Only two losses in 10 games. Only allowing three goals in the first nine of those. At, or near, the top of MLS’s Western conference.
Combine those facts with Sporting Kansas City Head Coach Peter Vermes not being in the habit of using all three substitutes in most matches, and you have a side that is difficult to get time in for all 26 players, let alone break into the starting 11.
Yet, 20-year-old winger Daniel Salloi has appeared in half of the ten matches, totaling 41 minutes in those appearances, including 13 minutes last Sunday in Sporting’s 2-0 loss at Minnesota United. And come Saturday at Orlando City, Salloi could gain his first MLS start with center forward Dom Dwyer out due to yellow card accumulation, depending on who slides into Dwyer’s position. Either way, the Hungarian native has been one of the top options to come off the bench.
What is the key to getting time under Peter Vermes and his staff’s expectations and tutelage? Seventh-year veteran Kevin Ellis and Eighth-year veteran Seth Sinovic are both familiar with the ups-and-downs of fighting for time. The answer is not earth-shattering, but that doesn’t dull its importance.
“The key is to perform at a consistent level every day. The guys that have stuck around have been able to do that,” said Ellis. “That’s something I learned from those [veteran] guys when I was first coming in to the club. It’s always healthy to have that competition. It keeps everybody on their toes.”
Salloi’s journey - as an outlier when it comes to those MLS players categorized as a homegrown talent - has likely helped him understand the necessity of consistency. Before arriving in Kansas City as a high school AFS Exchange student in 2014, Salloi played for Hungarian side Ujpest FC in Budapest at the U-16, U-17 and U-21 levels and joined the Hungary U-18 Men’s National Team in 2013. The high-level training and competition required him to perform day in and day out.
Things are no different in MLS, specifically with Sporting Kansas City in 2017. Two specific factors have increased the competition and quality in Vermes’ squad.
“When your team is playing well and getting results, it makes those spots even more difficult, or those opportunities to get in playing more difficult,” said Vermes. “And I believe that we have a very talented group, so the competition within positions also is helping to raise the level.”
Thus, no matter what the players are doing in training, or outside of training, the competitive juices are flowing. A higher level, and fun, are products, and both raise the level of comraderie between the players.
“We are a hard-working team, and it’s no different in practice,” Sinovic relayed. “Everybody is extremely competitive, and it makes practice fun.”
For Salloi, it is his friendship with Soony Saad and the good-natured joking about their competition for playing time that helps drive him and make him comfortable. For others, it may be the competition and trash-talking off the field when playing FIFA, ping-pong, golf, or whatever. Or the games they play before or during training. 5 v 2 is a mainstay.
“You don’t want to be the guy stuck in the middle or the guy they get twenty passes on,” said Ellis. “If there’s one guy stuck in the middle quite a bit or you meg him, there is a lot of talk that goes on the next couple days.”
All athletes long to play, to be on the field, to contribute, to shine (star players even bristle when taken out of matches). With only seven different Sporting players used as subs thus far, often in dying minutes of the match, players can struggle with confidence or trust or attitude, just like at any club.
“Attitude is everything with it. If you are not in the 11, it’s easy to get down on yourself and get upset with coaches or players or whatever …” said Sinovic, who has rebounded to the starting 11 this season after two years of struggling for minutes through injury and competition. “It's hard to keep a good attitude when you are not out there. That is one of the things that makes this team great. We have a good team chemistry, and it makes it a little easier to have a good attitude coming out to training every day and wherever you are at.”
But that anger can prevail or linger. The Sporting KC staff simply asks two things when players struggle with attitude: One being to remember that, at some point, every player on the roster is going to be called upon. And two, Sinovic points out, “Peter says you can be mad at him, at the decisions he’s making. But respect is a big factor – always respect the decisions he’s making and always respect your fellow teammates. We don’t want one person bringing down everybody else.”
A less discussed part of competition within in a team is the need to have that player or players who will call out those not performing well-enough or carrying the right attitude. If absent in the locker room, complacency can set in as ‘nothing to prove’ takes over ‘something to prove’ in a player’s mind.
“There are plenty of guys (in Sporting Kansas City’s locker room) that can go up to anybody and say, ‘Today wasn’t good enough.’ But I think those guys that say that also take a responsibility for themselves when they don’t perform,” said Ellis. “There’s a really good balance in the group. And you have to credit the coaching staff for bringing in the new guys that gel with the rest of the guys, the core group of guys.”
For Salloi, the consistency in training has been there, he “feel[s] more a part of the team” after being loaned to Swope Park Rangers and then back to his native Hungary in 2016, and his attitude is keen. Now, he just needs to take advantage.
“I’ve made the first steps, now I just have to make an impact. The coach gives you a chance, and you have to live with it,” he said. “I need to create more chances to score goals, maybe an assist or something. That’s what will keep me on the field. If I can do that, the next one is going to come.”
His next chance could come in a start on Saturday in Orlando. But it may not come again for a few matches. And his respect for his situation, and his teammates, is spot on.
“I’m trying to focus and live with those 10 minutes, now I got twenty, next time I’m gonna get more,” Salloi said. “I have to be 100%, and I think I’m going to do well. I’m confident. I’m trying to beat everyone in the squad and get my position.”
Okay, well, respect his teammates, while trying to beat them. The ultimate competitive spirit.