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Sporting KC’s Daniel Salloi: A study. A natural. A friend. A savior?

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Winger/Striker’s current form key for Sporting KC

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Sporting KC vs FC Dallas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Moments. Twenty-one-year-old Daniel Salloi has had them. Last season, it was Sporting Kansas City’s homegrown forward scoring the match clincher in the final of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, winning the club its fourth such title, one short of the record.

This season, Salloi’s first as an established starter, there have been many moments. But this one, arguably, is the most revealing: the game-winning goal at then Supporter’s Shield leaders Atlanta United FC on May 9. Atlanta had all but played Kansas City out of the building in the previous half, only to suffer a red card and go down a man. But the match was still very much in doubt for the guests as Atlanta’s daunted attack continued its ever-present fury. But that all changed with a sublime play from Salloi.

The realization of where he needed to be before the pass (is two steps to greatness). The guile and gall to even attempt the shot. The desire to make a difference in a match that few expected Kansas City would win. Daniel Salloi has things that not all players have.

In his second season full season with Sporting KC, Salloi has tallied six goals and six assists in MLS regular season play and two goals in 100 minutes of U.S. Open Cup. Nearly all his goals have revealed a different quality that an elite goal scorer has in the toolbox. Go check them out.

Salloi, like most kids, always wanted to be a striker, although he plies his trade mostly as a winger for Peter Vermes’ side. He never quite got those other kids.

“I never get why defenders want to be defenders,” Salloi said. “I once asked [teammate and center back] Ike [Opara], and he told me, ‘Did you think I wanted to be a defender?’ As a kid, I always enjoyed scoring goals and having the ball.”

But Salloi didn’t naively go about becoming good at what he does. He is a student of the game. He has hinted at studying techniques of his heroes. He gets video clips from his father (though sometimes unsolicited). Mostly, he is his own worst, or best, critic.

“I watch back my games all the time and see what I could have done better. If I find things I should work on, I do…,” he said. “There are things you can practice, and you can do it in practice. But once you are in the game, it’s a totally different situation. That’s why it’s been nice that I’ve been scoring a lot of goals because even though I make mistakes, I try things that I wouldn’t try. And I think that’s the key, and that’s what is going to drive me to be a better player.”

What a player does on the ball is key. Yet anticipation, and positioning, and just a feel for where to be sets the great apart from the good. That recognition, as Salloi calls it, came over time. And out of necessity.

“It was difficult when I was a kid. When everybody started growing, I was still tiny. I couldn’t get the ball because I needed to either get stronger or get taller. The second came; I got taller… Then I started using my speed,” said the Hungarian native who came to Kansas City as an exchange student when he was 18. “You have to recognize what’s good for you. Finishing is something that’s in my blood that I know where to go in the box. But, at the same time, it’s a lot of practice too. You recognize situations where you can get into the box and make movements. That’s how you score goals.”

“He’s an extremely talented kid. He’s got good size. He’s quick. He’s clever. And he can finish,” lauded fellow winger, Scotsman Johnny Russell. “He’s understanding of the game and finding space and possessions in the box; he’s very good at that. You can’t really teach that…”

As Sporting Kansas City and Technical Director and Manager Vermes continue their search for a goal-scoring number 9, wonder abounds if Salloi could be the guy despite his sleek and trim build at 6’1”, 150lbs. He has started four matches at center forward and has played minutes of other games there as well. Hold up play is integral to a traditional center striker. But Salloi has many traits that fit well in the box, as he has stated herein. Vermes believes he has appropriate traits too.

“Daniel is a very mobile player. So you stick him in the middle, and he causes a lot of problems,” said Vermes after a June 3, 4-1 win over Minnesota United FC in which Salloi scored in the 9th minute at striker. “Most central defenders don’t like to get pulled wide, and they don’t like guys that have a lot of movement up there… The other part of it is that he is very hungry to score. That goal that he scored was world-class.”

Never mind if Salloi’s future lies at winger or center striker. Sporting KC just needs him on the field. And one can argue that Salloi has been a savior in a stretch where injuries and schedule congestion have hit the team.

The facts: Salloi has scored goals in six of the last eleven games in all competitions, including in five of the last nine games in MLS play (with two assists). In the MLS stretch, Sporting has gone 4-2-3 with Salloi contributing two game-winning goals and one game-winning helper (3 & 3 on the season). He has five goals and two assists in that stretch. Sporting would surely be out of the U.S. Open Cup without his two goals in a 3-2 comeback win over FC Dallas at home on June 16. His goal and two assists were integral to the incredible 3-2 comeback win over Houston Dynamo the very next week. Sporting Kansas City is 5-1-0 in MLS play when Salloi scores. The man has stepped up.

Yet he retains a boyish inner joy to go with his mindfulness and aggressiveness. Just check out any of his interviews at The Blue Testament or at sportingkc.com.

“One of the reasons why he is doing as well as he is and why he is in good form and why he is getting better from game-to-game and week-to-week, is because of his attitude,” Vermes pointed. “There’s so much you can do when you have a good attitude in anything you do in life, and he has the right attitude at the moment. And if he keeps that, then his trajectory is straight up.”

Indeed. And Salloi is having the time of his life.

“I’m happy about my performance, and I’m happy that I can help the team. But it’s not about me all the time, it’s everybody. I couldn’t do it without the team. But I’m super happy for my goals and assists,” he said after the Houston victory. “This year has been very good so far. We signed so many good guys; it’s just easy to play with them. I’m just very excited to be a part of this team. These are the reasons why you want to be a soccer player. It makes me happy.”

Salloi himself attributes his recent play to confidence. But Russell, with whom Salloi enjoys a jovial, good-natured-ribbing friendship that began in the van rides in preseason, knows it is more.

“I’m delighted for him for how hard he works, and he’s such a good guy as well,” Russell said this past week. “He just needs to continue what he’s doing. Over the last while, he’s been our best player. It’s really his first year as an established player. He’s started tremendously.”

Salloi will turn 22 on July 19, and Sporting Kansas City will need Salloi to continue to perform at a high clip due in part to a recent injury to center forward Khiry Shelton that may keep him out a while.

Additionally, the next five matches in the heat of high summer come against top contenders in each conference, including four from their own Western Conference.

“We all hope [Salloi’s performance] can continue, and I’m sure it will,” closed Russell.