The Swope Park Rangers, Sporting Kansas City’s USL team, are currently six games into the 2018 season. Of those six games, Sporting KC loanee, Kharlton Belmar has started and played in five of them. During those five games, Belmar has scored seven times and assisted on two more goals. The seven goals are the most by any player in the league with the next closest player having just five and a few others sitting on four. Better yet, the seven goals are off of just 12 shots (excluding blocked shots). That’s a goal every 64.1 minutes played.
All that production has left a lot of people wondering, when will Belmar get his chance with the first team? When The Blue Testament asked Belmar about that after the game against Phoenix Rising on Saturday, he remained humble stating, “that’s always an added bonus. At the end of the day [I’m] just trying to develop, continue to get games, continue to play and work hard and try to show the best I can so you know whenever the chances comes I’ll be ready to take them.”
Belmar is not a unique case when it comes to American soccer. He’s already 25-years-old because he attended college at Virginia Commonwealth Universty (VCU) where he featured for the Rams for the better part of his four seasons. In 76 appearances in college he scored 18 goals. Before coming to the Rangers, Belmar spent two seasons with Portland Timbers 2 and another with the Portland Timbers U23s. In those seasons he scored another 22 goals. In a little more than one season with the Swope Park Rangers, Belmar is already the club’s all-time leading scorer with 22 goals in league play.
Peter Vermes has noticed. When TBT asked about Belmar’s play at practice he was quick to respond. “It’s been good. When you are an attacking player, you [want to make sure] you are hitting the back of the net, or at least giving service. One of those two things is important from a production perspective. The other part of it is that the team, while you are playing, is getting results. I’m happy for him because he’s a hard worker. It also validates one of the reasons why we picked him up. We thought he had something that he could give to the team.”
Hard work is always something that Vermes values in his players. Another thing he values from his attackers is playing defense. “I still think he has a lot to learn, especially in the model of play because there are two aspects: the attack and the defending,” said Vermes. When we asked if defense is what he needs to wokr on mostly, Vermes responded, “he needs other aspects too; it’s not just that. He’s a real penetrating guy. You have to have all the aspects of the game, and our game is not just that. Sometimes we have to be able to keep the ball; sometimes you have to be able to then pick the moment of when do you penetrate based on us having the ball. It’s those types of things. He’s getting there.”
It’s possible Vermes is saying that Belmar’s propensity to attack first is not what he is looking for on the first team right now. Sporting KC do play a much more possession-oriented game than they have in years past. The USL doesn’t seem to have statistics readily available on when players are dispossessed. Maybe Belmar’s attacking runs, while leading to nine goals this year (seven goals and two assists), are leading to too many turnovers. The Rangers, much like their senior team compatriots, are giving up more goals than are typical.
I personally haven’t noticed issues with Belmar’s play for the Rangers. For his part, he spoke highly of his attacking teammates. “Me and Hadji [Barry] and Tyler [Blackwood] all have a good relationship – pretty fluid. It’s fun playing with those guys. We all understand, and we are all looking for each other on the field to try and make plays. It’s exciting to have that kind of relationship with guys that you’ve never played with before,” concluded Belmar. While the attack has looked potent, to my eyes it’s obvious Barry and Blackwood are currently USL level players and I’d say it’s entirely possible Belmar keeps the ball because the chances to score go up with him having the ball (my words, not his).
The question is, would he play the same in MLS where the defense is better and also his teammates are better? Something tells me he wouldn’t. When TBT talked to him, he said, “a lot of the training sessions are more difficult than the games are. [During the games] I’m not tracking down Johnny Russell or Johan or matching up with Ike. It’s all been an awesome learning experience to train every day, playing games, and implement those things that are happening in training against arguably the best players in the league right now.” He also indicated he trains with the first team almost exclusively and then joins the Rangers for games. So it’s entirely possible it’s in practice, not USL games, that he has to prove his worth to PV and company.
Back to being 25. It’s definitely not old. But in soccer, 25 isn’t that young for an attacking player. When we asked Belmar about his biggest strength he responded, “my athleticism. That’s definitely something that has separated me from different players in the games.” Athleticism is something that goes with age. When we asked Vermes if had a sense of urgency for Belmar, he wasn’t concerned at all.
“I’m not really thinking about it that way, to be honest. If he was 30-years-old, we’d be talking about something different; he wouldn’t even be on the Swope Park Rangers. I think he’s making a progression. What we have to take into consideration as a sport in this country is because of the college system, in comparison to everywhere else, one of the big things is that you are going to have guys that are late-bloomers. When they come out of college they are 22-years-old a lot of times. That period of time, you have to push it back a little bit. [Gianluca] Busio, hopefully he’s starting to hit the team when he’s 18 [he’s just 15 now, which will go against his goal of getting onto the field in 2018]; if he does it any earlier, even better. Look at [Jaylin] Lindsey, he’s already in the team at 17. Guys like [Kharlton] come out of college, then it take them a few more years to get there like they would want to. But he is progressing.”
When we asked Belmar if he feels the urgency and is dreaming of being in the starting 11 for the first team, he stayed humble again. “Not necessarily,” Belmar stated. “That’s something that’s obviously in the back of your head when you see 15-year-olds sign. It’s one of those things. My mom always told me, ‘You are only as old as you think you are.’ At the end of the day, if I’m still running around and performing well at 25, 26, 27, somebody is going to be willing to take a look at that. I don’t really focus on that side of it as much. Trying to make sure I enjoy myself, and, at the same time pushing to break into the team. Whenever that time comes, hopefully I’ll be ready. It’s been a good start to the year. It’s been really fun so far; I’m really enjoying my soccer and playing the game right now. It’s really exciting.”
For their parts, it seems like the coach and player are on the same page. Or at least Belmar is saying all the right things. That said, it seems he’s earned a run out with the first team. It may not happen until double game weeks or US Open Cup play, but it’s deserved. Especially if he is available off the bench while Sporting are trailing. A penetrating run could be just what the team needs when they are chasing a goal, or better yet, trying to turn a draw into a win. Play the man Peter!
Thanks to Robert Rusert for obtaining many of the Belmar quotes and all the Vermes quotes.