After tough end to rookie season, Saad Abdul-Salaam producing for SKC

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Take a look at Sporting Kansas City’s roster.

Check out the names: Graham Zusi, Brad Davis, Benny Feilhaber.

Now, without peeking, pick out the team leader in assists.

Did you get Saad Abdul-Salaam?

The second-year right back, whose rookie season ended with two heartbreaking bounces in the longest penalty shootout in league history, has rebounded to become a key player in Sporting’s drive for a sixth straight berth in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs.

“It means a lot to lead any team with the most assists, but I have to give credit to my teammates,” Abdul-Salaam – who has five assists so far – told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “They put me in great areas on the field for me to be able to cross it in and find guys that are open at the top of the box, or cross it in, anything like that.”

With 16 starts in 19 MLS appearances, well over the pace of his 10 starts and 22 outings as a rookie, Abdul-Salaam has quietly established himself as a durable, reliable presence in the lineup.

“I don’t think I would say, coming from last year, that I would be in this position right now,” he said. “But things happen, and I’ve been given an opportunity, and I’m taking hold of it and making the most of it.”

He’s done it, by and large, without a lot of flash – although at 6-foot-4, he’s not exactly hard to spot on the pitch.

“He’s a little bit of a freak of nature, playing in that position,” manager Peter Vermes said. “He’s 6-foot-4, fast as lightning. He’s technical on the ball. He’s good in the air. He’s just got a lot of good qualities in that regard.”

The challenge for Abdul-Salaam, as it is for any young player working to establish himself in the league, is to maximize those qualities consistently.

“I’m not really a loud guy, anything like that,” he said. “I just like to come in, get the job done in practice and show my teammates that I work hard every day. It’s a progression – whether it’s getting better in the air, or defending a guy 1-on-1, getting into the box, trying to get a goal, getting some assists.”

He has seen a dramatic increase in that latter category this year, after recording just two assists across all competitions in 2015. That higher output is what Sporting need from him in their high-pressure, overlapping system, Vermes said.

“With as much as he gets forward and is now getting into the attacking third, that should be a goal of his every year,” Vermes said. “You want production, especially when you find yourself as far up the field as he does. That’s what he’s got to do more, and maybe once in a while hit the back of the net.”

Abdul-Salaam’s progress this season is, in part, fueled by how his 2015 season ended: an 11-round shootout against Portland in the play-in game, where Abdul-Salaam’s ninth-round attempt hit the right post, rolled down the goal line, found the left post and bounced out.

Sporting went out two rounds later, and the Timbers went on to win their first MLS Cup title.

“I didn’t like the way it ended,” Abdul-Salaam said. “It’s unfortunate. I was unlucky to miss, but misses happen. People miss all the time. It’s just the way it missed that kind of sticks with you.

“It’s definitely something that, as a player, you need to come to terms with. After that, you need to move on. It happens to everyone, and you just need to move on and improve from that.”

Still, Abdul-Salaam is looking forward to Sunday’s home match against the Timbers (2 pm ET, FOX), the first meeting between the two sides since that play-in match.

And if he got the chance to take a penalty kick?

“I’d take it, if someone gave it to me,” he said with a laugh. “I’d take it.”

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