Vermes, Ramos’ four-decade friendship built to survive budding rivalry

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Peter Vermes and Tab Ramos can’t stop running into each other. Most friends are fortunate to play on the same team once, maybe two times during a lifetime. But for the two former U.S. internationals, the frequency with which they’ve shared locker rooms has bordered on the uncanny. Whether it was playing professionally with the New Jersey Eagles, the MetroStars, the U.S. national team, the U.S. national futsal team, the U.S. Olympic team or for Figueres in Spain, the careers of the two players progressed almost in lock-step with one another, with the two even being roommates on numerous occasions.

“It’s one thing to say you’re an acquaintance with somebody,” said Vermes via telephone. “It’s another thing to say that we spent a lot of time — weeks and months on end — being roommates. You get to know each other in a much different way. Tab and I have that connection.”

They were opponents on plenty of occasions as well, whether in college or MLS. Now the two longtime friends are about to cross paths once again. On Tuesday, the two will square off as managers for the second time this season when Vermes’ Sporting Kansas City face Ramos’ Houston Dynamo (8:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+).

In the first matchup, Vermes’ side came out on top 4-0. But Ramos, in the first year of his rebuilding project in Houston, showed that his Dynamo side has improved since then, just missing out on the knockout stages of the MLS is Back Tournament. And yes, Ramos is more than willing to call his old friend up and talk shop.

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“I like the way his teams play,” said Ramos about Vermes. “I like the mentality his teams have. And we’re a little bit alike that way. So of course, when I can pick his brain or call him about something, I don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and ask.”

Pinpointing the precise moment when Vermes and Ramos first encountered each other has been lost to the mists of time. Was it at tryouts for the New Jersey State Olympic Development Program team? Or was it on the youth team that John Harkes’ father, James, put together for a friendly against their counterparts from Celtic? What isn’t in dispute is that as Ramos and Vermes became U.S. internationals, their friendship grew. Ramos recalls the 1989 FIFA Futsal World Cup as a moment when the two really bonded. The U.S. finished a credible third in the tournament, beating Brazil along the way, with Vermes scoring six goals and Ramos three.

“It was just fun all the time,” said Ramos. “We used to be up until like two, three o’clock in the morning, just laughing at stuff. It was different times.”

And the two discovered that the more they talked — and laughed — the more they had in common.

“I think the first thing is probably similar backgrounds, we’re children of immigrants,” said Vermes. “Soccer was the love of our fathers as well. Growing up in New Jersey, we’re coming up through that system of soccer, it was everything to us. And we just really got to know each other all those years. Then I think the other thing too, is that we had a lot of the same goals as players.”

That meant playing at the highest level possible, no matter where that might take them, with Vermes the bustling center-forward and Ramos the highly technical playmaker. Their friendship was such that they weren’t above giving each other a hard time.

“They would bark at each other, but it was out of love,” said Bob Gansler, who as U.S. manager took both players to the 1990 World Cup. “Peter at that time was playing as a center-forward. Well, he’s playing center-forward his way. Peter would say, ‘Tab, don’t give me that f—ing ball. I can’t handle that ball. What do you think you’re doing? Passing to yourself? I can’t handle that ball.’ I’m a calm and collected Midwesterner and I’m saying, ‘Oh my god.’ But hey, they got along, they made each other better every day. And it was good that they were with each other because they had things in common, but they also were a contrast.”

(Ramos for his part, said, “I never gave Peter bad service.”)

The respective paths of both players took them through some of the backwaters of the American game. There was the season they spent with the New Jersey Eagles of the American Soccer League in 1988, a full eight years before Major League Soccer’s debut season.

“We were playing on turf. It was not a good scene,” recalled Vermes. “But we were doing whatever we could to make a living to become professional soccer players. And we were going through the same stuff at the same time. So it was good to have somebody that you can relate to and relate with the things that you were going through.”

It has now been 30 years since the U.S. qualified for the 1990 World Cup. It was a critical moment, not only for Vermes and Ramos, but for the entire U.S. men’s program. Prior to that qualifying campaign, it had been 40 years since the U.S. men had last qualified for a World Cup, and with the hosting rights to the 1994 World Cup secured, the pressure to make it to Italy was immense. The likes of Ramos and Vermes had to be evangelists as well as players.

“I played on better teams,” said Ramos. “The 1994 World Cup team was probably one of our best ones ever. The ’98 World Cup team that was assembled was probably one of the most talented groups ever. But I have to say, the 1990 team is the most important. That ’90 team was just different. It was special and had different personalities and it really set the tone at a time when we really needed it.”

The pioneering spirit extended to club level as well. The two looked out for one another, with Ramos at one point acting as Vermes’ de-facto agent. Vermes was set to join Swiss side Neuchatel Xamax right after the 1990 World Cup and agreed to a five-year contract. But Xamax had a surplus of foreign players, so Vermes couldn’t get a work permit and was forced to head back to the U.S. for the 1990-91 season in the faint hope it would work out. Ramos meanwhile had just spent a successful first season with Figueres in the Spanish second tier. Manager Jorge D’Alessandro then hit Ramos with an odd request.

“Because I was a cheap player, the head coach asked me if I knew another American player who I thought would make us better,” said Ramos. “And I recommended Peter.”

Vermes joined soon thereafter and ended up spending four seasons with the club. When MLS got started, they found themselves as teammates again, suiting up for the MetroStars. They even became a part of MLS lore when Ramos’ brand-new Acura NSX was stolen on the eve of the team’s first ever game, but not before the thieves broke into Vermes’ car first in order to move it out of the way.

“I can’t tell you how freaking ticked off Tab was. I mean, he was so pissed,” said Vermes. “I mean, he just got the car. He just got it. I mean, he just comes back from Mexico, and we’re driving all over New Jersey at that time.”

Now the two are MLS managers, a development that pleases Gansler to no end. The fact that Vermes became a manager doesn’t surprise Gansler in the slightest. This is a player who started out as a U.S. national team forward and later adapted his game to be become MLS Defender of the Year in 2000.

“Peter wasn’t a consummate technician, but he still was totally effective because he was such a student of the game and such a hard worker,” Gansler said.

He wasn’t always convinced about Ramos as a manager, but only because as a player he was so technically gifted. Gansler noted that of the four U20 cycles in which Ramos coached the U.S., the team improved, even with the inevitable turnover of players. Gansler even saw the 2013 cycle up close, serving as Ramos’ assistant.

“I think Tab, it took him a little bit — because he was so gifted — to understand that not everybody has all of that talent dropped into their cradle,” he said. “And so I initially I thought, ‘Hmm, I don’t know.’ But he has just gotten better and better.”

Gansler added, “It’s about intangibles. It’s about intelligence. It’s about hard work. And, you know, and I’m gonna start quoting Walter Bahr because he had a nice little saying. ‘Well, I asked the guy for a drink of water, and he turned on the fire hydrant.’ Those guys, they had all of those things going. And that’s why they’re successful.”

When Vermes and Ramos met back in March, the two admitted there wasn’t much interaction. Afterward, Vermes sent a text wishing Ramos good luck for the rest of the season, not knowing just how loaded that sentiment would become.

“Things happen to us,” said Vermes. “We’ve been through so many different experiences over the years.”

That doesn’t seem set to end anytime soon.