After some cameo appearances as Sporting Kansas City’s goalkeeping understudy last year, Jon Kempin is getting ready for his closeup with the United States’ men’s national soccer team.
Kempin could make his international debut in Sunday’s game at the StubHub Center against Panama, whicn would conclude the national team’s month-long training camp.
The 21-year-old native of Leawood — who graduated from Blue Valley North — received a taste of international competition when he travelled with the team to Chile for the U.S. men’s team’s first game of the year on Jan. 28 .
Though he did not make the 18-man game roster and watched from the stands of Estadio El Teniente in Rancagua, Kempin savored the flavor of the atmosphere.
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“It was awesome,” Kempin said. “The fans were all on their feet, yelling and cheering. It’s a pretty compact stadium so it was super loud.”
That setting whetted Kempin’s appetite.
“We had training afterward and I was ready to get after it after the game,” he said. “With the atmosphere like that, it’s almost like motivation. Watching the guys play definitely made me want to get out there.”
Kempin was one of four goalkeepers chosen for the annual camp by coach Juergen Klinsmann, who is evaluating talent for Olympic qualifying and the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Kempin received an invitation after making a big impression with little playing time last year.
On Aug. 4, Kempin was named the most valuable player of a scoreless tie between Major League Soccer’s top prospects and the Portland Timbers’ under-23 squad after playing just the second half.
Six days later, Kempin made his first appearance for Sporting by replacing Andy Gruenebaum for the second half against the Vancouver Whitecaps — and made a lunging, one-handed deflection of Darren Mattocks’ penalty kick for his first save.
Kempin’s play was chosen as MLS’s save of the week. He earned that honor again in his first start Aug. 16, when he charged from the net and slid on his knees to make another one-handed deflection of a shot from Toronto FC’s Gilberto in a one-on-one breakaway.
Kempin made two more starts in August before Gruenebaum returned to the lineup. Despite allowing seven goals in his four games and making just five saves, Kempin earned teammate Matt Besler’s respect.
“Immediately, you can see how good of a shot stopper he is and how much talent he has,” said Besler, who played in last year’s World Cup. “A lot of people don’t realize this but he has a lot of confidence.”
That characteristic helped Kempin adjust to the national team.
“He doesn’t seem like a new guy,” Besler said. “He doesn’t look overwhelmed in training. He’s done a very good job of fitting in. When I’ve seen him in scrimmages, he’s made a couple of very big saves.
“I loved seeing that. It pumped me up.”
Kempin also impressed Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando, another member of the World Cup squad training in California.
“He’s young and eager,” Rimando said. “The first thing that caught my eye is that he’s a humble kid. He’s willing to learn and he works hard.”
Kempin needed those traits to adapt to Klinsmann’s rigorous conditioning demands.
“It’s super intense,” Kempin said of the camp’s atmosphere. “We’re constantly doing something, so you’ve always got to have your mind focused. It definitely takes a toll on your body but you’ve got to keep pushing through it.”
Among the things demanding Kempin’s attention is a more in-depth analysis of goalkeeping technique from assistant coach Chris Woods, the goalkeeping coach at Everton in England’s Premier League and a former member of England’s national team.
“I throw an idea to them and let them feel if they can incorporate that in their game,” Woods said about the American goalkeepers. “He’s been really, really good. He asks questions about different techniques we’re learning. He’s even said, ‘Can we just slow that down so we can work through it?’
“Certain goalkeepers don’t ask things and you think, ‘Are they taking things in when they don’t ask?’ But he’s grasping everything you’re throwing at him — literally.”
Kempin believes the literal sense of “grasping” reflects his biggest improvement as a player.
“I’ve noticed a massive growth in my game,” Kempin said. “I’m catching stuff that maybe I would bat away or maybe wouldn’t save. I’ve matured as a player and it’s definitely going to be great to bring back to Kansas City.”
When Kempin returns to Sporting Park, he will face competition from Chilean veteran Luis Marin and MLS journeyman Tim Melia for the starting job. Besler, however, sees where Sporting’s future lies.
“Once he’s able to play more,” Besler said of Kempin, “I expect big things from him.”