It's not often that a goalkeeper gets his first MLS Save of the Week before his first league start, but that's how things have shaped up for Sporting Kansas City's Jon Kempin.
The 21-year-old Homegrown ‘keeper, who is in his fifth season with Kansas City, will start Saturday's home match against Toronto FC (8:30 pm ET; MLS Free Stream of the Week, TSN2) after coming on at halftime of Sunday's 2-0 loss at Vancouver and earning Save of the Week honors for an 85th-minute stop of Darren Mattocks' penalty kick (video above).
“It was awesome to make my debut and come on,” he told reporters on Friday, during the club's weekly news conference. “It was awesome to save a penalty. But would I rather have not had any of that and won the game? Probably.”
Kempin, who was the then-Wizards' first Homegrown signing when he turned pro in 2010, had just one US Open Cup start with Sporting before coming on for Gruenebaum on Sunday. But he had 22 appearances on loan in USL PRO play, including 13 this year at Oklahoma City Energy FC under first-year coach and former Sporting ‘keeper Jimmy Nielsen. He was also the Man of the Match in last week’s Chipotle Homegrown Game during All-Star Game festivities in Portland.
“That's probably the biggest piece to my development so far,” Kempin said, “getting in those games and the experience that comes with it, and continuing to work under Jimmy now that he's the head coach.”
Another big piece, manager Peter Vermes said during Friday's news conference, has been Kempin's physical development as well – filling out his 6-foot-1 frame to a muscular 170 pounds.
“He's gotten a lot stronger,” Vermes said. “When he came in, I thought that was an area where he really needed to start maturing in. He signed as a young kid, and he's still a young kid, but he was 17 years old when he signed with us. He really needed to start filling out physically, and he's done that. He's spent a lot of time in the gym.
“I think the other thing is that he's gotten really good with his distribution and his organization, organizing the team in front of him.”
And with that, Vermes said, has come the sort of confidence that led to Kempin's honors-winning stop on Mattocks.
“Goalkeepers, they're just a different breed,” Vermes said. “Usually, those guys are just extremely cocky and very self-assured. That's been my experience. He has this – it's not a cockiness, it's more a confidence in that, 'Of course I can do that. That's what you need me to do.'”
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Sporting have plenty of confidence in the young keeper as well, Vermes said.
“I don't think we've done anything differently than we've done with him training here over the last so many years, since he signed a contract for us,” Vermes said. “This is the reason why he's here, and he's been preparing for that every day that he's been here.”
That preparation will pay off on Saturday, when Kempin walks out for his first league start in front of his hometown fans.
“It's going to be exciting,” he said. “Obviously, I had the debut last week, but getting the full 90 minutes is going to be different. It's going to be a lot of fun.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.