Before Sporting Kansas City players departed last December for a brief offseason, coach Peter Vermes offered them some independent words of advice. His quick meetings served as study guides.
The notes for Kevin Ellis were rather simple.
“He needed to come back fit this year,” Vermes said. “because last year, he wasn’t fit the way he should be for the preseason, especially for his age.
“And he came back more fit for sure.”
More fit. More playing time.
Since signing with Sporting Kansas City as a homegrown player in 2011 — two years after he graduated from Oak Park High School — Ellis started only two competitive games in his first three professional seasons.
He’s matched that number in the opening month of the 2014 season, which continues Saturday when Sporting KC plays host to FC Dallas at 7:30 p.m. at Sporting Park.
With defender Chance Myers nursing a groin injury, Ellis has started the first two matches of the Sporting KC season — the MLS opener in Seattle and the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals series on Wednesday. The latter provided a milestone in his young career. He scored his first competitive goal as a professional in a 1-0 victory against Cruz Azul.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to have the chance to play in front of your home fans at Sporting Park,” Ellis said. “To get a goal was the cherry on top.”
Ellis supplied some unexpected offense, but it was his defensive performance that earned praise from his coaches and teammates. Defender Seth Sinovic says he has noticed considerable improvement in Ellis’ play.
Which brings the story back to his fitness level.
“I’m the first guy to tell you that I have high expectations for myself, so I came in this year expecting to play,” Ellis said. “I focused a lot on the fitness aspect with our style of play. We like to get the fullbacks up and down the field, so you need to be fit and you need to be strong.”
And smart, too. Ellis says he spent the past few months watching film of some of the world’s top fullbacks, hoping to replicate their tendencies.
“I’m looking at their mentality,” Ellis said. “And they all play as if nobody is ever going to beat them defensively. They’re guys that no good midfielder wants to play against. That’s the player I want to be.”
Getting to that level will require another adjustment — the recognition of which moments in the game call for him to press forward and which moments require him to drop back.
“The hardest thing for him is the transitional moments in the game — switching from attack to defense and from defense to attack,” Vermes said. “Frankly, that’s the issue with a lot of guys, especially young players. It takes time to form the habits.”
He’s finally seeing the time. Ellis filled in twice for Myers, who is questionable to make his return Saturday against FC Dallas.
Logically, Ellis may have his next opportunity Wednesday when Sporting KC makes the return trip to Cruz Azul. Sinovic will be forced to sit with yellow card accumulation, leaving a spot open on the back line.
Ellis has proved a capable spot starter, but he still has work to do.
“By any means, he hasn’t arrived yet,” Vermes said. “He still has a long way to go. The most difficult thing about this business is consistency. That’s the next step for him — he has to find a way to do it every time out.”
• Goalkeeper Jon Kempin and midfielder Christian Duke were loaned Friday to the Oklahoma City Energy FC, an expansion club that will serve as one of Sporting KC’s two USL-Pro affiliates in 2014.
Kempin, 20, will get seasoning under former Sporting KC keeper Jimmy Nielsen, who enters his first year as the Oklahoma City manager. Kempin spent a portion of last season on loan with Orlando City SC, another USL-Pro affiliate.
Duke, 22, also spent much of his first professional season with Orlando City SC.