The scouting report on forward Khiry Shelton, acquired by Sporting Kansas City for defender Saad Abdul-Salaam in a December 14 trade with NYCFC, reads similar to one of a well-known Kansas City-based athlete:
“Strengths used … in a lot of different ways. He lines up [four different ways, including out wide] He can win … from all these positions… tenacious … has great technique… has nimble feet… He’s so smooth and thoughtful in his movements that it looks like he’s not moving very quickly, but he has sneaky speed and snuck up on defenders and slipped past them before they realized it. He shows intelligence in his routes, leading defenders to commit … He has good awareness of his spot on the field… He shows good concentration and body control… Weaknesses... Experience He was recruited as a … and split time at … [different positions] …still nuances to the position that he’ll need to adapt to.”
Shelton, the 24-year-old Texas native, trained with Sporting Kansas City during his sophomore season at Oregon State, where during his senior season he tallied 10 goals and 12 assists with the Beavers, earning Second Team All-NSCAA and PAC-12 player of the year status playing mostly as a center forward - the #9.
Finding a potent #9 has been seen by many this offseason, including Sporting’s front office and coaches, as a key to lifting Sporting Kansas City to something significantly more threatening than a team that will smother your team’s attack during a match but will let you off the hook – repeatedly – as they try to punish your team’s defense and its miscues. And rightfully so for a team that scored only 40 goals in 34 games in 2017. A go-to scorer is needed.
Yet because Shelton’s MLS career at NYCFC saw him being used mainly as a winger, few, if anyone, took the acquisition of the 6’3”, 191 lbs, three-year MLS veteran as a significant part of the possible answer to Kansas City’s scoring troubles. The hype, especially in the media and fan social network boards, about the search for the elusive #9 has been the hottest topic in recent memory regarding Sporting Kansas City.
When asked what qualities Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes seeks in an ideal #9 (besides the given ability to consistently score goals), Vermes had no hesitation.
Offensively, a #9 has to be someone the team “can play through”, who has a tactical awareness to find spaces for backs to play him the long ball into space and hold up the ball to give others time to fill attacking spaces and support numbers in attack, is able to check into tighter spaces for the midfielders to find him in the buildup to break down various defenses, including teams “bunkering” in their own end as teams visiting Children’s Mercy Park often do.
A strong #9 can play with his back to the goal closer to the opponent’s box where the ball can be played to his feet and onrushing midfielders and wingers can run off him for return passes. In the box, an ideal #9 can finish consistently with both feet and his head, he is “a triple threat.” In Vermes’ words, not only does a #9 have to be able to understand all of the above, but he has to be able to “complete it”, to do it. Essentially, an ideal #9 is an attacking fulcrum with a wide skillset that attracts defenders to open space for others and finishes off opportunities as the ball circulates back to him in and around the box.
And since no one “gets a free pass” in Vermes’ system, the ideal #9 has to have “good movement off the ball and be able to work defensively… So he has to have a good work ethic when we don’t have the ball as well.”
Asked to pick an existing #9 as the player he would want the most, Vermes chose Luis Suarez of Barcelona.
“He’s a son-of-a-bitch to play against, he can hit it with his left, his right, his head. He’s extremely aggressive, he’s relentless,” he said of Suarez. “You can play through him, he can put his back to the goal, play into the spaces, and he works defensively as well.”
Playing the #9 is a tall order. That is why good ones are hard to find, and keep. And Vermes thinks Sporting Kansas City may have one in Shelton.
“You can play through him, he has really good feet, covers a lot of ground, works hard defensively when we don’t have the ball, can hit a ball left and right foot, he’s pretty good in the air, he’s courageous, he can play with his back to the goal, he can play into the channels,” said Vermes.
“What [Khiry] doesn’t have is a ton of games in the league in that position,” Vermes continued. “I saw him in college where he played a lot of center forward, sometimes out on the wing, with NYCFC he played a lot on the wings because he could never get on the field because of [Spanish Legend David] Villa. I personally think that [center forward] is where he is the best.”
There are questions of adaptation for Shelton. But there are other questions too, questions of mentality that Vermes mentioned when discussing himself as a forward who played professionally in Europe, in MLS, and for the US National Team.
“I was too unselfish as a forward, needed to be more selfish,” Vermes revealed. “A forward has to be thinking that he’s always going to score.”
A goalscorer’s mindset has to be different than most players said Vermes. “He has to have ice in his veins and a really short memory in that when he misses a chance, he forgets about it quickly. He has to be deadly,” said Vermes. “He has to have that mentality that he wants the ball in big moments. He’s that kind of guy.”
Shelton labels himself as a student of the game who yearns to keep learning, certainly learning the nuances of playing as that #9 fulcrum.
“Every day you step on the pitch, you have to be all there to better yourself; it’s not a competition between you and the other guys, it’s a competition between you and yourself,” said Shelton. “That’s how you get better.”
And although he prides himself on his high percentage of accuracy in passes completed, which is integral to a hold up, combining center forward, he knows he needs to fine-tune his decision-making and his mentality in key moments.
“I need to get more selfish. There are times when instead of taking [the next play] upon myself, I’ll feed it to another player,” he said. “There are times when I can score and I will pass the ball to other players.”
Vermes believes it is a matter of time before Shelton develops the ruthless, killer instincts and mentality needed in a lethal #9. “He needs time playing regularly [to develop that],” he said. “I don’t think he realizes, yet, what he does have, because he has some incredible qualities. A lot of the time, something that someone else sees, you don’t necessarily see.”
The need is real. The hype is… what it is. Does Shelton feel pressure? Can he be the goal scoring #9 Sporting Kansas City needs to make the leap to MLS’s true elite?
“I don’t feel there’s pressure. I’ve been given an opportunity to be able to showcase my abilities, and [the coaches’] job is to put me in the best position to help the team to win,” said Shelton who has 6 goals and 10 assists in 54 MLS appearances, including a strong 2016 season with 4 and 9 respectively. “At the end of the day, if I can score every game, that would be great. But the reality of it is for me to help the team win. If the team is winning and I’m scoring goals and getting assists, I’ll take that any day.”
Vermes confirmed that Sporting Kansas City is still looking to add “a third striker at some point”, but he may have stolen one already.
The answer lies in time and production. Will Shelton’s development parallel Sporting KC’s win now goal, the one accented by their new “For Glory. For City.” ad campaign that has been running during Olympic broadcasts? Or will Sporting have to go shopping in the summer window to patch a still gaping hole in the attack?
There is certainly hope in Shelton. His scouting report is similar to the one given at the start – Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce’s when he was a senior at Cincinnati. Kelce has developed into, arguably, the best tight end in the NFL. He is integral to the Chiefs’ varied offensive scheme who does a lot well, and, most importantly, is a go-to-guy who is big in big moments.
A revolution is an uprising. It’s time for a Revolution #9 at Children’s Mercy Park.