Late in the first half at Colorado Rapids last Saturday, Sporting KC winger Yohan Croizet stepped-over and shifted quickly forward to beat a defender to the right and break in on Rapids’ goalkeeper Tim Howard. Croizet’s right-footed attempt was denied by Howard’s right leg. Khiry Shelton, who played Croizet the ball, followed with a shot that Howard parried with his right hand.
Early in the second half, Shelton played a give-and-go with winger Johnny Russell and broke in himself. Howard’s right-foot stopped the attempt labeled for the bottom left corner of the net.
“I’m waiting for my first goal. In the first game, I had a really good chance against New York [City Football Club],” said Croizet. “The last game I had three good chances… I want to score for my confidence. I just wait now.”
When asked how he felt about his strongest performance of the season that came in Colorado, Croizet focused on not scoring.
Bring in Shelton, a frothing, healthy sports smoothie for each, cue the late Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and let the American and the Frenchman join in a consoling, arms around-shoulders harmony:
“The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part” from “The Waiting”, 1990
Sporting Kansas City has scored nine goals in four games, yet neither Shelton, the most-frequent starting forward, nor Croizet, one of the club’s offseason designated player signings, has yet to find the net.
For both newcomers – Shelton in a trade with NYCFC – joining Sporting KC in the offseason has been a somewhat stark adjustment. Even though Shelton played center forward in college and growing up, he has never cemented in at that critical spot in a 4-3-3 formation. Croizet’s experiences were in leagues and styles significantly different than MLS and Sporting Kansas City.
And Sporting’s attack has continued to evolve this season as well. Some may argue that the attack has become less focused on using the center forward as the critical fulcrum. Manager Peter Vermes agrees Sporting KC play has evolved, but due to different personnel. In two years, more speed and guile and ability to penetrate and combine through the middle of the field and in-and-around the box has been added with the departures of Dom Dwyer and Benny Feilhaber and the additions of wingers Gerso Fernandes, Johnny Russell, and Daniel Salloi, forward Diego Rubio, and midfielder Felipe Gutierrez.
Thus far in four games, the goals have come this season.
“That whole group of guys that have been playing upfront – it’s not just one, it’s a bunch of them – [have been coming along],” said Vermes. “Gerso was very good when he came on; he was very dangerous. Rubio, good combination play. Soft feet on Khiry’s part with all that traffic around him. All those guys are getting used to each other, and they are all starting to play to their strengths, which is a big thing.”
Croizet’s strengths are in the power of his compact 5’10”, 170lbs body, his deceptively quick dribble, and his nose for the goal. His fitness and his ability and propensity to combine with his teammates have grown. His strong header off the post in the second half at Colorado ended with Gutierrez punching in the rebound and put Kansas City back into the contest.
“We have many players who want to play in the small space between the lines,” said the 26-year-old. “We enjoy playing together.”
Vermes has given Croizet the rein to be himself.
“He wants me to play free,” Croizet stated. “Everyone knows the right-side is not my position…. I work good in training, so when I get my chance on the field I need to prove to the coach that I’m here for the team. The last game was good.”
For Shelton, re-learning the nuances of the hold-up play expected of a center forward has been a challenge, despite his 6’3” 191lbs build being tailor-made for the role.
“It’s important. It’s not always easy being a lone striker, but they rely on the forwards to hold it up, then lay it off, and either spin and get the ball again [into space] and distribute,” said the still only 24-year-old Texas native. “It’s been fun. It’s still a learning process for me, especially, learning the movements and all that.”
Upping the speed of play has also been a Sporting focus to put opponents on their heels. In moments, Shelton’s speed of thought has not been up to par. But the in-traffic, soul-of-his-foot pass back to a running Rubio for the game-tying goal was a sign that Shelton is catching up.
But now Rubio, Shelton’s main competitor for playing time, is off the goal-scoring snide, and he is not.
“It’s always competition between me and him. It’s very healthy. Finishing, we do everything together. We’ve built a stronger bond,” Shelton revealed. “There’s no ego here. It’s just friendly and healthy. He pushes me every day, and I do the same thing.”
Manager Vermes understands the value of a player getting his first goal of a campaign, as he was a forward much of his career.
“For anybody it just lets you take a deep breath,” he said. “The good thing is that it’s not as if we’ve been struggling in that area and we need somebody to get it. There hasn’t been any pressure on [Shelton and Croizet].”
Except for the immense pressure players who expect a lot of themselves sometimes put on their own shoulders. Attacking players want to do their job of scoring goals. They want the joy that comes with it. And they want the foundational satisfaction that only scoring can provide. That pressure can lead many places. Sometimes to mental or reactionary failure.
In the NYCFC and the Colorado match, Croizet has been on the end of a marvelous chip over the defense from Gutierrez that has put him in alone on the ‘keeper. Both instances, though challenging, have been miss-taken.
“As I told him, right now he could have two goals just on the two actions that were the same exact thing [ball over top from Felipe] where he tried to play the ball first time. If he receives both balls, he’s walking in on the goalkeeper 1 v 1,” said Vermes. “He’s made some very good movements. He was good in the [Colorado] game. He could play all five of those front positions. I thought he was really good when he came into the game against San Jose when he played upfront.”
“I’ve always maintained that goal scoring comes by committee, and sometimes you have somebody that leads the meeting,” Vermes explained. “Right now we are getting a good group of guys who all have a hunger to score…”
Croizet and Shelton couldn’t be any hungrier.
There is little doubt each will have their moment, if not moments, in the matches to come if they continue their trajectory.
The waiting is the hardest part.
When thinking of his first goal in a Sporting KC match, Shelton sucked air in and said excitedly, “It’s going to be amazing. I thought I had it on Timmy; what a save that was. I’ll put the next one in for sure.”