The starting goalkeeper position doesn’t often open itself up to young players. The level of athleticism, self-reliance, wisdom and sheer obstinance it takes to be a top keeper excludes most young players from consideration. Not all, but most. In this realm, 30 is hardly the start of the downslope. In most cases its the beginning of a long plateau at the summit.
That’s perhaps why it took Jon Kempin four years to make his mark at Sporting KC. But what a mark it’s been. In the last four weeks Kempin swept up the inaugural MLS Homegrown Game MVP award, became the youngest starting keeper in Sporting KC history, started a CONCACAF Champions League game in Nicaragua and won two consecutive MLS Save of the Week awards.
“It’s obviously been really crazy lately,” Kempin said. “I’ve had so many different things going on, but it’s obviously been awesome. It’s been a great experience and I’ve got to keep learning from it.”
Kempin signed for SKC as the 17th Homegrown in the league’s history and the first ever for SKC on Aug. 31, 2010, nearly four years ago to to the day. Even now he’s still just the third Homegrown in the franchise’s history, and the list of keepers who’ve signed for MLS sides out of academies in five years is just 11. Aside from D.C. United’s Bill Hamid, who’s played more MLS minutes by miles than any Homegrown in history, only Columbus’ Matt Lampson and Houston’s Tyler Deric had even logged a minute in MLS before this season. The development program’s relative youth echoes that of its keepers.
Until this season, Kempin was still looking for his first MLS minutes. He’d debuted in 2012 during a U.S. Open Cup match, but entering the mid-way point of the 2014 season, he’d still yet to play in the regular season. As a 21-year-old keeper, this wasn’t a huge shock. After signing at 17 as a member of the then Wizards academy, Kempin eventually bounced to a loan with Orlando City last year and then to the Oklahoma City Energy under former SKC keeper Jimmy Nielsen earlier this season. That’s when the wildest month of his professional career touched off.
It began when Kempin was invited to the inaugural MLS Homegrown Game in Portland on Aug. 4. After being subbed on at half, Kempin made a few clutch saves and ultimately earned the game’s MVP trophy for a shutout he played a massive part in preserving. Six days later, SKC keeper Andy Gruenebaum injured his shoulder in the first half of an eventual 2-0 loss to Vancouver, and Kempin came on at halftime to replace him. It was his first ever MLS appearance, and SKC already trailed 2-0.
“I knew we were down 2-0 and obviously I wanted to try to help the team get a comeback and a win,” Kempin said. “I knew there wasn’t too much pressure on me at that point, and that helped me really settle down. (Coach) Peter (Vermes) told me to just play my game and he knew I’d do fine. That gave me some confidence, and obviously the PK save helped.”
Kempin was only forced to make one save, but it was a doozy. In the 84th minute, Darren Mattocks lined up a PK that Kempin leapt to his right to parry away. While SKC lost the game 2-0, Kempin didn’t give up a goal in his first 45 minutes of regular season action. That wasn’t lost on the coaching staff.
Since Aug. 10, Kempin’s started all three of SKC’s games between the sticks, including a 1-1 draw in CONCACAF Champions League play against Real Esteli in northern Nicaragua, where he was overwhelmingly voted the man of the match with 63 percent of the vote. On Aug. 16, he earned his second consecutive MLS Save of the Week when he stonewalled Gilberto on a breakaway to help preserve a 4-1 victory over Toronto FC.
It’s all come so fast for Kempin, who emerged from the Development Academy in 2010 in lieu of trekking to the University of South Florida, where current SKC star Dom Dwyer was playing at the time. The Leawood, Kansas native is among the vanguard of the DA’s first crop of keepers, and the oldest of that group is only now reaching their mid-20’s. While a few former DA outfield position players played in their first World Cups over the summer, the keepers could be next in 2018.
Will Kempin be apart of that movement? He hopes so.
“There’s some awesome goalkeepers coming up,” Kempin said. “You have Bill Hamid, Sean Johnson, Cody Cropper, all these guys are doing awesome right now. I think that’s a true testament to how American soccer is coming along. The team obviously did well in the past World Cup, and you’ve got some very good youth players coming up with the U20 World Cup and the Olympics coming up. We definitely have a bright future. It’s fun to play with those guys and hopefully I get called into some more national team camps here.”