When the No. 5 overall pick arrived during Tuesday’s 2022 MLS SuperDraft presented by adidas, Austin FC sporting director Claudio Reyna couldn’t help but feel excited.
Saint Louis University and Generation adidas defender Kipp Keller, projected by some as possibly going first to expansion side Charlotte FC, slipped to the Verde and Black. Austin then acted quickly, securing a high-upside center back with their first-round pick.
Speaking to MLSsoccer.com after the SuperDraft, Reyna likened Keller to two standout MLS defenders: Nashville SC’s Walker Zimmerman and Houston Dynamo FC’s Tim Parker, the former a US men’s national team starter and two-time defending MLS Defender of the Year.
“I think you can make comparisons somewhere between a Tim Parker or a Walker Zimmerman from the physicality and someone who really likes to defend and likes the challenge of 1-v-1 defending, defending in the penalty area, is a strong presence, is quicker and faster than you might think as well,” Reyna said.
“So, those are the two players. I think he’s somewhere between them as players, and they’ve both had very good careers. So that was the comparisons that we were getting and that’s we saw as well.”
They’re both college soccer products, with Parker featuring at St. John's University and Zimmerman competing for Furman University. As for Keller’s own collegiate career, he’s coming off a second-team All-American nod and 2021 Atlantic 10 Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors at SLU.
As a Generation adidas signing, there’s the cap-friendly bonus of Keller’s salary not going on the books. And Reyna believes he could play an important role in Austin’s high-tempo style, a 4-3-3 formation head coach Josh Wolff deployed during their 2021 expansion season.
“There will be adaptation and learning, but at the same time, he has a captain mentality, a leader, and someone who we feel that if we give him minutes he’ll be fine and really enjoy the atmosphere at the stadium,” Reyna said. “And someone who’s not fearful, someone who is coming in very motivated and ready to help in any way.
“He understands there’s going to be a learning curve but at the same time someone who wants to make it. This is his goal, to be a professional soccer player. He was very impressive in the interviews.”
At center back, Keller will face competition for minutes from Julio Cascante and Jhohan Romana. MLS veteran Matt Besler retired in November, creating the need for more bodies in the heart of defense. Austin have Freddy Kleemann, too, a 2021 SuperDraft pick out of the University of Washington.
That dynamic occurs amid a backdrop where Austin allowed 56 goals last year, second-most in the Western Conference. While offensive woes continued until Sebastian Driussi and Moussa Djitté joined midseason, defensive missteps contributed as well to an Audi MLS Cup Playoffs miss.
Fans can expect more additions beyond Keller, with Reyna noting they're chasing “two to three more players for the top end of our squad.”
“In midfield as well we want to add, I think quality but also defensive attributes,” Reyna said. “And also across the backline we talked about a central defender, but also in the wide areas if we can. Those are the main areas, more so the stability, a midfield player that will help our overall defensive shape and give us more strength and then across the backline.”