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Sporting KC have a Center Forward Problem

... just not the one that you would think.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at Los Angeles FC Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Through six games in 2019 (three CCL, three MLS) Krisztian Nemeth has already scored five goals. From 2017 through 2019, over 30 games (though just 1,029 minutes) he scored twice in MLS. Sporting Kansas City are getting everything they asked for from Nemeth. In limited time, he’s exactly what Peter Vermes said he would be after correcting a nagging sports hernia injury with surgery in the offseason.

This isn’t about Krisztian Nemeth.

The issue today is who is going to backup Nemeth? On Wednesday, the news came out that backup center forward Erik Hurtado would miss two to three months due to right knee surgery. It might not seem like a big loss considering he’s yet to appear in MLS play (though likely he was hurt for both the Philadelphia Union and Colorado Rapids games). However, he had made three appearances in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League (twice as a sub and a single start in the 2-1 loss to Club Atletico Independiente).

When you look around the Sporting KC roster, there are simply no other forwards other than Nemeth and Hurtado who’s primary position is center forward. With that in mind, let’s first take a look at who currently on the roster can play CF and then, in a second part of this series, over the next few days we’ll look at potential outside replacements.

Yohan Croizet

It might seem odd to start with Croizet, but he was the option on the bench who replaced Nemeth at CF in the Union game. Even though he only played six minutes in garbage time of the 2-0 victory. In 2018 he started a single game at center forward and the team won. The sample size with Croizet playing CF is just immeasurably small and it’s tough to statistically look at his impact.

On a more general scale, he doesn’t bring the same skills to the table as Nemeth. Not even close. Think of Yohan as the proverbial bull in a china shop. He’s going around crashing into everything. He’s touch is usually poor (though improving) and he doesn’t have the finesse that Nemeth has.

Additionally he holds the ball too long and is indecisive as a decision maker, which is a trait that simply doesn’t fit in the tight spaces a center forward needs to work in. Also, he tends to drift deep into the midfield both when he plays CF or when he’s on the wing. He may be a better option as a false 9.

His ideal position is still probably midfield but he may be sixth on the depth chart there, so he’s likely to play some CF or wing as he’s a Designated Player and needs to get on the field to justify his salary and transfer fee.

[I can’t proceed without noting that the ‘bull in the china shop’ saying is nonsense (even though I’ll probably keep saying it). The Mythbusters proved that long ago. Busted!]

Daniel Salloi

Probably the ideal option at center forward of who is available is Salloi. The 22-year-old still hasn’t gotten his man muscles (maybe he never will) as he’s 6’1” tall but weighs only 150 pounds. However, he fits well in the system that Sporting KC now play at center forward. Gone are the days of Dom Dwyer’s non-stop hounding of center backs and in is a style that favors playing the ball to the wingers and midfielders and properly positioning yourself to combine to score goals. In this way, Salloi is the most like Nemeth.

One potential issue is Salloi is currently hurt as well. He injured his ankle early in the 3-0 victory over CAI in leg two of the CCL, forcing Gerso onto the pitch to replace him at the wing. It’s unclear if he’s already healthy or if this is one of those nagging injury we’ll still be talking about weeks from now.

Which brings up another issue. If Salloi is playing CF, the winger depth suddenly looks very suspect. Johnny Russell and Gerso Fernandes are there. But then after them and Salloi you have Croizet playing out of position. Maybe new signings Kelyn Rowe and Rodney Wallace playing out of position. Then you are on to 16-year-old rookie Tyler Freeman. It would sure be nice not to have lost Latif Blessing to LAFC in the MLS Expansion Draft as he’s a solid winger and also an emergency CF.

Tyler Freeman

Speaking of the rookie Freeman, he was actually the first choice to replace Hurtado in the preseason at center forward. While Vermes has said he can play any of the four attacking spots (CF, LW, RW and CAM), center forward seems to be his least suitable position, despite the fact that he scored in the preseason in that spot.

Much like Croizet, he has a tendency to want to drop deep into the midfield. He might be better suited as a false 9. Also, in the single Swope Park Rangers game of the season he showed momentary flashes, but he has a long way to come. That makes sense, it was his pro debut.

What he does have in spades over Yohan is touch. He has very fancy footwork and he tries to make some remarkable things happen when he’s on the ball. That’s a good skill in tight spaces when you have two center backs closing in on you. He might realistically be the third best option behind Nemeth and Salloi, even if he can’t quite get on the field.

Johnny Russell

Everyone’s favorite right winger may have the potential to play in the center as well. For moments he’s drifted into that spot when Nemeth (or Shelton and Rubio last year) would drift wide. In the US Open Cup last year he played underneath Kharlton Belmar (who would be a good emergency option if he wasn’t with Nashville SC in the USL) in the Real Salt Lake game, almost like a second striker (though it could have been considered as more of an attacking mid). This seems like an emergency option at best.

False 9

Any number of midfielders could potentially slot in here. The aforementioned Croizet, Rowe, Felipe Gutierrez, Gianluca Busio or even right back Graham Zusi, who did this at least once in the past. With Sporting playing a heavy possession style, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Though the team definitely would look different than they do with Nemeth running the show.

None of the above options sound that great and it shows SKC have a real depth problem at center forward. With all these games so close to each other, someone else is going to have to spell Nemeth or the team will risk injuring him too, which would be a disaster.

Later this week, we at TBT will tackle potential outside targets who could step in as a new signing to fill the hole that Erik Hurtado will be leaving for at least the next two months.

[Update: It was correctly pointed out that Nemeth didn’t play in one of the CCL games, so the opening paragraph has been updated to reflect that.]