KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sporting Kansas City is prepared to roll into the 2022 season with Khiry Shelton entrenched as the starting center forward.
He’s not as accomplished as a goal scorer as Alan Pulido — a Designated Player and former Liga MX scoring champ, who underwent season-ending knee surgery last month, but he brings other, sometimes unheralded, qualities to the table that Sporting KC values.
During two seasons with Sporting KC, Pulido has appeared in 33 games, including 26 starts, during the MLS regular season with 14 goals and seven assists.
Meanwhile, Shelton has eight goals and three assists while appearing in 51 matches, including 42 starts, during that same span, but such measures diminish his total value.
“When he plays in that position, our percentage of winning is very high,” Sporting KC Manager and Sporting Director Peter Vermes said. “I think he’s evolved as a player in that position. I also think that, what doesn’t get noticed by most people, is the incredible attention that he draws or the work that he does off the ball that really helps the players around him.”
Shelton probably is the best hold-up center forward on Sporting KC’s roster, able to play with his back to the goal and fend off defenders as his teammates work to find space and generate chances.
“Khiry’s a player who is very good at playing as a No. 9 and holding the defenders, fighting with them and drawing their attention so we can have our moments and runs off of him,” left winger Daniel Sallói said.
Shelton also has an incredible work rate pressing to recover the ball when opposing teams are on the attack.
“For me, he’s a big help and the other thing I really enjoy is, when we press, I really like to have Khiry up top,” Sallói said. “He’s good at picking his moments and pushing through at defenders. We do a good job as a team when he’s the one starting the press.”
In many ways, Shelton is cut from Vermes’ mold — hard-nosed playing both ways, detail-oriented and willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the club.
“He’s an unbelievable character person within our group,” Vermes said. “The guys have a tremendous amount of respect for him. They know that he puts it all in there. They know how hard he works.”
Still, Pulido’s injury certainly put added pressure on Sporting KC to add depth at the position, hence the announcement last week that Montenegrin striker Nikola Vujnovic had been acquired on loan from the top league in Serbia.
“It was very important for us to add at least one more player in that part of the field,” Vermes said. “It’s a good situation for us. It’s a player who’s on loan and we’ll work from there and try to get him adapted to the team as quick as possible.”
Sporting KC will have the option to purchase Vujnovic’s contract outright at season’s end. He shows a deft touch in front of goal and the ability to score with either foot.
While Shelton is an imposing presence at 6 feet-3 inches, the 5-foot-10 Vujnovic, who has yet to arrive as he awaits a work visa, brings more of a shifty and elusive presence to the position.
“He’s got good pace, can make chances for himself both left and right foot, good between the lines and good in build-up,” Vermes said.
Sporting KC released two other developmental forwards — Tyler Freeman, who had recently been recalled from his loan, and Grayson Barber — last week. Vermes declined to elaborate on the decision to release both players.
“I’m not going to get into the details of it,” Vermes said. “I never do. I wish those guys all the best, but they just don’t fit for us as we’re going forward and I thought it’s best for those guys to see if they can latch on with another team, so they can get the playing that they need going forward to become players, if that’s what they want to do.”
Could there be additional moves coming up top? Vermes didn’t rule it out.
“We’re always looking to upgrade the roster,” Vermes said. “The roster’s never done, so we’re always looking to add players. That’s just never going to change.”
But Sporting KC is comfortable for now rolling into the regular season, which starts Sunday at Atlanta United FC, with Shelton and Vujnovic as the center forwards.