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Yin and Yang: Salloi, Shelton epitomize Sporting Kansas City mentality

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It’s all about the attitude for frontline partners.

MLS: Sporting KC at Vancouver Whitecaps Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

One’s play “allow(s) other players to shine.” One’s is “unpredictable.”

For one, “goals are super important.” One has figured out the roles he needs “to play in each moment.”

One is “DS20”. The other is Khiry Shelton.

Yet, both 22-year-old right winger Daniel Salloi and 25-year-old center forward Khiry Shelton embody Sporting Kansas City’s core values, in different ways, with different inclinations, both with the same goal. And a reuniting of their partnership in a season of difference would transform Sporting Kansas City’s 2018 season.

From the beginning, the two were different. Salloi began the campaign knowing he belonged at Sporting Kansas City due to his breakthrough 2017, though the many offseason attacking additions threatened him being ensconced as a starter. Brought over in an offseason trade, Shelton began the season as an unproven entity, especially as a #9, as he had played as a winger with previous side New York City FC.

As the season played out, both faced slumps and differing obstacles. How each navigated them revealed their variant attitudes.

Each began relatively slowly in positions expected to bag goals and assists. By the end of Match 12th, Salloi had three goals and four assists. Shelton had tallied one goal and two assists. However, Shelton was the target of skepticism, considering he was playing as a #9, the position that the Sporting Kansas City ownership and staff had focused on in the offseason as a need for a team that needed more goal scoring punch.

Shelton’s lone goal came in Match #12, May 20th. His second didn’t come until Match #16, June 23rd. But it was huge, the match-winner in a frantic 3-2 comeback win over the Houston Dynamo.

The goal was also a harbinger, the first time Salloi and Shelton had directly combined for a goal.

Three games later, Shelton suffered a torn meniscus and MCL, and then a nondescript knee injury, that kept him out from July 14th to October 6th, save for an extra-time substitution on September 8th. Salloi had accumulated six goals and six assists by July 14th, and those totals were near the top in each category at Sporting KC. However, in the next eleven games that Shelton would miss, Salloi would add only one goal and one assist.

In that stretch, however, Salloi did not play in three matches and was a 78th minute or later substitute in two of those matches. Two of the three absences were due to his first time with his native Hungary’s senior national team in early September. He returned for the September 15th match in San Jose where he watched from the bench as his replacement and last year’s leading scorer for Kansas City, Gerso Fernandes, had his best game of the year in a 5-1 away whooping of San Jose Earthquakes.

“I came back for the San Jose game, and Gerso scored two goals and gave two assists, and I was like, ‘Well, it’s not going to be easy for me. That automatically gives [Gerso] a start for the next game, too,’” Salloi said back on October 19th. “If you don’t play for two games because you go away, you waste another month getting back in the team. That was difficult, but I wouldn’t change it because it helped me to put my head right – I have to fight for my position; nothing is guaranteed.”

That was followed by the two late appearances in the next two matches. Salloi saw his well-earned starting position disappear for nearly a month until his October 6th start in a 1-1 draw with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Then, after Shelton entered the next match in the 57th minute in his return from injury, Salloi scored two goals, both on assists from Shelton in a 4-1 away win over Vancouver Whitecaps on October 17th.

“I needed these goals because that helps me to get my position back… it’s difficult because we have great players,” Salloi expressed after. “That’s why goals always make a difference. For me, goals are super important because you can have a bad game and then score a goal, and that saves the day.”

Though Salloi is clearly on board with the Sporting KC values of high work ethic and pursuing excellence every day (aka a winning mentality), his strong desire is to score and be a part of the First 11. When he misses chances, his emotions are clear. He’s angry, despite Vermes’ coaching of him to remain level-headed in battle. “I’m always going to be pissed. Sorry, Peter,” he later said.

And those goals – one the game winner, the first of three in a row for Salloi – were crucial for a Sporting Kansas City squad coming off a loss and two draws during a seven-team, cutthroat playoff race that put them in real danger of dropping out of contention for a four-years coveted home playoff match.

The game-winning assist was classic Shelton. He bodied off Whitecaps’ defender Jose Aja near the top of Vancouver’s box, and while steadying for Aja’s pressure on his left leg, he karate chops the ball down for Salloi’s clinical finish.

Before training the following Friday, Shelton was asked if he felt the two assists would mean a chance to start. “That’s always the goal. I have a role to play. Right now, that is for me to contribute in any way I can,” he said. “I’m not too big about starting right now. My mind isn’t there; it’s the role I need to play.”

The playing of a role – not being the main attraction – has been Shelton’s M.O. throughout his MLS career. This season’s two goals and five assists support that, as do his MLS career eight goals and 15 assists.

“[Shelton] provides a lot of things for our team from a physical aspect of holding up the ball and winning his duels, but what he is really good at positionally, the ability to find perfect spots, whether it be on defense or offense, but more so in transition, [is providing] us a big outlet,” said center back Ike Opara who battles Shelton every day in training. “[His abilities] allow other guys to shine. He’ll get his chances, and he’s confident in his ability to score them, but he knows what he provides, and it’s undervalued.”

Salloi scored in Sporting’s next match, a 3-0 win at FC Dallas. Then, in the final match of the regular season, Kansas City hosted Los Angeles Football Club. A win or a draw meant clinching the Western Conference title and home-field advantage through the conference playoffs, while a loss could mean falling to fourth. Sporting grabbed the lead and then relinquished it after a Seth Sinovic handball in the box resulted in his expulsion and a consequent penalty-kick leveler. A man down, Sporting could bunker and hold on for dear life.

But 10 minutes later, a Shelton and Salloi interchange burst through. On the right wing, Salloi received from right back Graham Zusi and slid a first-time pass just past a defender into space. Shelton took a touch while watching Salloi run to the top of the box. Shelton’s exquisite return pass eluded two defenders as it curled back for Salloi whose set-up touch and finish inside the right post from 13 yards out was world class.

“He played me a perfect ball… Thank you, Khiry, I love [you]!” Salloi said after the win. “He’s a great player, and we really know how to play with each other.”

Opara weighed in on Salloi’s greatness.

“Daniel has the ‘it’ factor to him. He’s creative. He’s daring; he’s willing to take a risk when he is in the final-third,” he said. “That’s something that our team needs; we need a guy to step-up and take a chance, whether he pulls it off or not, because part of our game is methodical, and we do this buildup, and, sometimes, we are a little too predictable. Daniel is that unpredictable force that we need in our team. He’s confident. And when he’s confident, great things happen. He’s DS20.”

DS20 - an example of an en vogue moniker applied to those seen as next level. But Shelton is confident too.

“I know what I can bring to the table. I can help a team win. There are certain roles you have to play throughout a season. I was injured. I came back. Coming off the bench,” he said after the LAFC win. “Every player has to play their role. I figured out the role I need to play in each moment so far.”

Salloi and Shelton are all about team first, intelligence, high work ethic, and pursuing excellence every day, but with their individual, and divergent, twists. Yet together they are complementary, and for Salloi, even interdependent as he has eight goals and five assists when playing with Shelton in 17 games, and only three goals and two assists in 12 games without Shelton.

DS20 and Khiry Shelton are a dynamic duo. But they each realize they are only a part.

“But what is great about this team, is if one person doesn’t score, the other one will,” said Salloi. “There is always someone who steps up. This is why we are capable of winning [MLS Cup]. And that’s our plan.”

By the way, Khiry Shelton’s Twitter handle, chosen by himself, is KS14… He believes in himself; take him lightly at your own risk.