NYCFC's wingers have gotten a bunch of publicity this year, and with good reason. Tommy McNamara is a cult hero who scores long-range bombs, combines naturally with the likes of David Villa, Frank Lampard, and Andrea Pirlo. He's also the in-flesh manifestation of the notion that a) there are truly skillful and clever American attackers out there, and b) lots of those attackers are overlooked because they don't have the "right" body type or athletic profile.
I am certain that there are other Tommy McNamaras out there who are being ignored. I am just as certain that the season McNamara's having alongside these legends of the game will make it easier for the next batch of American and Canadian Tommy McNamaras to break through. From that point of view -- for the long-term growth of the league -- there's arguably no more important story in MLS this year.
Jack Harrison, meanwhile, was the No. 1 pick, is well in the Rookie of the Year race, and is the best teenager in the league this year. He boasts a back story that includes both college soccer and Manchester United, and a future story that includes lots of Americans hoping he gets his citizenship. That attracts attention, and like McNamara, he's been worth every headline, and also like McNamara, he's never looked out of place alongside the DP trio around which NYCFC are built.
McNamara has five goals and nine assists this season. Harrison has three and five. They've been great.
Neither, however, has been as productive on a per-minute basis as their forgotten teammate, Khiry Shelton. Remember him?
Last year's No. 2 overall draft pick, and last night's hero in a 4-1 win over Chicago, started the season in the starting XI, and then got benched, and then fell out of the rotation entirely. He only broke back into the mix over the past few weeks, so Friday night's game was just his first start since May. You'd be forgiven for having written him off, given the play of the guys ahead of him on the depth chart, along with his own propensity for injury.
Nonetheless, Shelton has had a monstrous season as a playmaker from the wing, and by "monstrous," I don't mean "he's putting together some big numbers this year." I mean, on a per-90 basis, he's having one of the greatest seasons in MLS history.
Shelton's three assists against the Fire give him nine on the year, a number he's reached in 1002 minutes. That's a league-best .81 assists per 90, and here's how that stacks up historically.
Best single-season assists/90 in MLS history, minimum 1000 minutes:
- Carlos Valderrama (1997): .9828
- Marco Etcheverry (1999): .8095
- Khiry Shelton (2016): .8083
- Carlos Valderrama (2000): .8077
- Antonio Martinez (2001): .8011
All on its own that is a stunning number, but there is additional context that makes what Shelton's done even more impressive. The reason, you see, that assist totals back in the day were so gaudy is that the league was much, much more forgiving in awarding second assists. Literally every second-to-last pass, regardless of context, was awarded an assist, which in turn made "second assists" or "hockey assists" much easier to pick up.
The league made a change following the 2002 season:
"Assists shall be credited to the player(s) whose pass(es) contribute significantly and directly to the scoring of a goal or the creation or development of the scoring sequence. An assist shall only be awarded when it is determined that the pass in question required a reasonable amount of skill, vision and accuracy. A maximum of two assists shall be awarded on any goal."
As you can imagine, from 2003 onward, assist numbers across the league plummeted when compared to 1996 through 2002. In the 14 years since the adjustment, here's the best per-90 season:
- Guillermo Barros Schelotto (2008): .7716
GBS was magic that year, just like Sacha Kljestan's been this year, and like Landon Donovan was in 2010 and 2014. None of those guys, however, matched what Shelton's doing on a per-minute basis this year. None came close to cracking the top five all-time.
Now, this doesn't mean that Shelton is going to go onto a career with the USMNT, or that he'll be a star with Boca Juniors for 15 years. He benefits from being the third or fourth option in the attack, rather than the focal point a la Kljestan, Donovan, Schelotto, Valderrama and Etcheverry. Nobody is game-planning against Khiry Shelton, but everybody, every week, game-planned/plans against those guys.
So Shelton's productivity is an outlier, and there are justifiable questions as to whether or not it's sustainable.
Actually, let me phrase that a different way: This level of productivity is definitely not sustainable. It'd be a shock if he ended the season in the top five all-time for this particular stat.
But the real question in assessing his future isn't, "Can Shelton keep picking up assists?" It's, "Can Shelton be a positive on-field influence even when he's not collecting box-score stats?" Can he be better in possession and defense, and can he play with the type of aggressiveness and incisiveness that he's shown over the last month on an extended basis? Can he stay healthy and own the job long-term, rather than winning it on a weekly basis? Can he figure out a way to be productive every time out even when teams do, eventually, start game-planning against him?
Can he do it against opponents not named "Chicago" or "D.C.?" Two of his three goals and seven of his nine assists have come against those two teams. These gaudy season-long numbers could be the effect of a few good match-ups, rather than something repeatable irrespective of the foe.
Even so, the talent is pretty obviously there for Shelton. He's always been able to pass the hell out of the ball, his physical gifts are blindingly obvious, and he's turning that potential into productivity. The forgotten man in NYCFC's winger rotation has earned his moment in the spotlight this week and -- if things go right -- in the weeks, months and years to come.