Jerry Seinfeld once famously observed that guys generally aren’t interested in what is on TV; rather, armed with the remote and an itchy finger, guys are infinitely more interested in what else is on TV.
Sports fans have a lot of the same in them. When it comes to your favorite team, you certainly like some of your players. But what really makes your little soccer shorts go crazy is who else might soon be scooped up via trade, transfer or draft.
Whether it’s a coach, a wow-boy transfer target or the “next big thing” in the U.S. national team pool, we always like peeking around the corner to see what’s next.
In that spirit, let’s turn to the topic of the next national team manager. Because, really, it is never too early to talk about the next, latest greatest soccer brain, the diviner who will finally lead us mercifully from beyond global soccer’s middle class.
I started thinking about this while watching Sporting Kansas City over the weekend, hitting the road to take apart Toronto FC, never mind that Sporting KC was missing three top men: Dom Dwyer (suspended), Graham Zusi (injury) and Roger Espinoza (injury).
Sure enough, Peter Vermes looks more and more like next leading candidate for the country’s top soccer coaching gig.
None of this is to suggest that Jurgen Klinsmann is going anywhere anytime soon. He’s safe and sound with that big, fat U.S. Soccer contract wrapped around him like a baby’s favorite woobie. (I’m on the record on Klinsmann and his job status; I’ve written about it before.)
While there’s no reason for a change now, it seems highly unlikely that Klinsmann will still be managing three years from now. Most national team managers don’t get a second World Cup cycle; a third is practically unheard of in the modern game.
And right now, Vermes is emerging as a big player in the talk about who will inherit the big chair.
A couple of things: First, it’s easy to see U.S. Soccer moving back to an American for the position. That’s how it was with the previous three managers before Klinsmann (Steve Sampson, Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley). It’s just how these things go, here and often abroad.
It makes sense to select a countryman who shares and understands your own players’ particular sensibilities. But then the wanderlust sets in and something a little more exotic starts sounding pretty good. In the U.S. Soccer case, that was clearly Klinsmann, who wasn’t just foreign and different, but progressive in pretty much every way.
Put another way, after a bunch of years married to a safe, pretty, minivan proficient mother, U.S. Soccer’s mid-life crisis was to spirit away with this interesting, innovative, multi-lingual German. (He flies a helicopter to work!)
But now that we’ve had a dose of that, it’s not hard to see a bit of a course correction ahead. Now, a return to something more “plain,” a reflexive recoil from Klinsmann’s tinkering, gut-instinct choices and mad-scientist ways might sound nice. And safe.
So, unless the next Guus Hiddink is out there when the changeover is at hand– someone as universally respected as the well-traveled alchemist who formerly hop-scotched around the globe and turned most of his stops into pure gold over about 15 years – U.S. Soccer will probably “buy American” in the next USMNT coaching hunt.
Second, and probably more important: these things do change. A few years ago, many of us were nodding in agreement that Dominic Kinnear looked like a good choice-in-the-making. But Kinnear’s star has dulled a tad, probably more about employers in Houston and San Jose that aren’t keeping up with the Jones’ in terms of MLS spending. Either way, he seems to have dropped in the rankings.
Then we turned our attention to Jason Kreis, still the youngest coach to claim an MLS Cup, short of his 37th birthday when he prevailed over David Beckham, Landon Donovan and the Galaxy in 2009. He could still be a player in this conversation, although Kreis was clearly thinking “long haul” when he assumed the NYCFC seat.
Somewhere in there, Caleb Porter and then Tab Ramos have moved in and out of this fluid conversation. But Porter has to prove he can “win the big one,” or win something beyond an NCAA title, at least. As for Ramos, he’s certainly well respected, amiable and full of progressive thoughts on the game. He’s 48 and still has a future in the game. But as of now Ramos has never managed a professional match (unless you count his time with the under-20s, which certainly had a generous percentage of fully professional players.)
That brings us to Vermes. Apologies to some other young and young-ish MLS managers who are doing some good things, Ben Olsen, Jay Heaps, Oscar Pareja and Jesse Marsch in particular, but Vermes has pulled ahead of the peloton here.
Sporting Kansas City is quietly putting together a hell of a season. While the ballyhooed summer signings suck all the oxygen from the room, Sporting KC and its less celebrated roster is level with D.C. United in points per game. They don’t have anyone named Lampard or Gerrard or Drogba, so you might not have heard that Vermes’ team has an MLS-low four losses (a 10-4-7 record).
Vermes has been the architect of Sporting Kansas City’s success over the last few years. He was technical director before he removed manager Curt Onalfo in 2009 and kept both job titles. So, he signs the players, then he coaches them. There’s no buck to pass here … not that he’s needed one.
Vermes is 86-62-51 in that time, having won MLS Cup in 2013. And he’s no one-trick pony. Sporting KC finished top in the Eastern Conference regular season standings in 2011 and 2012 (and then 2nd in 2013, the championship season) with a pressing, harassing, helter-skelter style.
It was always fun to watch, but along the way Vermes assessed that his teams required versatility; they needed to be more adaptable, able to prevail in a variety of conditions or parry and thrust against a variety of styles.
Klinsmann has said the same about the United States, although the success with which he has engineered any tactical versatility is up for debate. To be fair, that’s at another level (internationally, that is). Still, Vermes has done it effectively.
Along the way, every time I’ve talked to Vermes or listened to him at a press conference, he always comes across as a sharp, driven taskmaster who has a plan for pretty much every step along the way. Further, Vermes can articulate that plan (and is usually happy enough to do so). And if you don’t think explaining what you’re trying to accomplish is important, you might note that many of Klinsmann’s problems stem from starting conversations that he subsequently has problems completing.
Vermes, 48, has just enough “international flavor.” No, playing professionally in lower Dutch divisions hardly makes Vermes the next Pep Guardiola, but it does make him slightly more worldly.
What will really help is if Vermes wins another MLS Cup in the interim. He’s got a good team this year and games in hand on everyone in the West, which means the ability to eventually host MLS Cup once again could be there for the taking.
One more big trophy in the case, and everybody will be talking about Vermes as Klinsmann’s eventual replacement. You may as well get ahead of the game.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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