Davies: Sporting KC are competing for the Shield, but can they transcend?

Sunday evening’s matchup pitted Sporting Kansas City against Columbus Crew SC, with an early claim to the 2018 Supporters' Shield in the balance. Two quality teams, with two great coaches, meant this game had loads of potential. However, a 0-0 result highlighted the phenomenal goalkeeping of Tim Melia and Zack Steffen … as well as SKC's desperate need for a productive striker.

Tim Melia, the defending MLS goalkeeper of the year, proved last year’s title was no fluke when he twice stifled MLS Golden Boot leader Gyasi Zardes, first on a 24th-minute header and then on a crucial penalty – one that came on a foul Melia committed – later in the first half. Credited with three saves, Melia made countless plays and interventions to keep the game scoreless. His ability to read the game allowed him to anticipate long balls and through balls, giving his defense the confidence to push high. As Columbus sat back, Kansas City attacked knowing that they had a reliable reinforcement behind them.

On the other side of the field, as the 12th minute hit, budding US national team challenger Steffen set a new Crew SC record for most minutes without conceding a goal. His maturity and awareness have grown with his game. He’s making smarter decisions with his distribution; in the past, Steffen would play a pass that put his defenders in a difficult position – if they lost it, opponents often capitalized, striking from strong positions. Improved decision making, confidence, and increased game knowledge have combined to push Steffen toward a big step forward.

Steffen’s great run of form has also benefited from Crew SC head coach sporting director and head coach Greg Berhalter’s tactical facility. His game plan and subsequent adjustments played a huge role in helping Columbus earn an away result, despite playing down a man for half the match. To start the game, he had Crew SC sit back, stay compact and counter. In the 75th minute, he switched the shape from a 4-4-1 to a 5-3-1, adding a defender and giving them structure, a back bone, to be able to withstand the SKC pressure and ensure that they saved the point. That in-game management has entrenched him among the upper tier of MLS coaches.

As fantastic as the goalkeepers were, Sporting KC were unable to generate dangerous chances, even after being awarded the man advantage. Their current No. 9, fourth-year forward Khiry Shelton, is fast, athletic, and has a big physical presence. We have seen glimpses of an ability to create space, and yet as a lone striker his runs can prove ineffective – a 34th-minute break left no option for Yohan Croziet to pass – and he seems to lack a striker’s mentality, that killer instinct in the final third.

When Shelton does get the ball, it’s often the safe, predictable back pass; a confident striker is looking to be aggressive and attack. There's simply not enough production (7 goals in 66 games / 3,500 minutes as a pro) for the position. Shelton could still prove a great wing option, one whose strength and speed can cause smaller outside backs all sorts of problems. His work rate and commitment are what allow him to stay on the field even still. Coach Peter Vermes values those qualities in a player, and when Shelton has been on the field, the team's record has been stellar.

However, Sunday’s match exposed their need for a true number 9. Johnny Russell, Daniel Salloi and Croziet, can all create chances for a center forward to be able to thrive. They need a predator in the box, a true goal scorer, someone who can get on the end of crosses and through balls within the box.

Sporting remain unbeaten in their last six matches at home in 2018. They have a strong squad that's pushing for the Shield a third of the way through the schedule, but in order for them to transcend, to reach that next level and bring an MLS Cup within reach, they need to find that missing piece. If Shelton doesn't step into the void, expect them to be busy during the summer transfer window. A championship might hang in the balance.

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