With Sporting Kansas City’s playoff hopes officially over, we can only call 2022 one of the most disappointing seasons since the Club’s rebranding in 2011. Changes to the roster will be happening and one polarizing figure will be at the center of fan discussion. Will Khiry Shelton return to the squad?
Shelton has drawn the ire of fans for being one of the worst starting forwards in MLS this year. Despite his lack of production and sometimes horrific first touches, Manager Peter Vermes kept starting him. His starts are largely due to a lack of depth at the position which only compounded fan frustration.
Shelton, 29, is out of contract at the end of the season with a club option to bring him back for 2023. While many will want his option declined the instant the season is over, there’s more to consider when looking past the emotions and lack of production.
Why Shelton Won’t Return
Those hoping Khiry won’t be back in 2023 are largely justified in their position. There are numerous shortcomings in his game and the production and results have all but disappeared in 2022.
Shelton has never been a prominent goal scorer throughout his career. In 184 total games, he has scored just 27 goals which is a goal every 5th game. Shelton has only provided one goal and assist in MLS play all season in over 1,400 minutes. He was thrust back into the starting position following Alan Pulido’s season ending surgery on his knee.
Center Forward depth has been a position of need for the club and Vermes addressed that in July with the acquisition of Willy Agada. Shelton lost the starting job as soon as Agada was ready. The biggest question at #9 for 2023 revolves around fitting Agada and Pulido into the lineup together or how to handle the backup position. Any way you look at it, Shelton is on the outside looking in.
The biggest defense of Shelton’s tenures (2018 and 2020-Present) has centered around how he elevated his teammates around him. Midway through 2022 it was painfully obvious this was no longer the case. When a facilitator doesn’t facilitate, what value does he bring? There were times this season when Khiry gave up quality chances and looked to pass instead. These instances seemed to tell defenders they didn’t have to key on a big center forward and could instead focus on defending runs from the wings as the primary threat. Through the 2022 season, it’s become harder and harder for anyone to defend his play and social media is full of fans that have stood by him giving up on that position.
Shelton will be turning 30 partway through the 2023 season. He’s well into his prime at this point and the regression seen from him in 2022 may be the writing on the wall. He’s getting to the point where there is more potential risk than reward in retaining him as his contributions continue to diminish.
Why Shelton Will Return
While fans may disagree, Shelton re-signing with Sporting shouldn’t be looked upon as an outright negative for the team. There is plenty of upside behind a move like this despite the lack of goal scoring. On top of that, Vermes likes him and Shelton does everything asked of a striker in this system. His work rate is off the charts, he presses constantly, he’s stayed consistently healthy and available, and he’s capable of playing any of the front three positions in the 4-3-3. Versatility has been a huge deciding factor in the past when re-signing players. Jacob Peterson and Jimmy Medranda were two utility players that moved all over the field for Vermes. Using one roster spot to address multiple backup roles can be invaluable in this league.
In 2018, SKC set their club record for goals scored in a season with 72. Shelton participated in 20 matches with the team winning 17 of those and the team only lost two of their games in which he started. Furthermore, he was an unused substitute in the playoff loss that year. This trend of team success continued in 2020 with the team only losing three games in which Shelton started. 2021 saw more mixed results with the team losing eight games involving Shelton in the starting lineup, but 2021 was the beginning of a rapid decline for a perennial powerhouse defense. It’s hard to argue against the success the club has had with Shelton on the field.
What many fans may not realize is Shelton was primarily listed as a Right-Winger until Vermes was forced to play him as a CF. While Shelton’s abysmal eight goals and nine assists in 62 games as a CF justify letting him leave, his five goals and nine assists from the right wing are fairly average through 29 career games. A goal contribution every 180 minutes isn’t starting caliber in MLS anymore, but if his primary role is to backup an aging Johnny Russell he’s got the experience and the credentials to be a quality depth piece. Khiry has three goals and three assists in 12 games as a winger for Vermes.
Shelton’s lack of production could easily stem from a confidence issue, and we’ve seen Vermes stand by another talented winger struggling to find his form in Daniel Salloi. Salloi broke out in 2018 and then slumped into obscurity before exploding back into the line up in 2021 on his way to becoming an MVP hopeful. Managing his role and lowering the expectations on him as a substitute could rebuild his confidence as an attacker.
It feels slightly unfair to judge any one player based on the numbers from the 2022 season. When the team lost two Designated Players in Alan Pulido and Gadi Kinda to season ending surgeries, it was apparent this team was going to struggle to create chances. Both Russell and Salloi appeared to have regressed nearly as much as Shelton. This team needed everyone to step up and that never really happened.
While many fans can justify their disdain for Khiry Shelton and make thorough and well-reasoned arguments against bringing him back in 2023, there is a better than average chance we see him return. He’s versatile enough to fill three depth positions as the backup RW and third string CF (Pulido/Agada) and LW (Salloi/Tzionis). His defensive work rate is invaluable to a manager like Vermes trying to protect a lead while closing out games.
Shelton is the typical “favorite type of player” that Peter Vermes gravitates towards. It’s very easy to see him being offered a contract to be the next utility player that isn’t asked to start every game. It may not be the best move, the right move, or a popular move, but it is the type of move that has been made in the past. Moving on from Shelton will be greener pastures for many fans, but the reality is a replacement may or may not be better or as well rounded in this system and only Vermes knows for sure.
Additional Positional Note
Johnny Russell, 32, is out of contract following the 2023 season and will be turning 34 at the start of the 2024 season. A potential change at RW at the end of his contract could influence the current decision with Shelton. Does the team value consistency and view Shelton as potential stability in the event Russell does not come back or would the team like to find a younger backup to Russell in 2023 that they can carry forward with or without Russell on the roster? Vermes is no stranger to making wholesale changes at a position doing so recently with Logan Ndenbe and Ben Sweat after declining options on Luis Martins and Amadou Dia.