KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Santiago Hirsig thought his career with the then-Kansas City Wizards was over.
Peter Vermes had taken the reins as the club’s manager in the middle of the 2009 season and was determined to implement a new style of play.
“One day at the training field, I fought with him — not like actually fought, but we argued,” Hirsig said. “He said ‘Santi, go to the locker room.’ I made a mistake. I shouted and whatever. I thought, ‘This is the end. This is the end for me in Kansas City.’”
Only it wasn’t — at least not over the in-training shouting match.
“I can remember it like it was five minutes ago,” Vermes said when asked about the incident. “You remember, I took over the group and was trying to implement my ideas quickly, because there were only 10 games left. I was talking to the guys about, ‘Hey, this is how we’re going to do things.’”
Playing behind Hirsig during a training session, Davy Arnaud told him to move up field. Hirsig refused and things escalated. The argument ended with Vermes making an example of Hirsig, a veteran midfielder from Argentina.
“When you’re trying to build a culture, at the beginning you’re a salesman; you’re selling it to them,” Vermes said. “Everybody’s like, ‘OK let’s see what happens.’ The proof is in the pudding. There’s going to be examples where you can demonstrate this is what your culture is going to be. The question is do you do that in those moments. That’s where most of these organizations fail. They say they’re going to do all these things, but then they don’t follow through. For me, those were follow-through moments and things that have helped to lay the foundation that we have today.”
Hirsig, who described Vermes’ demeanor when the two discussed the incident after training as “kind,” started nine matches the rest of the season and one more early in 2010 season before returning to his native Argentina to play for Quilmes.
But that moment also laid the foundation for an ongoing relationship based on mutual respect, one that eventually led Hirsig — better known to friends as “Santi” — back to Sporting KC as the team’s talent identification director for Latin America, covering Central and South America.
“For me, it was very important as a person, because I realized being there that I made a mistake,” Hirsig said. “It was an ego problem or whatever, but I learned. I learned very fast, and he’s very open. You have the opportunity if you want to be better and you want to improve and you have something to add value and do, he’s going to open the doors and say,’ OK, you have a place here if you want to work hard.’ That’s what I learned from him, and actually I’m here working for him.”
Soccer is a global game, so Major League Soccer needs an international footprint to grow and push into the ranks of the world’s elite leagues.
Sporting KC, one of only seven MLS franchises with multiple championships, beefed up its international scouting department a few years ago, hoping to remain among the league’s top franchises.
The club is tied for third all-time with 18 playoff appearances and it’s part of Hirsig’s job to make sure Sporting KC remains among the MLS elite.
“They look all around the world for players,” midfielder Ilie Sanchez said. “Of course, Peter is the head of every department in this club, but they work with his ideas and the coaching staff’s ideas to be able to find players.”
Having played for Vermes gives Hirsig unique insight. He’s been instrumental in the signings of striker Alan Pulido, a former Liga MX leading scorer, and more recently midfielder Jose Mauri, who joined the team after Gianluca Busio was transferred to Venezia FC in Italy.
Hirsig, who formally started his new role with Sporting KC in October 2018, feels like he’s an extension of Vermes’ mind when scouting players.
“Totally, it’s so clear for me,” Hirsig said. “I really know how Peter feels the game, what he thinks about the game and, personally, I really know him. I don’t have any doubts about a player when I’m looking for a player for him.”
Sporting KC prizes players with mental toughness, tactical tenacity and consistent effort — unsurprising for those who know Vermes.
“His team tries to play on the ground,” Hirsig said. “You’ve got to be brave to ask for the ball in uncomfortable positions on the field, but you have to do it. You have to have the courage to do that. So, the player who goes there has to have that.”
He also said generous, clever players with a high soccer IQ and good off-field character are required to fit into Sporting KC’s style and locker room.
MLS has always been able to attract brand-name international players — including Carlos Vaderrama, David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Zlatan Ibrahimovic — but it’s the mid-tier and back end of rosters that often are reshaped by scouts like Hirsig.
“When I was there, every team had two or three players that we’re not on the level the other eight players had,” Hirsig said. “Now, those players are at the same level. Maybe they’re not (Los Angeles FC star Carlos) Vela or Pulido, but they are good players. I think what made the difference is those three ‘unknown’ players that are better than they used to be. It’s not the most expensive, they always came to the MLS, but the other players.”
Hirsig’s hunt for hidden gems across South and Central America is vital for Sporting KC’s continued success — and he’s thrilled to maintain a connection with the city he grew to love during his brief tenure as an MLS player.
“I cannot explain what I love about the city even in Spanish,” Hirsig said. “It’s like when I land in the plane, I start feeling — I don’t know — great. It’s just a feeling and an energy. Actually, I was on vacation to the U.S. a couple months ago and I went to Kansas City just to go. Not Miami, I went to Kansas City.”