Since the 2017 season ended Sporting Kansas City have been searching for a center forward. Three games into the 2018 season and they are still searching. Two players on the roster are listed as center forwards, Diego Rubio and Khiry Shelton, but there are several players on the roster capable of playing that role.
Of the two players who have started, they only have one shot taken through three games (from Shelton). One shot! And that shot wasn’t on goal. That is what brings us here today. Let’s break down the options.
The presumptive starter going into the preseason, Rubio has recently found himself playing for the Swope Park Rangers. Not only did he play for the team during this weekend’s 4-3 win over Reno 1868, but he was loaned to the Rangers for a preseason game in which six goals were scored (and he didn’t get any of them).
Rubio had a rough start against Reno, missing a couple really great opportunities, but he eventually did get a goal off a beautiful Kharlton Belmar pass. I have to imagine Rubio is with Swope Park trying to get back the confidence that is definitely needed to be a goal scorer.
He has a single start in 2018 for Sporting KC. He played only 61 minutes and was basically invisible. As mentioned above, he took zero shots and he only had a 62.5% completion rate on his passes. To give Rubio some credit, everyone basically looked terrible against New York City FC, though when he came off the team did better (though it could be said NYCFC were sitting back a bit because they were up 2-0).
During the 2018 preseason, it became clear Khiry was the guy. He probably would have started on day one if not for an injury he picked up against the Portland Timbers in the final preseason game. And maybe it’s that injury still lingering, but Shelton hasn’t looked very impressive. He has two starts for 137 minutes, a single shot and a 73% pass completion percentage.
Looking at the stats alone won’t tell you much. It gets worse when you see he has only a single tackle through two games (Rubio has one total as well). There are a lot of things Shelton does (and Rubio typically does outside of playing NYC) that are hard to measure. They both move well off the ball, they both are capable of pressing high and... it’s really hard without a detailed film breakdown to illustrate much of any of that.
Historically, Shelton played on the wing in New York City, so there isn’t much to look at there to see if he can play center forward, which brings us to our next option.
Peter Vermes has repeatedly said Daniel’s best position is left wing. That’s been emphasized with him starting at that spot for the last two weeks. However, Salloi is also capable of playing center forward and from that role he had the game winning assist against the Chicago Fire. In addition to that he has two other assists (three total — two of which were game winners).
The problem with playing Salloi at center forward means he can’t get played at LW. He’s been really good playing on the wing for the last two games after he earned the start with a strong substitute appearance against NYCFC. If Salloi were to slide over to center forward, that probably makes Gerso the starter on the wing, though it could be the next guy.
During the offseason Croizet was hailed as the replacement for Benny Feilhaber who had departed in a trade with Los Angeles FC. That got turned on it’s head when Felipe Gutierrez suddenly became available and, as is likely evident by the last three games, he’s just way better than Croizet.
The Gutierrez signing forced Croizet to the wing where he has looked... lost. Very lost. He constantly drifts to the middle as that’s where he wants to be. So to my surprise, Vermes brought him on as a sub for Shelton against the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday. I thought he was going to foolishly push Salloi to the middle and put Croizet on out wide, but he actually played in the #9 role, if not a false 9 role.
Croizet, as has been his way since coming to KC, made a few bad touches to start. But once he got settled in he actually looked dangerous. In his eight minutes he got a shot off (not on goal) and hustled like crazy. I get the feeling that he’s so eager to prove he belongs that he starts off a little skittish before he settles in. In his 66 minutes across three appearances, he actually has as many key passes per 90 as Salloi (per WhoScored.com). Since he wants to be in the middle of the field, playing a false 9 could actually get him on the field since Gutierrez and Roger Espinoza show no sign of giving up their jobs.
The wild card of the bunch is Belmar. He has six regular season MLS minutes under his vest (in 2017, none in 2018) but he played lights out for the Swope Park Rangers on Saturday. He scored two goals and assisted on two more. In 2017 he had 14 goals in USL. He did it from the wing but he has played center forward in the past both for the Rangers and briefly during preseason for Sporting KC.
While he has done all that damage against USL level competition, it could be argued that someone that knows how to score goals will find a way to do it even at a higher level. It’s really impossible to know if he doesn’t get a chance. The question becomes will he get that chance?
Future DP #9
The mythical Designated Player the team has been promising but that hasn’t come to fruition. Vermes and company assures everyone they are still looking but that they just aren’t going to sign someone simply to make a signing. I can respect that. Any DP signing will likely be a three or four year deal so simply making a signing to check the box could hamper the team for years to come if the player doesn’t fit.
The primary transfer window is open through May 1st and the secondary window will run from July 10th through August 8th. I fully expect Sporting KC to make a signing at some point, as long as they find a player that fits. As teams start to fall out of contention in their leagues around the world (or find themselves safe out of the relegation zone), they will likely be more open to selling players.
So Who Should Start?
Honestly, none of them have earned it. I expect Vermes will stick with Shelton since they have won two games with him starting, even if he isn’t a big reason for it. If it was me, I’d be rotating everyone through that spot (outside Salloi, who I’d much rather see starting on the left wing and only coming inside if subs make it necessary). Rubio deserves another shot. Croizet deserves more minutes there. And Belmar should probably get some first team minutes after lighting the USL on fire on Saturday.
Diego Rubio has ultimately shown he’s capable of scoring goals in MLS and even with the few minutes he’s had in 2018, his goals per 90 are pretty good. He was highly praised after the Dom Dwyer trade but people can’t get off the bandwagon quickly enough. I was speaking poorly of him in the first half of the Swope Park game before he found the back of the net in the second half. He may not start next game, but he should get minutes soon, especially if he keeps scoring in USL.
Croizet may be the most intriguing of all the options. He is a midfielder by trade. In 2017, the Rangers employed Lebo Moloto as a false 9 for a large chunk of the season and there is no reason Vermes can’t do the same thing. I don’t expect him to get the start (but who knows this year) but he should definitely get more substitution minutes in that role.