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Who Should Start at Center Forward with Nemeth Out?

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A red card suspension will leave Sporting KC without any strikers against Seattle.

MLS: Sporting Kansas City at D.C. United Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The timing was less than ideal. Sporting Kansas City were enjoying their first lead in a Major League Soccer game in over a month. Krisztian Nemeth was tracking back defensively and was being jostled around by a Vancouver Whitecaps player when he went down with his leg extended into Felipe Martins ankle/calf.

It was a deserved red card. Nemeth apologized immediately and the referee showed no hesitation sending him off. SKC would go on to play down a man for up to 40 minutes. But they caught a break. In the 72nd minute, Whitecaps coach Marc dos Santos made his final substitution taking off Jakob Nerwinski for Joaquin Ardaiz. Almost immediately afterwards Doneil Henry went down injured. Vancouver were out of subs and the teams were playing 10 versus 10 soccer.

And Sporting KC almost held on. Instead, in the 94th minute, Derek Cornelius hit a beautiful volley into the net to level the game at one all. And that’s how it would end. But now Sporting Kansas City, who are up to six weeks without a win, must host second place Seattle Sounders this Sunday. It’s the first of three games that will be played against three of the top four teams in the West (only LAFC aren’t on the immediate schedule) in a seven day span.

Because of the red card, Sporting KC will be without their leading scorer for the first of those three games. The question is, who replaces Nemeth with his primary backup (Erik Hurtado) out injured? Let’s break down the options.

Yohan Croizet

Croizet is one of two players who are healthy who has actually played some center forward this season. He had his lone start there back on April 7th against FC Cincinnati when Peter Vermes nearly fully rotated his squad for a Champions League game that was approaching against Monterrey. He played 70 minutes before being replaced by Nemeth.

Overall, Yohan hasn’t played in any one position enough to get very good at any of them. He’s a true jack-of-all-trades but a master of none. He seems like the most likely candidate to take Nemeth’s CF minutes but I said that about him taking Daniel Salloi’s minutes on the wing last weekend and instead those went to Kelyn Rowe and Croizet began the game on the bench.

Johnny Russell

Russell is the other player with some center forward minutes but that was because of the necessity of covering that part of the field on Saturday with Nemeth sent off. His skill set probably doesn’t fit the need of a true center forward and he’s better used on the wing. Not to mention if he’s not playing the wing that just puts another player out of position covering for him on the right wing.

Russell also did play a more central forward role in last years US Open Cup game against Real Salt Lake. He played underneath Kharlton Belmar and the duo worked well together. Belmar is currently in the USL playing with Nashville SC or he’d have been a good option.

Daniel Salloi

If Salloi is healthy (and he was listed as questionable with a groin injury before he was ultimately scratched from the lineup against the Whitecaps) he probably has the most center forward minutes of anyone on the roster. He’s been out of form in his limited minutes at left wing this year and it’s unclear if he’ll even be healthy enough to play. He seems like a more likely option than Russell but the need to replace his LW minutes then falls to someone else playing out of position (or the rookie Freeman). It’s quite the conundrum.

Gianluca Busio

Busio is my darkhorse to start up top. He is by no means a striker but he has a knack for scoring goals. He’d probably work better as a second forward underneath someone like Nemeth or a target forward. Instead, he’d have to play a false 9, which may be the teams best option.

In 2019 Nemeth has dropped further into the midfield and combined with players more than any forward in recent memory. Busio would be perfect at that. What he lacks in the ability to hold up play with his body or win headers in the air, he could make up for in craftiness in the final third.

Wilson Harris

Last week Sporting KC signed Swope Park Ranger and former SKC Academy product Wilson Harris to a four-day extreme hardship loan. He was on the bench versus Vancouver but any hope of him getting on the field was dashed when Nemeth with out with the red card.

SKC have the option to do another loan for him if they are below 14 field players but that seems unlikely with Gianluca Busio and Tyler Freeman returning from international duty. Those additions alone would push SKC above the minimum assuming no one else is added to the injury list this week (hardly guaranteed). Even if he was on the team, that’s a big ask to make your MLS debut against Seattle.

Tyler Freeman

Speaking of Freeman, he filled in at center forward for Harris in preseason when he went down injured and scored a goal from that spot in preseason as well. In his limited minutes with Swope Park this year (he’s been away with the United States U-17s and the SKC Academy at the Generation adidas Cup) he’s played left wing. Him being available to play left wing could push Salloi centrally or give options off the bench in the middle. Overall, I wouldn’t want Freeman’s first MLS start to come against Seattle as it’s a big ask for a young kid with zero MLS minutes.

Another Midfielder

It’s possible that someone else who plays midfielder (currently the deepest and healthiest position on the roster) could step into that false 9 role. Kelyn Rowe technically was playing there a bit when Russell would rotate out wide after Nemeth went off on Saturday. He was relatively ineffective (as almost anyone would be with 10 men on the field). Rowe isn’t a great candidate and I’m not sure anyone else in the midfield really is either, outside of maybe Busio.

Formation Change

It’s possible all the injuries coupled with the Nemeth suspension could lead to the need for Peter Vermes to make a formation change. As mentioned above, there are more healthy midfielders than any other position on the roster. Crowding the midfield could create turnovers and allow Russell and whoever else is healthy enough to play forward with him get out on the counter. Or Salloi could play up top with Russell underneath.

When SKC did it on the Open Cup it was a three man backline though and there are barely enough healthy center backs to fill a bench. It could be a move that surprises Seattle but I doubt it. I think Vermes would rather play his standard 4-3-3 because at least his players know their responsibilities in that system. They will need to be perfect to have a chance against Seattle and they were far from perfect in the 2018 Open Cup game with a new formation. Also, the 3-5-2 (or 5-3-2) they played required attacking fullbacks which Sporting don’t have right now with the Graham Zusi and Rodney Wallace injuries.

My Vote...

... is probably that Croizet will play, but that maybe Busio should play. What do you think? Let us know in the comments.