidence presented essentially daily in newspapers and sports shows, I persisted in admiring Bobby Knight. I thought of him as a crazy uncle; doesn't genius usually demand a price paid in personality? Somehow this bubble remained unburst until I sat in the same room with the man.
It was a nothing game, I remember that, an early-season game played in Indianapolis. The postgame presser was in one of those underground-bunker media rooms located inside huge stadia, and it was simultaneously cold and humid. Knight filed in with an assistant and Bob Hammel, who was both the sports editor of the Bloomington newspaper and Knight's de facto public relations guy, and within seconds I realized: Holy shit, I fuckin' haaaate Bobby Knight.
See, he was a douchebag. He was powerful within his sphere, and he lorded it over everyone in every way he could think of. The sarcasm I found hilarious in snippets wasn't so much a turn of phrase as a constant, oppressive tone. Ever raised a teenager? Ever gotten to that point where they discover sarcasm, and everything is expressed as a negative of itself - "Oh riiiight, that's super important" or "Words cannot express my sorrow"? Now imagine a powerful, complicated, famously surly man who'd somehow gotten stuck in that mode: "Charlie? You got a question? Charlie's questions are always great. Stupid fuck." The room began to stink of fear.
And I realized: I'm the youngest guy in the room. These guys are established professionals; they've been to many of these things. And their hearts were in their throats - you could hear it in their voices, which had been so booming over the chicken-wing buffet but came out of the ‘question mic' like half-broken grass whistles. And this was what Bobby Knight was going for: He was a leader, yes, but one who depended on fear and intimidation. I didn't have any questions for Knight, either; as the presser wore on, I remember giving up taking notes to just stare, gape-mouthed, at this spectacle of hubris and insecurity. Suddenly, all those great teams I admired got recontextualized. Which leads us back, inexorably, to another silver-haired screamer, Peter Vermes.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there's all these layers to Vermes, and somehow the only ones I can see through the baleful glare of hi-def are the layers which recall that horrible hour in the Hoosier Dome. I see a team that has many echoes of those Knight teams - the unstinting, self-regulating culture of toughness, the focus on details of preparation, the fitness - and I wonder, are these things related? Worldwide, and over history, the place most young men become acquainted with bellowing, all-powerful leaders and lung-bursting physical exertion is the military; is this the only way it works?
I suspect Vermes thinks so. Since taking over as coach, he's steadily shaped the squad into his image, a bunch of chin-forward tough guys who bash manfully into each other, arms braced into postures of strength, in the delirious aftermath of a goal. Their relentless physicality seems to provoke hesitancy in most officials; unprepared to call six fouls in the first 45 seconds, they let five go, establishing a ratio which Kansas City will gleefully exploit. While the players are thugging it up, Vermes keeps a warbling siren of complaint and persuasion sounding; it is directed, variously, at the ref, the linesmen, the fourth official, and opponents. They live in a very modern-American ethical space, the one that says if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin': They push, and push, relentlessly, beating back the boundary between fair and foul. In some ways, Kansas City are the very model of a modern Yankee football squad.
Bully culture is tattering at the edges - witness the hazing brouhaha going on in the NFL's Miami Dolphins - but remains a potent force within every sports organization. And bullying is famously effective, if you isolate out the variables ignored by its proponents: Ignore the damage done to communities and families by men who solve problems with violence and intimidation, and you're left with an image of guys who just get. shit. done. But in the real world, most people have realized the long-term cost of those behaviors, the human cost of people twisted into sad, small shapes by fear. Like the concussions, it's been all around us forever, and we've ignored it too long. And like the concussions: No longer.
So I'd like to look at Kansas City, playing a distinctively American, swaggering brand of soccer in a fabulous football palace and say: There it is. We've made it. But instead the tone is more "Murca fuk yah!" It's all chest bashing, and roaring in defiance, and screaming, and fouling, and screaming.
Bielsa would say there is another way, other approaches that deliver on the promise of grinding all-action football - but those involve huge amounts of teaching, and a level of trust in the players that American sports seldom espouse. We do have other models working well in the league; Sporting's opponents, Jason Kreis' Salt Lake, is just such a model, creative and committed and, by comparison, calm. What's certain is that the MLS Cup will be seen, in some small way, as a referendum on power and control vs. expression and freedom.
It is for this reason, and because Peter Vermes is almost certainly a douchebag, that I gotta say: Go, with kindness, Salt Lake.