Daniel Salloi made some sparks in 2017. This year, you’d need the Kansas City Fire Department to put him out. Two goals against FC Dallas in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 last month made him the second-youngest Sporting KC player to score a brace and brought his haul for the tournament to five goals in six games. So, how come no one was talking about him at the final whistle?
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“It’s funny, I felt a little bad about it,” chuckled the 21-year-old Hungarian striker. He was subbed off in the 85th minute, only for his replacement Yohan Croizet to steal the headlines with a dramatic volleyed winner in the 89th. “I was thinking, ‘gosh man, I can’t believe he goes and scores this beauty goal to win it when I had this amazing game.’ When I saw it go in I was on the bench and I was just freaking out. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a game where someone scores a winner as amazing as this.”
(Salloi scored in last year's Open Cup Final win against NYRB)
Salloi’s pride and joy in his teammate’s goal, one that 26-year-old Frenchman Croizet calls the best of his career, is crystal clear. And it says a lot about the rail-thin attacker with a nose for goals. “You could see what it meant to him, to the whole team, right on his face,” said Salloi, whose six goals so far in MLS play and three in the Cup make him, suddenly, one of the most dangerous attacking weapons in one of Major League Soccer’s most dangerous teams. “[Croizet] really showed his emotions and you could see just what it meant.”
Croizet’s Winner, Salloi’s Win
While the winner belonged to Croizet, a first-year MLSer grappling with English and rookie adjustments, the win belonged in large measure to Salloi. He’s a player who’s paid his dues and is hitting the kind of form that comes with determination, a club ready to build for success and, of course, the right kind of luck. After coming to Kansas as a high school exchange student in 2014, he joined the Sporting Kansas City Academy before bouncing back and forth between his native Hungary and Swope Park Rangers (SKC’s USL affiliate) for the next three seasons. He was in that common purgatory for an aspiring player, waiting for his chance to break into the first team.
“Those are always challenging times,” said Salloi, who’s come to call Kansas City his Second Home and even finds time to study Business and Sports Management at night online. “You have to be patient and believe your chance will come. In a foreign country, alone without your family, it’s not always easy. But you have to deal with it. You have to be ready for your chance and you have to be ready to take your chance when it comes.”
(Fresh-faced as he is, Salloi looked much younger in his Swope Park Ranger days in USL)
His chance came in last year’s Open Cup, where he scored two goals including the winner in a tense Final at home against New York Red Bulls. It was the first time his parents had come to visit from Hungary, and he walked the field after the final whistle on that September night in a daze trying to spot his folks up in the stands. Salloi Senior, a famed coach and former player in Hungary, watched his son’s progress in the 2017 Open Cup on the Internet back home. He woke his wife, Daniel’s mom, only when the boy scored. “I don’t remember anything from that moment,” Daniel admitted about those frenzied celebrations on the pitch after winning last year’s Cup – too young to drink the champagne that cascaded through the locker room moments later. “I was way too excited.”
It’s no surprise then that Salloi has a special place in his heart for the Open Cup. It’s where he found his feet. It’s where he got his first chance to show the vision and quickness he had hidden away. His clever reading of the game and eye for the in-betweens where defenses are vulnerable. It was clear last year that this player, so long and lean he looks underfed, was not to be taken lightly. “I’ve always liked the Cups,” admitted Salloi, who scored plenty in the Magyar Kupa (Hungarian Cup) cutting his teeth with club sides Újpest FC, Vasas SC and Gyirmót. “It’s the idea that you’re advancing on the night and not just collecting points. There’s an extra hype to that. I have a taste for it.”
(Salloi front and center at last year's Open Cup victory celebrations)
It’s not only Salloi who’s got a taste for the blood and thunder of Cup play. SKC boss Peter Vermes, a former U.S. National Team defender and two-time World Cup veteran, has made the tournament an annual priority since taking over in 2009. Instead of resting on his laurels and coasting with a championship team, he decided to build. To shuffle his pieces. To bring in more talent. If you’re not moving, you’re standing still – to paraphrase the no-nonsense boss.
“We’ve stepped it up this year. Winning the Cup last year sets expectations high and we want to make sure we win a trophy again,” said Salloi. “We’ve added quality players all around – guys like Croizet [France], Felipe Gutierrez [Chile] and Johnny Russell [Scotland]. These are just the kind of players you want coming in to your team. You pass them the ball and not only do you know it’s coming back, you know it’s coming back where you want it – to your left foot or your right foot or into space.”
Full-Speed Ahead in KC
Sporting Kansas City, the 2017 Open Cup champions, are getting better. It’s bad news for the seven other Quarterfinal survivors, especially their next opponent Houston Dynamo. But it’s not just talent coming in, according to Salloi, who knows the challenges of breaking into a team as sturdy and consistent as SKC’s. It’s the right kind of talent. The right kind of guys. “We’re like a family here,” said Salloi, who admits to becoming best friends with new striker Russell in the short matter of weeks. “I know everyone says that, but it’s true here. The coaching staff does such an amazing job of finding players who are good off the field and on it too. We just click here, and that’s not by accident.”
(Salloi, like most of his SKC teammates, talks up the family feel in the locker room)
Vermes isn’t the cuddliest teddy bear in the toy box, but he knows what he wants. He knows what he likes. And Salloi, humble and young as he is, knows what an “atta boy” from this particular boss means. “He’s a strong figure,” said Salloi with a smile, talking about Vermes. “You always have to take a step back and give him respect – it’s important to think of him as a boss. But that makes it even nicer when he trusts you and puts you on the field. It gives you confidence because you know his standards. So when I’m scoring goals and he comes up to me and says ‘big-time,’ I know he means it.”
There’s no doubt about it. Daniel Salloi’s hit the big-time. He’s made that jump from waiting and hoping, traveling and missing family, to being the go-to guy in a team where success is required. He’s not just a starter – he’s a star. It’s not been an easy road, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. Only tough roads lead to the Promised Land. “A lot of it is waiting and getting used to the team, and listening,” said young Salloi, looking back across that gulf he spanned when he scored a winning goal in the Cup in front of a sell-out crowd in his new home in America. “But then you get your chance and things click and suddenly you’re doing things you could never have dreamed of.”