Whenever Minnesota United readies to take on rival Sporting Kansas City, which happened four times between MLS and the U.S. Open Cup play last season, Loons coach Adrian Heath starts up on his well-rehearsed monologue again.
Heath has waxed poetic many times about how Western Conference leader Kansas City is the gold standard for what United can become. And he reiterated that same point ahead of Sunday’s afternoon matchup at TCF Bank Stadium, the first of the 2018 season.
“You have to look at the big picture of what they’ve achieved, and how they’ve done it,” Heath said. “A lot of stability, gradually improving every transfer window. They’ve bought well. They’ve sold well. They’ve invested again well. ... They have a plan, they stick to the plan, and it proves successful. And I think if you’re a midmarket like what we probably are as well, it’s the perfect example.”
But one of the key cogs in Kansas City’s success is something hard to re-create, at least immediately. Peter Vermes started with the club as a player in 2000 before becoming technical director in 2006 and then adding coach to that title in 2009. He’s already the longest-tenured manager in the league and signed an extension earlier this month to remain with Kansas City through 2023.
Vermes guided Kansas City through a rebrand in 2011 that ushered in a new training facility, stadium and era of success for the club. And he said he sees similarities in what he did then with what United has tasked Heath.
When Vermes first started in the front office, Kansas City made the playoffs twice in five years. But since 2011, Kansas City has made the playoffs every year since. And with a U.S. Open Cup title in 2012, an MLS Cup in 2013 and follow-up playoff appearance in 2014, Vermes said that was when he finally felt he had achieved a main part of his vision.
“When I explained my plan, I said, ‘Look, I’m just going to tell you guys, it’s going to take some time because my objective is not to be a one-hit wonder,’ ” Vermes said. “I don’t want to go out, win something, and then the next two or three years are terrible again and then try to build it back up. What I would like to try and do is build something where we are successful at some point and then we maintain a competitive consistency.”
In order to keep everyone on track with that plan, Vermes said it takes a lot of open communication with all areas of the club. He said he meets once a month with the executive team and they discuss everything from ticket sales to player acquisition. He also makes a point to touch base with one of the team’s owners face-to-face for a half-hour weekly, even if that means going to the owner’s office.
That dedication has trickled down to his players, such as Graham Zusi and Matt Besler, who have been with the club since 2009. Besler said his relationship with Vermes is so solid, he feels as if he can finish most of his sentences whenever the coach is addressing the team. But the two being so in-tune only benefits the team.
“Peter pushes me still in ways that he pushed me when I was a rookie: He’s hard on me, he wants me to do well, but he holds me to a higher standard. And that’s never changed,” Besler said. “Part of it feels the exact same as it did when it started. But obviously, a bunch of things have changed, and we’ve come a long way since the beginning.”
Vermes said having a clear goal but being flexible in the journey to reaching it is probably the best advice he could give someone such as Heath. That and, “at some point, you have to win something because that’s where you gain a little bit more latitude, a little bit more trust.”
That was something Heath never had the chance to see through at his first American coaching stop when he took Orlando City up to MLS, and the team fired him about halfway through his second season in the big league. He’s now nearing that same point with United, which has struggled more than Orlando did.
Heath’s lamented several times how Orlando didn’t follow through with the three-year plan the club had established. And while United CEO Chris Wright wasn’t with the franchise when Heath came on, he has since created a similar plan for the future.
“Everybody’s sort of seeking that incredible opportunity where ownership philosophy … [and] the philosophy under which your head coach operates all are in sync with each other,” Wright said.
“In the end, as much as you want results now, you’ve got to understand that if you believe in the plan that you’ve developed, and that you execute on that plan, that eventually you will get there.”
Kansas City is there. United is still on its way.
“It doesn’t surprise me that people like Zusi and Besler, they’ve been there 10 years,” Heath said. “They don’t want to move. They’re well paid. They’ve got a really good coach, great facilities, all the stuff that we’re trying to build here.
“So hopefully, I’ll be here as long as Peter. That would be nice.”