Throughout his childhood in Hungary, Daniel Salloi watched American comedy movies. So when he moved to the United States in 2014 as a high school exchange student, he started to relate to a few. He uses one in particular as an analogy.
It’s a teenage comedy with Zac Efron, who stars as a 37-year-old man trapped in a 17-year-old kid’s body. There’s a scene in the movie in which Efron arrives for his first day of school, unsure where to go as students whiz by him. Engulfed by the chaos, Efron is eventually smashed into a locker.
“That’s how I felt on my first day here,” Salloi says. “Where am I? What did I get myself into?”
The truth is that Salloi (pronounced shallow-EE) didn’t really want to come to Kansas City. At least not initially. He was perfectly comfortable in Hungary, starting to build a name for himself in the youth national team system there. It was his father’s idea for him to join the Sporting KC Academy, and Salloi immediately said no. Actually, as he recalls, his exact words were, “Hell no. Where is Kansas?”
That’s how this marriage started. It was four years before Salloi developed into Sporting Kansas City’s top goal scorer. Before he became one of the team’s best offensive weapons. Before he sealed the team’s spot in the Western Conference Finals with a no-look goal.
Before all of it, there was a rejection.
More than 5,000 miles away, Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes pressed on. Just in case. From his office in Kansas City, Vermes was devising a unique plan for Salloi. Perhaps unprecedented.
He planned to stash Salloi in the club’s academy for one year, then turn him into a homegrown signing. Say that again: A Sporting KC homegrown player born in Siofok, Hungary.
“I looked at the rules and thought (that) this thing could work,” Vermes said. “I just kept it on the down-low all the way until we signed him as a homegrown. And nobody could come up with a reason why he couldn’t be (considered a homegrown player), so it all got done quickly.”
Vermes had never met Salloi before offering him a spot in the club’s academy. He took the word of a former academy coach Istvan Urbanyi, a former Hungarian teammate of both Vermes and Salloi’s father.
Upon seeing Salloi for the first time, Vermes acknowledges he had some doubts. Salloi is skinny, lanky, even awkward in some of his movements. In a crowd, he wouldn’t stand out as a professional athlete.
But then Vermes saw him play.
“You know what it looks like when a colt is born and he’s trying to walk? He was kind of like that,” Vermes says. “But you could tell he had something. When I watched him play, man, this kid’s got something. In just a year’s time, it was amazing how much he jumped. And then another year. And then another. And he just kept rising so quickly.”
After scoring three times in his rookie year in 2017, Salloi led the team with 11 goals this season, playing primarily on the wing. His seven assists ranked behind only Johnny Russell and Roger Espinoza.
And to think: He opened the year on the bench. In the offseason, Sporting KC made a point to improve its production from its wings, signing Yohan Croizet and Russell to big contracts. Salloi didn’t start the season-opening loss to New York City FC.
“In the offseason, I just planted in my mind this was going to be my year. When people think about the team and the best players, I wanted them to think of me,” Salloi said. “But it was difficult because I had a good introduction year but not great enough for the team to base (its plan) on me. They signed guys. You sit there and say that it sucks that they’re not thinking about me as a regular starter even though that’s how I was thinking.
“But I learned this American mentality. You have to have the mindset of pushing through. Life happens. Life always gives you the chance.”
Vermes points to Salloi’s mental approach as one of the lesser recognized reasons for his early-career success. But he uses a different example. A more recent one.
By all indications, Salloi has enjoyed the best soccer season of his life. He’s received a call-up to the Hungary men’s national team.
But there was a hiccup late in the summer. Such is the nature of professional sports. There are highs, and there are lows. As Salloi hit his slump in late August, Vermes pulled him into his office at Pinnacle and informed him that he was removing him from the lineup for a few games, perhaps a month.
“When you start playing consistently over a long period of time and it’s really your first time playing regularly, sometimes it becomes a mental drain. And there was a point in the season that I could see that,” Vermes said. “But I told him, ‘Hey, this isn’t the end of the world for you. This is just a blip in the screen. It’s a great time for you to sit on the side, watch a little bit and then get your chance again.’”
By his own admission, Salloi was unhappy with the move. But he reminded himself of his words from earlier in the season.
Life happens. A chance will come.
And when it did once more, Salloi responded. He started the final four matches of the season and scored four goals. He added two more in the Western Conference semifinals series-clinching win against Real Salt Lake.
The big moment has a way of finding Salloi, and vice versa. He says it’s not a coincidence. The significant matches “give you goosebumps just driving to the stadium.”
This was how he imagined it after all. In his lone year in the academy, Salloi would attend games at Children’s Mercy Park and picture himself playing in front of its sold-out crowds. Two weeks ago, his last-minute goal against RSL provided the loudest eruption from the park that many of his teammates say they have ever heard.
“When people make jokes that I’m not homegrown because I’m not from here, I don’t like it,” Salloi said. “Because in my heart, I feel like I am. Even if it was just one year, that’s why I’m where I am. That’s why I’m here. So if you think of it like that, I am a homegrown player.”