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Revisiting Who Should Play Center Forward for Sporting KC

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With multiple transfer offers out the answer may be “whoever gets signed” but lets revisit this season long question.

MLS: Houston Dynamo at Sporting KC
Three candidates on the field at the same time.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Through every Major League Soccer season, there are always going to battles at different positions but no position gets as much attention as who players striker. I looked at this position battle back in mid-March and surprisingly not much has changed. There still hasn’t been a Designated Player (or any player) signed at center forward and if anything the options have dwindled with the knee injury to Khiry Shelton (out 2-3 months). So with Sporting Kansas City in the middle of a severe slump and 10-day break, we revisit who should be playing CF.

Daniel Salloi

An injury to Shelton opened the door to Salloi to start his first game at center forward against Minnesota United on June 3rd. He’d score a goal, but it was against Minnesota (who allowed four goals that game). His only other center forward start where he got a goal was against the Houston Dynamo in that wild 3-2 SKC comeback (Sporting’s last win). In that same game Rubio and Shelton subbed on and scored and Salloi added two assists when he was moved to his natural wing position. In games where Salloi plays his more natural left wing spot he has four goals and six assists.

Another factor that seems to leave Salloi at a disadvantage is his size. While he’s 6’1” tall, he’s somehow only 150 lbs. He just turned 22-years-old, but he has yet to get his “man muscles.” He has managed to overcome this to a certain extent with his superior technical ability.

For my money, he belongs on the wing. He’s had opportunities to score from center forward that he’s missed and lesser opportunities from the wing that he’s converted. He’s said he feels more comfortable there and his superior passing is taken advantage of on the wing more so than at CF. Also, if he starts on the wing, that allows Gerso Fernandes to either play the role of supersub (where he looks better) or spell Johnny Russell who desperately needs a rest. The only way I want Salloi at CF is if substitution patterns dictate that he has to slide over there and cover until the end of a game.

Diego Rubio

Let’s start with the numbers. In only 203 minutes of MLS play, Diego Rubio has three goals and two assists (Shelton has two goals and two assists in 1,157 minutes). While those stats are likely not sustainable, they are outstanding.

Some will say he hasn’t been playing because he doesn’t do those “extra” things that Shelton does: pressing defensively, holding up the ball and other things that can’t be measured in stats. While I’ll concede he can’t press quite like Shelton does, neither can Salloi. On the other hand, Rubio is actually vastly superior with his footwork and better at maintaining possession of the ball than Shelton and his passing is also better.

So then, what is it? Well, Peter Vermes seems to not care for Rubio. It’s unclear what is happening in practice or if it’s an attitude thing. Maybe Vermes thinks Rubio is one of the players that quit against Houston in the US Open. Rubio was subbed off when the team needed a goal and after he hadn’t played the previous Saturday (unlike every other player still on the field). I willingly admit I’ve seen moments where Rubio hasn’t hustled as much as I’d like, but generally he plays very hard and he simply has a knack for scoring goals.

Yohan Croizet

Possibly the most intriguing option at center forward is Yohan Croizet. He was signed as the replacement to Benny Feilhaber but then Felipe Gutierrez was available on a free transfer. So Yohan moved out to the wing in a disastrous experiment. With the injury to Gutierrez he got significant minutes in the midfield and proved he may not be a system fit there either.

Where we haven’t seen much of him is at center forward. He got eight minutes there way back in March against the San Jose Earthquakes and another 19 minutes this past Wednesday against the Dynamo in the US Open Cup. He scored a goal (with a bit of luck) on Wednesday but the sample size is extremely small.

The real reason for intrigue is that his skill may fit best at this spot. He’s very aggressive offensively and more importantly, his flaws (as many have pointed out) are minimized at CF. His propensity to turn the ball over will hurt less from further up the field. Croizet does actually work hard on defense it just seems tracking all the way back to his goal is not ideal for him. If he only has to pressure further up the field, that could play into his skills. And while Croizet struggles with the short midfield passes, he actually has very good attacking passes. He had that beauty the other day that was inch-perfect that Salloi failed to finish. He had that lovely through ball that led to the Brad Guzan red card in Atlanta. Even against Houston he had a lovely pass to Salloi that was only denied by great defense from Fuenmayor.

I don’t want Croizet starting at CF, but if Vermes needs a spot to bring him on late with Gutierrez getting healthy, CF could be the spot.

Kharlton Belmar

In just 11 USL games, Belmar has bagged nine goals. That’s with limited talent around him this season. In MLS play he only has four appearances for 65 minutes. Obviously spreading 65 minutes over four appearances means none of them were very long. His only Sporting KC start came in the US Open Cup at center forward with Johnny Russell playing underneath him and he scored a goal and assisted another.

He seems to play bigger and stronger than his 5’11”, 160 lbs frame would indicate. He’s strong on the ball and pretty good in the air. He’s played for SPR almost exclusively on the left wing (the usual home of Daniel Salloi for SKC). Vermes indicated in interviews earlier this year that Belmar doesn’t always play the way he wants him to with his propensity to attack when maintaining possession might be better. I have noticed sometimes Belmar attacks and loses possession, specifically when he beat two defenders in the New York Red Bulls game then forced a shot when he had runners in the box.

I’d like to see him get more SKC minutes, whether on the wing or at CF, to see if he can play at a MLS level.

Khiry Shelton (after 2-3 months)

Vermes preferred option has 16 appearances (13 starts) and is currently out for 2-3 months after knee surgery. That could put him back as late as mid-October. Hopefully the CF position is sorted out by then and Vermes isn’t forced to experiment putting Shelton back in. His production is abysmal for his minutes (two goals, two assists) but his supporters will tell you it’s all the “other stuff” he does. I’m not convinced since he loses the ball so much and has subpar passing. Hard work only takes you so far. Our own Aly Trost suggested maybe he could play CB with his size, speed and effort and that’s something that also intrigues me. Not this season, but maybe next year after Sporting have hopefully shored up the CF spot.

Some Swope Park Ranger?

There are really no good options at center forward for the Rangers. Hadji Barry is the best non-SKC loanee in goal scoring (seven goals in 20 appearances). He plays some center forward but has spent most of his time on the wing. He is really fast and strong but he’s got a really bad first touch and it might show pure desperation if he was getting Sporting KC center forward minutes.

Tyler Blackwood has been getting a lot of run-outs at both winger and center forward with limited results. He has two goals in 18 appearances and has been called SPR’s Khiry Shelton by The Blue Testament community members.

An intriguing option for the future is Wilson Harris. He has two goals in nine appearances (450 minutes) and is just 18-years-old. He needs more seasoning and hasn’t shown much yet but has flashes of talent. Enough that he passed up going to the University of Louisville to sign a pro contract with the Rangers.

That Mystical DP Signing

Lots of fans are still holding their breath that Sporting KC acquire a Designated Player (or at least TAM level) striker. According the KC Star, the team has made “multiple offers.”

“We have offers out there,” Vermes said. “We’re working hard to make something happen. We have been for awhile. It’s not like we just now decided to get after it. We’ve been getting after it.”

The Star goes on to say “club ownership has approved a significant transfer fee” and that the players they’ve been targeting reside in “Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium and France.”

The MLS secondary transfer window closes on August 8th. As we previously indicated, Sporting are targeting a #9 as well as a midfielder and left back in this window. There are a little over two weeks left to make some moves.

Even if a striker is signed, it’s unclear what level of contribution they’d make this year. Vermes has been reluctant in past seasons to integrate new signings right away but if you spend millions that player has to get on the field and they have to do it a lot.

So Who Actually Starts?

My money is on Salli, even though I’ve made the case for Rubio to be the starter. Rubio appears to be in the dog house for whatever reason. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a mix of Belmar and Croizet get minutes there too. If Vermes isn’t going to play Rubio a lot, they absolutely need a striker. If they do player Rubio, they might be able to slide by without one, but most fans won’t be happy.

I put out two polls this week on Twitter. First, what the reaction would be if SKC don’t get a striker. Surprisingly most were OK with not making a move (though they’d be disappointed).

The second was who you’d start at CF if no DP arrives. Salloi was up by 1% after 350 votes and I may have swayed the voting by tweeting my Rubio endorsement. As of this story publishing, Rubio is now up by a single percentage point.

Of course I have to ask, who do you start? The great debate continues in the comments.