“It’s a league that really wants to push its stars. The players they push are the ones that come from big countries and the designated players. For me, I feel like I have to do more.”
Tied fourth for goal contributions, tied fifth for goals scored, joint-top for non-penalty goals, this season Dániel Sallói has rediscovered the form that led many in 2018 to suggest he was one of MLS’ best prospects.
In 2021, lining up for Sporting KC on the left of a front three, the 25-year-old Hungarian has been one of the most active and threatening attackers in the competition, tied eighth for attacking sequence involvements and first for shots following a ball carry.
Yet, despite these impressive numbers, there’s been an air of underappreciation around Sallói this season. When the MVP nominees were announced on Monday, Sallói was one of five up for the award, but throughout the year, pundits had been reluctant to truly put his name alongside the other candidates despite topping the goal contribution charts for much of the season. When betting markets were last open before the MVP vote, Sallói was only 11th favourite to take the crown.
“It made me a little angry earlier this season when I was actually outperforming many players and it felt like I’d have to run away with it to be in the conversation,” Sallói explains when I put it to him. “But overall, I don’t really care because it’s all about winning the playoffs with Sporting KC.”
Sporting KC haven’t won the MLS Cup since 2013 – the season before Sallói joined their academy – and have only made it to the semi-finals once in that time, despite having finished on top of their conference on two occasions. This Saturday SKC host Vancouver Whitecaps in the opening weekend of the playoffs, and Sallói has his eyes set on the big prize.
“We’re 100% set on winning it,” says Sallói. “I think we’re in the top three or four teams in the league this season. In previous years we’ve struggled with injuries but that’s why I’m really excited about this year. We have to win four games to win the whole thing, and with a fully fit squad I think we can do that.”
Last season, SKC were one of the favourites going into the playoffs equipped with their young starlet Gianluca Busio, now of Venezia, but a devastating 3-0 loss at home to Minnesota in the quarter-final put pay to any title challenge.
Meanwhile Sallói watched on from the bench. After registering 16 goals in all competitions in 2018 at the age of 22, Sallói looked set to take MLS by storm in 2019, but things dropped off a cliff, scoring just one goal in 34 games and none in nine games in 2020. Last winter, rumours started circling that his time in Kansas may be up, with some wondering whether he had what it takes to remain in MLS.
“I didn’t want to leave this club,” Sallói explains. “But I did start thinking, ‘maybe this isn’t working for me, maybe I need to try something new. A new system, new teammates, new coaches’, and that went through my mind, because I was 24, and I was trying to save my career.
“Sometimes, though, slumps happen in a player’s career. Some people get over those bad games in a week, for me it was a whole year. But then because I didn’t perform in 2019, I didn’t get many chances in 2020. Then this season I was fortunate because we had a shorter roster, and the coach gave me another chance from the start to prove myself.”
Prove himself he did. After opening his account by scoring the winner on Matchday 1, Sallói didn’t find himself out of the team until a knock kept him out in August. By this time, he’d rattled home 10 goals and assisted six more in 17 games.
“Sometimes, if you score goals, it’s the best medicine. It gets you through all your problems. You can have a really bad game for 90 minutes, then score the game-winner and everyone will go ‘oh my God, he’s amazing’.
“I need just keep my level this high. In 2018 I scored 16 goals in all competitions, this season I’ve done the same. I look at my teammates, like Johnny Russell, every year he brings 10 plus goals and sometimes 10 plus assists. And that’s what makes you a great player.”
This season, only CJ Sapong and Hany Mukhtar, and Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou have assisted each other for more goals than Russell and Sallói have in MLS. And it’s likely that neither of those pairings stamped through the car windshield of a departing player like Russell did of Gianluca Busio’s Mercedes while Sallói filmed on in August.
The windshield breakage was accidental, and just one in a long list of pranks that have helped forge an unlikely bromance between the 32-year-old Scot and 25-year-old Hungarian.
“It is a strange matchup,” admits Sallói. “But for some reason, from the first day, we became really good friends. We have the same sense of humour.
“Maybe because we both played in Europe we understand each other a bit better too, and it shows on the field. We link up a lot and when your best friend’s scoring goals, it’s a really great feeling.”
Another great feeling for Sallói came when he made his international debut against England in September. The game didn’t go perfectly, ending in a 4-0 loss for Hungary, but it gave him a taste of what it takes to play at the very top level.
“I feel like I play in a good league in MLS, but against England it was very, very noticeable the difference. There’s barely any space, you have to have a perfect touch and if you make a mistake, you immediately lose the ball.
“It made me think, if you play at that level every week, your career must change immensely. It was shocking to me, I felt like a little kid making my debut again for Újpest, looking around at all these world-class players.”
It’s a level that Sallói aspires to be at. He knows one great season won’t get him to that level and he knows he needs to repeat 2021’s exploits again and again, but with age, he’s becoming more studious in his approach.
“I study plays and I watch others to see how they solve certain situations. I’ve watched a lot of Riyad Mahrez highlights recently, looking at his movement and the way he takes the ball off the wing and beats defenders on both sides. He’s amazing at staying calm in those crucial moments.”
It’s something Sallói has done a lot this season, drifting in from the wing onto his favoured foot with 32 of his 35 shots following a carry, and all but one of the chances he’s created coming from a dart from left to right.
“My Dad always told me to have ideas in my head. So it’s not that you’ll do everything perfectly, but when you get the ball, I have a picture of what I can do. So say I’m bearing down on goal, I can go ‘this is best for a fake shot, this I should hit first time’. But sometimes you have to work on instinct, and it’s a case of combining the two.”
A former footballer himself for Videoton, Honved and Beitar Jerusalem, Istvan Sallói was the one who got his son the move to Sporting KC, getting in touch with a friend who worked at the club when Dániel was on a foreign exchange Kansas in 2014.
In his season with the SKC academy, Dániel scored 21 goals in 28 appearances before returning to the club in 2016 after a season with Újpest in Hungary’s first division. Dániel remains indebted to his father but acknowledges he struggled under his presence growing up.
“I wasn’t strong enough as a kid. You look to Dominik Szoboszlai for example, and he successfully survived his dad. It sounds bad but his dad almost tortured him to become the best, and this is why he is amazing and has all the qualities because his dad wouldn’t let him eat until he mastered it.
“My Dad tried to do the same but I would start crying, I didn’t understand why he wanted to do that to me. But my dad has mellowed a lot and he’s proud that I went to America and made a career for myself. My conversations with him now are more friendly instead of ‘attacking’. We found balance and he still helps me with advice on and off the field.
“But looking back, I wish I could have done the same as Dominik, because that’s the way you get places. He became a Navy Seal. I didn’t.”
Sallói still has aspirations to make it in Europe, though. MLS is becoming more of a hotspot for European clubs to find emerging talent with the likes of Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie, Joe Scally, Chris Durkin, Alberth Elis, In-beom Hwang and Reggie Cannon all having moved from MLS to Europe this year. Another year equal to 2021, and Sallói will perk the ears of suitors across the pond himself.
“I’d like to try myself out in Europe, it’s something that interests me. I love the league, and I love America, it’s my second home, but I need to start planning out my career.
“I’m 25, I still have time, and I would hate myself if I spent my career not trying to make the most of my talent.”
Dániel Sallói may not have become a Navy Seal, but a motto of theirs that will ring true for him is “Never out of the fight.”
This time last year, Sallói’s MLS future was in doubt. He’d scored one goal in nearly two seasons and was struggling to even make it off the SKC bench.
Now Sallói is up for the MVP award after showcasing himself as one of the finest sharpshooters on American soil, and with the playoffs now upon him, he has a chance to prove it to all those who doubted him in the games that matter.
From almost out of the fight, he is now very much at the heart of it. Mind your windscreens.