Khiry Shelton finally scored a goal for Sporting Kansas City, but one goal in eleven games is not enough on its own for a striker to justify a spot in the starting XI. The question with Khiry is whether all the other things he does on the field add enough value to do so. One argument in favor of his value is that he creates chances for other players through hard work, making runs and holding the ball up. In order to more determine if this argument holds weight, there are several aspects of his play which can be numerically analyzed to examine Shelton's contribution.
The first and most obvious is, of course, scoring goals, and it is the one where Khiry is most clearly deficient. One goal in 1018 minutes is downright terrible for a striker. Goals are rare, low-probability events so there are other ways to measure his attacking prowess that could be better. He is taking 2.75 shots per game, which is definitely on the low end for a lone center forward. (For context, Dwyer averaged 3.53 for SKC from 2015-17 and Rubio had 3.25 last year.) More disturbing is the fact that he is getting only 0.80 shots on target per game, which is significantly below both Dwyer and Rubio who always comfortably averaged more than one shot on target per game. This leads to some skepticism as to whether or not Khiry could live up to his 0.35 xG/90 numbers. (Context again: Rubio 2017 – 0.38, Dwyer 2017 – 0.49, Dwyer 2016 – 0.50)
Adding in Assists
But even strikers should not be judged solely on their shooting skills, and the next obvious category is how well Khiry helps set up other players to score goals. The first and simplest way to do this is to look at primary assists. Shelton's assist numbers compare more favorably here, but are nothing special by themselves. Credited with two assists this season, I strongly disagree with giving him credit for "assisting" the own goal attributed to Felipe Gutierrez vs D.C. United [Editor: technically Felipe got credit for this goal, but the shot was most definitely off target]. If you throw out that one, Khiry has only one assist in 1018 minutes. However his xA numbers are significantly better, at 0.16 xA/90, suggesting that he is doing a decent job (for a center forward) of directly providing service to his teammates. These xA numbers are far above Dwyer's, who averaged less than half that in his last two and a half seasons with Sporting KC, but slightly below Rubio's 2017 form of 0.18 xA/90.
Khiry Shelton's Passing: Balls to Nowhere
The above assist numbers are decent, but primary assists only count the pass immediately before a shot is taken. To rectify this failing, we can instead add in xB numbers: expected buildup. Essentially what this does is give credit equally to all players involved in a passing sequence leading up to a shot except for the player making the final pass. (The last one is excluded as it shows up as xA.) And here is where Shelton's reputation fails him. He wasn't supposed to be a great goal scorer, and the numbers have confirmed that he isn't. But what Shelton was supposed to be good at was letting teammates play through him to facilitate shooting later, but the numbers suggest that his passing is generally unproductive. At 0.08 xB/90, Shelton is actually doing a slightly worse job of providing a pivot to play through than Diego Rubio did last year, when he averaged 0.09xB/90, which he has also matched in his limited minutes this season.
What makes this even more surprising is the fact that Khiry is attempting more passes per game and completing them at a slightly higher rate: Khiry has averaged 20.31 completed passes per game this season whereas in 2017 Rubio had only 18.09 completed passes per game. You can see the difference in their passing styles in that Rubio's average vertical distance per pass last year was only 1.07 yards backwards, whereas this year Khiry on average passes the ball 3.56 yards backwards. This despite the fact that Khiry has often had the benefit of playing against teams down a man (or two) this season.
Another statistical measure of passing ability is the AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com expected passing model where Khiry is deemed the worst passer on Sporting KC with 4% fewer passes completed than expected based on the difficulty of the passes he attempts.
An excellent illustration of Khiry's backward tendencies came recently at Minnesota just before the 60 minute mark: Croizet dispossessed and dribbled past Schuller and then passed the ball to Khiry. With Russell on his right managing to get goalside of his defender, Croizet on the left still open (admittedly not making a run) and the option to dribble 1v1 against the last remaining defender standing between the ball and the goal, Shelton elected to play the ball sideways and backwards to Daniel Salloi who was being marked more effectively than either Russell or Croizet.
Technically it counted as a key pass for Khiry because Salloi dribbled past a defender and shot, but from outside the box and after no less than three other defenders were able to get goalside of Salloi to limit his shooting angle. In my book, that falls more under the category of a chance wasted than a chance created.
Reassessing Shelton's Role
In the end, Khiry is really more of a "play-passer" than a playmaker, passing the chance on to another teammate after the danger has already been created by another player. And because he is not creating them from a forward location, but rather passing back the chances that have been created by others, the quality of chances he creates tends to be on the low end. Measuring this as expected assists over key passes, he has averaged 0.09xA/KP this season. That is lower than Zusi who averages 0.124, Salloi at 0.127, Russell at 0.094, Felipe at 0.125, and Croizet at 0.129. Note that mathematically speaking it is more desirable to create a smaller number of high quality chances than a large number of low quality ones. This is because a small number of high quality shots leads to less variance in goals scored than a large number of low quality shots, and there is a diminishing marginal returns effect that makes the first goal more valuable than the second, which in turn is more valuable than the third and so on.
Last season this was a big problem for SKC where despite having a good goal difference (+11) at the end of the season they had only three more wins than losses because they had many multi-goal wins and a lot of single goal losses. This was largely due to their offensive tendency to either rack up the goals or get shut out, and ended up costing them a home playoff game. Sporting's attack has greatly improved over last season, but Shelton does not appear to be part of that improvement.