KANSAS CITY, Kan. – If Kevin Ellis was a bit of an unknown commodity coming into this season, everyone in MLS knows about Sporting Kansas City's Homegrown fullback now.
Check that. Everyone who follows the CONCACAF Champions League knows who Ellis is, after his 17th-minute goal on Wednesday night lifted Sporting to a 1-0 win over Liga MX powerhouse Cruz Azul in the first leg of their CCL quarterfinal series.
“It’s great because he scored for our team,” manager Peter Vermes said in the postmatch news conference. “In the end, it’s all about the team. It’s obviously a big story for our organization since he is a homegrown player. He comes into a very special moment in our club’s history and finds himself with a goal as well as playing a good game.
"It’s a good step in the right direction for him, but he has a long way to go and he has to keep getting better.”
Still, Ellis' teammates aren't surprised to see him stepping up in his fourth season.
“He's one of the guys that fans might not necessarily now, but we see these guys every day,” center back Ike Opara told reporters. “Kevin's one of those guys who works hard in training, plays well every day in training. He's getting his chance now, and he's showing well. Hopefully it continues for him, because he's a good player.”
Sporting have needed him to be, with right back Chance Myers still to see the pitch this year as he recovers from a groin strain. Ellis worked a solid full 90 in Sporting's league opener on Saturday, despite a late 1-0 loss at Seattle, before coming up big on Wednesday night.
“This is a huge year for me personally, but also as a team,” said Ellis, who started one league match and one US Open Cup match last season for Sporting. “Coming off the [MLS Cup] championship, I want to be a part of the team more. That's the main focus, getting in the team and enjoying times like this with the guys on the field.”
And while he was glad to deliver the game-winner in front of his hometown fans on Wednesday, Ellis took a big-picture view of what that meant.
“It means a lot, but more importantly, we got the win,” he said. “That's what means the most. These home-and-away games, you have to get the result at home.”
And with left back Seth Sinovic suspended for the second leg on caution accumulation, Ellis – who played some left back last season – could get a chance to help Sporting try to close out the series next week.
Sporting still have Saturday's league match against FC Dallas to play before then, though.
“I'm not sure who's going to start for that game on Wednesday,” Vermes said. “The most important match for us is Saturday. We'll decide where we are after that.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.