KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Jon Kempin had anything but an easy debut in goal.
But in turning away one Orlando City SC shot after another – often in one-on-one situations – the 19-year-old goalkeeper showed why Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes had no problem elevating him to the No. 2 spot despite his youth.
“It feels great,” Kempin said after making six saves in Tuesday night’s 3-2 victory over Orlando City in US Open Cup play. “I’ve been ready, though. This whole year, I’ve been pretty ready. But it’s great to get that first win out of the way.”
Kempin became veteran Jimmy Nielsen’s backup in the preseason, when longtime No. 2 Eric Kronberg sustained a bulging disk in his lower back that kept him out of training for 11 weeks. And when Sporting’s Cup opener rolled around, Vermes had no hesitation in turning to the teenager.
“Kempin has grown over the last few years now,” Vermes said in the postgame news conference. “He’s grown a lot and I thought he was very good tonight. He made some really good saves that kept us in the game and also didn’t lose his cool. There are a lot of things we’ve been talking about – managing the game, building out of the back and being confident – and I thought he was pretty good. For his debut, that was a big-time game.”
And against Orlando City’s high-energy attack, Kempin had to make a couple of highlight-reel saves – especially in keeping the Lions scoreless through the first half.
The most spectacular came in the 40th minute, when Orlando City forwards Dennis Chin and Jamie Watson executed a near-flawless exchange deep in Sporting’s end.
Chin took Watson’s through ball up the middle, held up and then laid the ball back to Watson in space. The crowd at Livestrong Sporting Park held its breath as Watson fired – and erupted as Kempin leaped and stretched to his left to knock the shot away.
“It was a really good shot,” Kempin said. “I anticipated that he would try to bend it, got a good read on it, and just dove.”
Perhaps no one was happier to see Kempin’s strong debut than his mentor, Nielsen, who has called the youngster “the son I never had.”
“This kid cannot surprise me,” said Nielsen, who watched from the bench as Kempin’s backup on Tuesday. “I see a lot of talent in him. He’s going to just keep growing, growing, growing.”
Still, like any proud but exacting papa, Nielsen promised to keep his protégé on his toes.
“I like being tough on him,” Nielsen said. “I like giving him goals and motivating him. Sometimes, I may be a little too tough on him, but I do it with very good intentions.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.