Jon Kempin was a 15-year-old high school sophomore when he earned the chance to showcase his talents in front of the Kansas City Wizards brass.
He traveled to Bradenton, Fla., to join the U.S. Soccer under-17 national team, which scrimmaged the Wizards during Kansas City’s preseason camp. Kempin played half the game as the youth national team’s goalkeeper.
It wasn’t his best performance — at least not statistically. He allowed two goals during a 5-0 loss.
But he felt one step closer to realizing a childhood dream.
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“At a young age, I wanted to be a professional,” said Kempin, a Blue Valley North product. “I didn’t know how it would come or if it would come, but ever since I was 12, I really thought this is what I want to do.”
If you can’t beat ’em ...
Kempin signed with his hometown club only two years later in 2010, when he became the first Sporting KC homegrown player and the youngest signing in franchise history. Erik Palmer-Brown has since surpassed the latter accolade.
Six years after that exhibition match, Kempin, 21, has another shot to impress the Sporting KC coaches. This time, he’s on their side.
Kempin will make his first career Major League Soccer start Saturday when Sporting KC plays host to Toronto FC at 7:30 p.m. at Sporting Park. Kempin expects to have more than 20 family members and friends in attendance.
“I wouldn’t have asked for it any other way,” Kempin said. “I think it’s a best-case scenario.”
It’s also an unlikely one — at least at this stage.
Sporting KC has long viewed Kempin as having the ability to be the club’s goalkeeper of the future, but the future was accelerated out of necessity.
Starting keeper Eric Kronberg broke a bone in his hand last month, and his replacement, Andy Gruenebaum, was injured during the first half of Sunday’s 2-0 loss in Vancouver. Kronberg is still more than a month away from returning.
And while Gruenebaum is considered day-to-day with a strained muscle in his rotator cuff, he will likely also miss Tuesday’s CONCACAF Champions League match against Real Esteli, manager Peter Vermes said.
Kempin replaced Gruenebaum for the second half Sunday and stoned Darren Mattocks’ penalty kick in the 85th minute as part of a scoreless 45-minute debut. He was awarded the MLS save of the week on Friday.
Not a bad debut.
“That’s an amazing thing he was able to do that,” Vermes said. “No doubt it helps his confidence.”
It wasn’t a luck save, either. Kempin said he studied opposing strikers’ penalty-kick habits while he served as the team’s backup — reasoning that a red card would be one of the few ways he would be substituted into the middle of a match.
That’s been his short-term work as of late. The long-term process has focused on Kempin developing an improved presence in goal, both physically and mentally.
The Sporting KC training staff has spent considerable time with Kempin in the gym, and the coaching staff has worked on expanding his confidence and vocal leadership.
“In all the other places, he’s developed well, but I would say his presence is a big thing in the goal now. He looks the part now,” Vermes said. “When he first got here, you could tell it was a young kid, a teenager, in the goal. It doesn’t look like that anymore.”
The maturation is partially a product of training with Sporting KC over the past month, but Kempin has also enjoyed regular game action, even if it hasn’t come with the MLS club.
He spent the 2013 season on loan with Orlando City SC, and he was on loan earlier this year with the OKC Energy, a club coached by former Sporting KC goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen.
Kempin calls Nielsen a “perfect mentor” while rattling off a series of his teaching techniques. Most notably, Kempin says, Nielsen taught him how to turn the negative aspects of the game into positives.
“I think the loan system was the biggest piece of my development,” Kempin said. It has gotten all the nervous out of me, and it helped me mature. I’ve gotten really comfortable with these guys, and I’m just ready to play. That’s the bottom line — I’m ready.”
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TORONTO FC AT SPORTING KANSAS CITY
WHEN/WHERE: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, at Sporting Park
TV/RADIO: KCMI (Ch. 38); WHB (810 AM), La Gran D (1340 AM)
ABOUT TORONTO FC (9-7-5): Searching for the first playoff appearance in club history, Toronto FC sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. It is one of only four MLS teams with a winning record on the road this year.
ABOUT SPORTING KC (11-6-6): While its eight-game unbeaten streak came to a close Sunday, Sporting KC remains atop the Eastern Conference standings with 39 points. But the club has won only four of its 11 home matches this season. It will be without midfielder Paulo Nagamura (ankle) for the seventh straight match.
BOTTOM LINE: While Sporting KC defeated Toronto FC on July 26, Toronto forward Dominic Oduro was a handful in the match. With Oduro headlining the list, Toronto has the speed to capitalize on counterattacks.
PREDICTION: Toronto FC 1, Sporting KC 1