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Looking at Sporting KC’s Roster – The Front Line

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Influx of talent ups production, and expectations

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

But first, check out The Blue Testament’s other reviews, line-by-line:

The goalkeepers by Thad Bell

The defenders by Mike Kuhn

The midfielders by Cody Bradley

Sporting Kansas City’s attack set records this season, most significantly scoring the most goals ever in a single season – 65 in 34 games – for an average of 1.91 per game, equal to the output of Ron Newman’s offensive juggernaut in the franchise’s inaugural season in 1996. In addition, the team as a whole set a franchise record for most chances created per game with 13.6 on average, a significant 2.1 percent above the 2012 side.

The season’s goal output was a vast improvement over 2017, a 63% improvement. Scoring 40 goals with a +11 goal differential, Sporting Kansas City finished in 5th place last season. Those 65 goals and a +25 goal differential this season meant a 1st place finish in the Western Conference and that long sought after home-field advantage in the playoffs (let alone the first home playoff game in five years). The increased production from a large influx of talent in the offseason was just what Manager Peter Vermes side needed, and what the fans wanted.

The wingers and strikers accounted for 40 of those goals, with a total of 37 assists.

In the playoffs, Sporting tallied seven goals in four games. Unfortunately, that was still two goals short against Portland Timbers in the Western Conference Final series of reaching every season’s aim – MLS Cup.

Yet, the season was quite a joyous ride with many magical moments. Well done! But the bar has been raised.

An individual look at and analysis of each winger and each striker’s performance with Sporting KC in 2018.

Yohan Croizet

Stats: 3 goals, 3 assists in 1594 minutes; 32 appearances, 19 starts

Biggest moment: His 89th minute volley to win a Round of 16 home match 3-2 over FC Dallas in the Open Cup won Sporting’s Goal of the Year. However, his sterling start at left back for a suspended Seth Sinovic in the playoffs at Real Salt Lake was even more significant. But here’s that goal one more time…

Upside: There are many… Croizet’s strength and his power, quickness, and craftiness on the ball became more and more evident as the season wore on. Then there’s his versatility. He can play out wide (becoming much more comfortable there late), in the middle as a striker or midfielder, and at left back in emergency situations.

However…: There are a bit of a distant memory now, but Croizet’s weak, head-shaking early season performances were just bad for a professional. The constant giveaways around his own box are still a worry, as is his seemingly somewhat fragile confidence.

My take: The sometimes puzzling, sometimes awe-inspiring Frenchman may be on the verge of a double-double season. His versatility will again be an asset. I would not be surprised to see Croizet get more time at center forward and midfielder next season. The 26-year-old international DP (though he may dip under DP status next season) is under contract through 2020, with an option year in 2021.

Gerso Fernandes

Stats: 5g, 5a in 1591 minutes; 31 appearances, 17 starts

Biggest moment: His two goal, two assist performance at San Jose on September 15 lifted Kansas City back to 1st place. More significantly, he scored the equalizing goal and gave the attack a major boost in the 2nd Leg of the Western Conference Final versus Portland when he came on in the 65th minute.

Upside: It’s his speed, slippery-ness, and increasingly better movement off the ball that gives the Sporting KC attack a different look.

However…: I cannot emphasize this enough… his lack of willingness (and ability) to use his right foot is detrimental to Fernandes’ effectiveness. Overall, it has been his inconsistency in providing or finishing the final ball compared to others that has made him much more a sub.

My take: Despite the struggles, the 27-year-old Guinea-Bissau native is certainly valuable, maybe even vital, to the overall attack. I would expect more of the same from Fernandes (and Vermes’ use of him) in 2019. Fernandes is under contract through next season with an option for 2020.

Kristzian Nemeth

Stats: 1g, 1a in 386 minutes; 9 appearances, 4 starts after being re-acquired in August.

Biggest moment: Being re-acquired to give some people hope in the search for a goal scoring center forward…??

Upside: Nemeth can finish. At least in 2015 during his original stint with Sporting KC he could. And he is clever with his runs in and around the box. Others just need to find him.

However…: Is he willing to work defensively as Vermes requires? Does he exemplify the four core values – team first, intelligence, high work ethic, and pursuing excellence every day - that Vermes demands?

My take: Vermes would not have re-acquired Nemeth if the answers to the above were not ‘Yes.’ Yet, those answers need to be clearly in the affirmative in his performances. Nemeth will be given an opportunity to be the center forward in preseason, and likely in CONCACAF Champions League play. Additionally, he will provide more depth on the wings, pushing Fernandes, Daniel Salloi, Johnny Russell, and Croizet for time. The 29-year-old Hungarian is under a pricey contract through next season, with an option for 2020. It’s time for him to show.

Diego Rubio

Stats: 8g, 6a in 781 minutes; 20 appearances, 9 starts

Biggest moment: In the regular season, his equalizing goal and game-winning assist after coming on as a sub versus Houston Dynamo on June 23rd gave Sporting its most exciting comeback of the season. In the playoffs, his sweet finish at RSL a minute after coming on gave Sporting an away goal and the 1-1 draw in the 1st Leg of the Western Conference Semifinal that provided Kansas City life going into the 2nd Leg. It doesn’t get much bigger than that. But he also scored the first goal in the 2nd Leg that paved the way for a 4-2 win.

Upside: Rivaling Salloi for the best finisher on the team, Rubio has shown a penchant for producing when it matters and led all MLS players with five goals as a substitute. The Chilean also combines well and can move in tight spaces. A bonus is that he is fairly strong in the air in the box (or at least he is on this team).

However…: There are moments when Rubio disappears, and his histrionic and argumentative inclinations take away from his game at times.

My take: The 25-year-old will be on the last year of his contract next season. He should be the de-facto center forward going into the season (his job to lose). He has the ability to succeed, and succeed well. Here’s to 2019 being Rubio’s best season yet.

Johnny Russell

Stats: 10g, 10a in 2183 minutes; 30 appearances, 24 starts

Biggest moment: As a body of work, being the biggest overall difference-maker for Sporting Kansas City in many realms during the entire season was Russell’s biggest moment. But if you want to get picky, his hat trick April 20 versus Vancouver Whitecaps showcased his abilities; his two assists in the Houston comeback showcased his playmaking abilities; his skillful solo run for the equalizer at home October 6 against LA Galaxy mimicked his April 8 goal at the same side.

Upside: His energy. His skill in taking on defenders, drawing more defenders. His ability to make plays. His apparent love for this team. His fight. His heart.

However…: Russell did not score in the playoffs, though he did have one assist. The winger’s patented runs did become predictable at times for opposing defenses and his finishing needs to be more consistent.

My take: The 28-year-old Scot quickly became a fan favorite through his determination and ability on the field. When he received the ball, he made fans inch up to the edge of their seat. Fortunately, he is smart enough to know that varying his game by tucking inwards (allowing right back Graham Zusi more room) and playmaking from there is an asset. If Johnny can refine his finishing abilities, he will better his 10-goal output. Russell is under contract through 2020, with an option for 2021. And let’s not forget how much his friendship with Salloi may have helped the young baller have the season Salloi did. And vice-versa.

Daniel Salloi

Stats: 11g, 7a in 2291 minutes; 29 appearances, 26 starts

Biggest moment: Each of his six game winners in the regular season. Yes. Six. And he was, seemingly, somewhere in all the great wins of the season (three game-winning assists too). Many of his finishes were of the spectacular variety, possessing the quickest and most skilled shooting feet in big and small spaces on the side. Big players don’t fade in the playoffs, and Salloi didn’t, scoring three of the team’s seven goals.

Upside: Besides his skill, Salloi is a student of the game who has just enough attitude and, well, balls confidence, to try, and pull off, the spectacular. He will get better. He is a strong combiner as well.

However…: Salloi missed a number of “easier” chances during the season. His ability to round the backside of defender when wide and penetrate the box as a winger is below average.

My take: The 22-year-old had 11 MLS goals, but 16 in all competitions, easily eclipsing his teammates. I don’t think he is the answer at center forward, yet. If he builds some thickness into his 6’1” 150lbs frame and gets a bit meaner, his future may lie there. Can Salloi improve on his 2018 next year? I think so. The “Homegrown” Hungarian is under contract through 2020, with an option for 2021. Don’t be surprised if he gets a new contract and a significant bump in salary in the offseason.

Khiry Shelton

(Discussing Shelton seems a moot point with recent news, but what the heck.)

Stats: 2g, 5a in 1370 minutes; 20 starts, 15 appearances

Biggest moment: His game-winning goal in the Houston comeback and his two game-winning assists were highlights, as well as his ability to shield off defenders that led to Croizet’s goal of the year and Salloi’s winner against LAFC at home October 28. That win sealed the top seed in the conference.

Upside: Shelton’s buy in and defensive work rate were assets from the start. His 6’3” 191lbs frame can be an asset. At times, he revealed some strong foot skills. Lastly, (as his career has leaned toward) his five assists showcased his ability to combine.

However…: Shelton seems to lack the ferocious mentality and pedigree necessary for a go-to center forward. He is/was the only American born (and college system bred) front line player on KC’s roster (Hmmmm……). Sporting’s system made him an asset, but how often will that be the case for him?

My take: The 25-year-old’s contract expires December 31. Sporting brass made Shelton a bona fide offer, so if the Texas native decides to stay, or come back to MLS, Kansas City will hold rights. Good luck, Khiry. Long may you run.

Conclusion(s)

Though much improved, I am not convinced the current crop of front liners is strong enough to push Sporting successfully through CONCACAF Champions League play, the MLS regular season, US Open Cup, and the MLS playoffs. Will it not be a letdown of a 2019 season if Sporting Kansas City doesn’t make it past Toluca in Champions League, win at least a few Open Cup matches, gain a top-two spot in the conference, and make it to MLS Cup (or at least most of those)?

The wings are set. Until someone takes a stranglehold on the position, center forward is still the question. Is Rubio, is Nemeth, is Croizet the player that can pull this team through games like the playoff loss to Portland? And being more effective in the air attacking in the opponent’s box is a need.

Vermes is always looking to improve the side, thus I would not be surprised if significant funds are spent on a foreign center forward. If not that, I would argue that acquiring or reacquiring someone like Kei Kamara or CJ Sapong to add that box element and to push the others could be beneficial, as long as the vital strength of the Sporting locker room is not undermined.