Kevin Ellis’ time with Sporting Kansas City might be running short.
Ellis, an Oak Park High School graduate and the second homegrown player in club history, knows it.
“I know what is expected and I understand what comes with preseason,” he said. “I want to take the next step and prove myself — prove that I belong with this team. I’ve been here two years and I realize that last year wasn’t the best year for me. I feel like this is maybe my last chance to prove something.”
Coach Peter Vermes hasn’t been shy about saying the same thing.
“He needs to make a bigger push than he has, and that’s what I’m hoping to see starting now,” Vermes said. “He needs to make a jump. It’s time. He’s been around.”
Nobody doubts Ellis’ talent, but with Sporting KC preparing for a hectic season, which includes defending the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, and CONCACAF Champions League play in addition to the MLS regular season, there is precious little roster space for developmental projects.
Ellis, who is primarily a right back, has had two years with Sporting KC. If he wants to stick around for a third season, it’s make-or-break time.
“It is for quite a few guys,” Vermes said. “At some point, when are you going to make the potential become reality?”
Ellis freely acknowledges that he didn’t handle his first true offseason entering the 2012 campaign well.
“Coming straight from a college season my first year, I was fit and ready to play,” Ellis said. “But I ended up taking too much time off (last year) and tried to get it all back too quick.”
The result was an uneven 2012 season. Ellis struggled with injuries part of the time, but he also struggled to adapt his game to the rigors of Vermes’ demanding system until the final few months.
“The last third of the year last year was good for him, but I don’t think the first two-thirds were good enough,” Vermes said. “The last third was a major improvement, but now it’s about what he does in this preseason and leading into the season. It can’t take that long. He’s got to start at a much higher level from the very get-go. I don’t want to see a dip. I want to see a continued rise.”
Ellis understands. He was more dedicated to staying in shape during the most recent offseason.
“It’s mental more than anything,” Ellis said. “I learned from my mistakes last offseason. I didn’t take the right approach. It was my first offseason and I didn’t understand what it would be like. I learned a lot from that and I’ve come back more prepared and physically ready to take on the responsibilities of my role.”
Ellis missed the start of training with a liver infection, but he’s back to full strength as Sporting KC enters the second phase of camp in Orlando, Fla., and hopes to impress.
“I missed a lot in terms of playing with the guys, but I know the system and know they expect, so that made it easier to jump in in that way,” Ellis said.
When Michael Harrington was traded to Portland during the offseason, it created a hole as Chance Myers’ backup at right back. It’s Ellis’ job to win, but it won’t be given to him.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a vacancy in that area of the field,” Vermes said. “But the competition is getting tougher and tougher — and it’s all over the park. Everyone is going to have to be on top of their game every single day, competing like crazy.”
It’s up to Ellis to show he’s ready to make the leap into contention for a senior roster spot.
“There’s no doubt it’s going to be tough to make the roster,” Ellis said. “We have phenomenal guys that came in, which is a testament to our coaching staff and ownership. It’s not my decision whether I’m going to be here or not, but I’m confident that I have what it takes to be here.”