Peter Vermes is a 1st Generation Hungarian-American who has had a successful career as a player and now as the Manager of Major League Soccer’s Sporting Kansas City club who sit on top of the Eastern Conference Table. He started his professional soccer playing career with Raba ETO in Gyor back in 1990. He went onto FC Volendam in the Netherlands and then onto Figueras in Spain before returning to the United States to play in Major League Soccer. Upon his retirement from playing, he joined the front office at Sporting Kansas City before finding his way onto the sideline as the Manager.
Hungarian Football caught up with Peter on the phone yesterday, as he prepares his team for a match against the Columbus Crew in Columbus, OH. He had some interesting stories to share and some surprises too.
HF: Peter, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule. I know you guys have been on the road a lot over the past few weeks. You were recently in Philadelphia where Sporting Kansas City secured its place in the US Open Cup final with a 2-0 win over the Philadelphia Union.
HF: Philadelphia is your hometown isn’t it?
Peter Vermes: Yes, it is. I grew up about 20 minutes from the city.
HF: Just to introduce myself, I am part of www.hungarianfootball.com. The only English language website dedicated to following all things relating to Hungarian Football – history, present and Hungarian national team news. The reason I wanted to talk you is because I want to start a series of articles regarding Hungarian Football in the United States. You are naturally one of the most notable Hungarian-Americans in the game today.
You grew up in New Jersey, is that correct?
Peter Vermes: Yes, that is correct
HF: Was your Dad a 56er?
Peter Vermes: He was
HF: Did your Father play himself?
Peter Vermes: He did. He was a professional player. He actually played for Honved.
HF: He did?!
Peter Vermes: Yes, he played at the time of Puskas, Kocsis and all those guys who were there. He was a young guy. He was coming up through the system. He escaped Hungary when he was 23 years old. He was playing first team football at 19, 20, 21- in that age range.
HF: Wow, so the Arany Csapat (Golden Team) was probably talked about a lot in your family?
Peter Vermes: It was. Obviously, my Dad was not one of the impact guys, but he did play with those guys and was a part of that group. My Dad talked about all the time. He talked about Puskas forever. It got to the point where myself and my other 2 brothers used to be like, “Ok, yeah right, like you really knew him.” Many years ago, Puskas came and did a tour through the United States and he stopped in Philly and he went to what was called the Hungarian Club. (We had a bunch of ethnic clubs at the time). And, supposedly, Puskas was coming to the Hungarian Club in Philadelphia. So, my Dad tied us all up, we drove over, we come walking through the door. (They had an actual club house. It was a fantastic environment). And, there he was sitting. He saw my Father and called him by his nickname. My 2 brothers and I were like, “Holy cow”, he was actually telling the truth.
HF: Wow! That’s funny. So, when your Dad came over here, did he continue playing Soccer?
Peter Vermes: What happen to him was, he went to Austria. He and my Mom got onto a military cargo plane and flew into Ft. Dix, New Jersey and put into a refugee camp. After about 6-7 weeks. As you know, most people who grew up in Hungary either went to school, or had to learn a trade. My Dad learned a trade.
If you wanted to get out of the refugee camp, you had to get sponsored by someone with a job. There were guys in Philadelphia who knew who my Dad was because of his professional play. They had the Hungarian Club team in Philly. So they asked, what do you do for a job? He said, “I am a first class machinist.” We’ll get you a job and sponsor you out of here and get you a place to live. But, you have to do one thing. You have to play on our soccer team here. So, for him, it was easy. That was his way of getting out of the refugee camp and making it into the United States. He and my Mom lived in the basement of someone’s house for 2 years and he eventually moved out and got his own place. And the rest is their history.
My Mom was 6 weeks pregnant at the time they escaped. So for them, it was a huge risk. It was a big chance and it obviously worked out for them.
HF: When was he in Ft. Dix?
Peter Vermes: It would have been in ’56
HF: My Dad went through there too. He always told me that it was the greatest time with all the food and girls. He said all they did was play soccer. Who knows, maybe our Dads played soccer together in the camp.
Peter Vermes: Maybe.
HF: Ok, so is there a large Hungarian population in Philadelphia? Or, you are from Willingboro in New Jersey?
Peter Vermes: I am actually from Delran. Is there a strong contingency of Hungarians? I would say that in New Jersey it would be the New Brunswick area. There obviously is in Philadelphia as well, but if you had to pick in New Jersey, it is New Brunswick.
HF: So to clarify, your Dad played on the Hungarian Football Club team?
Peter Vermes: Yes that is correct, in Philly.
HF: How much did Hungarian Soccer have in influence on you as a player and a coach? Obviously with your Dad as a professional player. Also, many soccer historians credit the Arany Csapat and Honved as the precursors to modern football. How did it influence your development as a player growing up?
Peter Vermes: Well, I knew all of the stories. I saw videos of the team play. I grew up playing the W- M formation which they played. I knew all that. When I was younger. From the age of about 9 on, we used to go back to Hungary every year. I would stay there a minimum for about a month. I actually trained a couple of years at Honved in their academy.
Peter Vermes: Yeah, it was a few times. I would train with some of their youth teams a couple times a week. I used to play in the streets in Hungary and stuff like that as a kid. Because we would go back and visit for a minimum of month. There wasn’t really much for me to do except play soccer the whole time I was there.
HF: (laughs) I know what you mean, I did the same thing. Has any of that influenced you as a coach?
Peter Vermes: I have had a lot of experiences as a player and have been very fortunate. I went to school at Rutgers University in New Jersey. I went to the Olympics in 1988. I played in the World Cup in 1990. During that time, I played in Hungary with Raba ETO in Gyor. I went to Holland and then onto Spain. All those places helped me mold my soccer philosophy if you will. No doubt that some of that philosophy is based on my time in Hungary. Obviously, my Dad’s teachings as well which has a strong Hungarian influence.
HF: Great. Now, I am going to ask you a couple of MLS questions. With the salary cap and parity in the league, what’s it take to get players to perform with a level of consistency week after week in MLS?
Peter Vermes: If you take any team today and compare them to say, 1996, when the teams first started. There are quite a few things that are different and I am talking about the play on the field. #1 – the teams today are more tactically sound than they were in 1996. #2 – there are better athletes in the game today than there were back then. Now don’t get me wrong. There were really good players. A lot of the resources and the systems have changed to help build individual players today.
There are a couple of things that never get put into the equation with MLS. You mentioned one. One is parity. We have a salary cap. You are limited in building a roster. If you do build a successful one, the challenge then becomes how do keep it together. (because of the cap) The other is the season in which we play. When you play in the months of June, July and August, you bring any European player here. It’s hard for them to manage those three months. To play 90 minutes in 100 degree weather is not an easy task for anybody. And finally, you add the travel that we have. In the last couple of weeks, we flew from Kansas City to Seattle (3 hour flight). We played on Sunday, then the next day we had to fly to Philadelphia (5 hour flight). I don’t care who you are, it is not an easy feat and still be in top form all the time. Athletes are going to suffer with the weather, the travel and all the other variables put into the equation. Those are some of the reasons.
(Regarding travel. The game in Seattle was probably 25 C and Philadelphia was probably 35 C with 90% humidity. Saturday in Columbus, they will probably be 35 C with high humidity again).
Last thing I would say. All our teams are made up basically of a strong contingency of American players. We are still a young soccer nation on the player side. We are still developing that consistency within those players and their development. With the advent of our youth academies, you are finding kids going through a system that is much more intense. There is no lag. They can go right from your academy to your senior team and that is fantastic.
From your academy straight into college. There are challenges with player development in college and College coaches do the best they can. It’s not their fault. They have a limited amount of time with their kids. The reality is if you spend 4 years in college, you are only getting about 1 year of soccer experience. Soccer is 3 months off, so you miss all that time as a player. I think that is part of it. It’s building that player that understands what a true soccer professional has to be ready for. I think it becomes a delayed routine. A kid goes to college, he comes out at 22. He’s lost 4 years, so you have to spend the next four years building him up. Now he is 26 and he is starting to hit his stride. He has to ,he has last the previous 4 years.
Sorry to be long winded, but that is my take.
HF: As an MLS fan, we do take those things for granted.
Peter Vermes: Let me add one more thing. What also comes into play is pressure. If you look around the league. Let’s look at our home games. With our new stadium, we sell out every game. There is a different responsibility when the players walk into that stadium and it is game time. They have an obligation to those home fans to come and play. When you go to Portland, or Seattle. You go into the different venues and the fans are there. That is what is happening in the game. It’s growing and putting more pressure on the players and the responsibility they have to perform on a regular basis. I think you will see the consistency grow as we get more and more commitment from that type of fan base.
HF: Let’s take the issue of travel you highlighted. When you played in Hungary, I would guess, you took a coach?
Peter Vermes: That’s all we ever did. Yeah.
HF: Did you travel the same day as your match? Or, the nigth before?
Peter Vermes: It depended on the city. Sometimes we go the night before and stay in a hotel, or we would take a train. (Compared to the US) It is easy travel at the end of the day.
HF: The same could be said in other European countries.
Peter Vermes: Correct
HF: What was it like to get playing time at Gyor?
Peter Vermes: I started all the time. What a lot of people don’t realize was I was the first American to actually make it and play in Division One in Europe. It was a big step. I went over there and I was not even going to stay in Hungary. I was only going over there to train for 3 weeks. I was supposed to go to Belgium. After the first day of training, they offered me a contract. During the time that I got there, it made sense to sign with them and finish out the year. It was tremendous and great to play Division One European soccer. It was a great place to help mold me as a professional.
As you know, there was no loved lost in that country. No one was going to be nice to me and say, hey buddy we’ll take care of you. I was going over and taking someone’s job and meal ticket, so they were like, “screw you.” I was a young guy and it was a great experience for me. What helped was the time I spent as a kid in Hungary. Both my parents were Hungarian and we spoke Hungarian in the house. The fact that I could speak the language helped me fit in.
HF: Ok, here is my last question, what was your favorite game you played in Hungary?
Peter Vermes: That’s a tough one. My favorite game I played in Hungary?
When I was 11, I went with my Father and Uncles and I think my brother to watch Hungary play against the USSR at Nepstadion. I forget if it was a qualification or friendly. But, the national team is the national team, right? (Soccer has been life and passion since I was born. It’s what I grew up to do and it is what I love to do today.)
We were watching them warmup. I told my father, “I am going to play in this stadium against Hungary one day.” I think it was 10 years later in March of 1990, I played in Nepstadion against Hungary, just before we went to the World Cup in Italy. I would have to say that was my favorite game.
HF: That is a great story. I remember those warm up games. I saw you play at the Yale Bowl just before you guys went off to Italy and you scored the lone goal in the game.
Well thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. Good luck with the rest of your season with Sporting Kansas City.
For our readers, Sporting Kansas City will be hosting the US Open Cup final on August 8th against the Seattle Sounders. And, if you want to follow Peter’s current team, Sporting Kansas City, they are top of the table at the moment. You can check them out a Sporting Kansas City or Major League Soccer’s site.