It seems like years ago now, but it was only last winter when Jason Kreis selected Khiry Shelton as the club’s first ever MLS SuperDraft selection, the number 2 pick overall after Cyle Larin.
The reason the team had the second pick is a transgression many won’t soon forget, and along with that and the fact both were drafted by expansion clbus coming in at the same time in MLS, there is an unavoidable connection between these two players: both were drafted as strikers/forwards, and while Larin has banged home goal after goal for Orlando City (setting a rookie record with 17 goals scored last season), Shelton has yet to find that same nose for goal, only scoring 3 goals so far in his New York City FC career.
But while it could be said they’re both listed at the same position, the similarities stop there. Larin has showcased himself as a strong target forward who makes good runs and is a constant threat in front of goal, using his size and speed to punish opposing defenses.
Shelton, however, has proven to be a much different type of player.
Despite having a similar size and build to Larin, Shelton prefers to use his speed and dribbling skills to try and stretch the field and finesse his way around defenders. Larin has entrenched himself as a first choice striker, while Shelton has had mercurial season where he lost his starting spot as a winger in Vieira’s 4-3-3 formation, and has tried to work his way back into Vieira’s good graces by becoming an impact sub. It’s a bit cyclical when you remember coming off the bench as an impact sub is what got fans enamored with Shelton in the first place last season, calling for him to see more playing time and become a regular in the Starting XI for Kreis in 2015.
That never really materialized for Shelton in his rookie season, as injuries derailed his promising start, and veteran additions in the summer, plus the emergence of another fan favorite, Kwadwo Poku, made minutes hard to come by.
This season, Shelton has been much healthier but has instead landed in Vieira’s dog house for uninspired performances. Along with Shelton’s dip in form came the return of this season’s number 1 overall pick, Jack Harrison, from injury. Harrison burst onto the scene and made an immediate impact for the club. So, with Tommy McNamara entrenched on the left wing, and Harrison’s emergence on the right, Shelton seems to be odd man out.
That is, until the last few weeks.
Shelton has finally worked his way back into one of Vieira’s top substitution choices and has become pretty regular on the 18 each week. Vieira has turned to Shelton as a late game impact sub, where he can use his pace and athleticism to stretch the tired legs of the defense. But, as we saw in last Thursday’s victory over D.C. United, it’s not a killer instinct in front of goal that he brings to the club, but rather an ability to create plays for others. While his pace and determination played a key part in Frank Lampard’s first goal to put the team ahead, Shelton’s passing ability was on display in Lampard’s game winner:
What Shelton has been known for even from the outset of his City career has been his pace and willingness to go 1-v-1 against the opposition. But this play also displayed the maturation of Khiry Shelton this season. Instead of trying to charge through or blow by the defenders, he picked his head up and threaded a beautiful pass to Lampard in the box, and Lampard did the rest carving up the defense with a brilliant fake. This play highlights while Shelton has not been the goalscorer many fans may hope he’d be, he is something else still very valuable: a play maker and chance creator.
Khiry is now 3rd on the team in assists after his super sub performance against D.C. United, sitting 3 behind Tommy McNamara and Andrea Pirlo. His 2 goals and 6 assists in his sophomore season so far shows stark improvement on his rookie campaign (1 goal, 1 assist) in a similar amount of games and minutes played at this point in the year. His ability to feed teammates is something he has done well even going back to his college days, as he finished his senior season at Oregon State University with 10 goals, but 12 assists.
While those are good things in his favor, he’s not out of the woods yet. He still has to work on his finishing, as his two goals from this season were more accidental than clinical. He also simply doesn’t get into the box enough to be a consistent scoring threat. And with the front 3 of Villa/McNamara/Harrison pretty much set, Shelton may have to convert into another position to find more playing time, let alone start. Vieira has found success in doing so already this season, turning Andoni Iraola from a fullback into a defensive midfielder, with shocking success. Could Shelton be his next experiment? Perhaps.
It may be very interesting to see if Shelton can be converted into a fullback, or at least more of a wingback type of player. City has toyed with a three man back line in various iterations throughout the season. And quite often, due to injury or national team call ups, whenever Ronald Matarrita is unavailable to start Vieira has preferred to move RJ Allen to the left and place a center back like Jason Hernandez, Ethan White, and now even Jefferson Mena into that right back position.
It has, however, as put a damper on the attack of late: without a true right back to make overlapping runs, opposing defenses have been able to double-team and put more defensive pressure on Jack Harrison, not fearing Hernandez/Mena/White being able to add to the attack. Conversely, on the left side, Allen does not push as far up the left wing as Matarrita, which hinders McNamara from being able to pinch into more of an inverted/attacking midfielder role.
Shelton has shown a good ability to track back on defense for much of this season. In the WM (3-2-2-3) formation, the defensive responsibilities on the wing fell primarily to him and Taylor on the wings. And in Thursday’s match versus United, Shelton’s insertion to the game allowed a 3-3-4 or 3-4-3 formation to be employed, as Shelton played a bit deeper on the right wing. If Vieira is able to play him at fullback it could turn into a valuable weapon for the remainder of the season and on into the playoffs.
Shelton is a big physical player which will make it hard for opposing attackers to bully. And playing him on the right or left with an eye to joining the attack will allow Harrison and McNamara more breathing room and ability to play their parts in the attack. And playing deeper mitigates Shelton’s lack of finishing for now (although, I am still hoping this is something he will improve on with more development).
At age 23, the book on Shelton has still yet to be written. And as is the case with many players in American soccer, there is a strong possibility for him to blossom as he reaches his mid to late 20’s. And while we don’t have a prototypical target forward in him, we do have a creative playmaker who can use his size and speed to find goals for his teammates. With players like David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Tommy Mac continuously showing their prowess to put the ball in the back of the net, that makes Shelton a valuable asset.