Charleston Battery coach Mike Anhaeuser had to get to the other side of the island in time to scout the next game, so he left the stadium before the final whistle.
Despite the early departure, however, a young striker who had dashed free of two national-team center backs and scored on a breakaway during a game against Portmore United, a top team in Jamaica, stuck on his mind.
The striker was playing for the Under-21 team of Tivoli Gardens. He wasn’t supposed to be the one who caught the scout’s eye. But that speed, the composed finish on a bumpy pitch and a phone call informing him that the striker scored a second goal to give Tivoli an upset win was enough to convince Anhaeuser to take a flier.
That’s how Dane Kelly got his first chance, a loan move to the Charleston Battery in the USL. Seven seasons and 72 USL goals later, Kelly will finally get a shot in MLS.
“There were nibbles back when he was with us scoring goals. People just didn’t take the chance,” Anhaeuser told MLSsoccer.com. “He just kept scoring goals after he left us. It’s like a resume. He keeps building it and he created his opportunity.”
A career-long lower-division star with a knack for scoring goals, Kelly has nonetheless had to wait for his first opportunity to prove he can produce in MLS. The 27-year-old forward signed a senior minimum contract with D.C. United on Friday, giving the 2017 USL MVP the chance he’s long awaited.
“Honestly, I think nothing happens before [its] time and now is the time,” Kelly told MLSsoccer.com. “That’s why it happens now.”
Since coming to the United States on loan with the Battery in 2011, Kelly has lit up the lower divisions of American soccer. Yet, despite his consistent production – he has reached double-digit goals in four of the past five seasons – Kelly has never gotten a shot in MLS.
Kelly is a bit raw. His touch isn’t always perfect. His shots sometimes fly into the upper rows. But the Jamaican forward has scored 72 goals across those seven seasons, averaging 0.59 goals per 90 minutes, better than a goal every other game. Kelly made his second appearance with Jamaica’s national team in January and scored his first international goal in a 2-2 draw with South Korea.
Now Kelly just has to prove he can score at the top level in the U.S., too.
“For us it was the right timing,” D.C. general manager Dave Kasper said. “It’s a very low-risk proposition for us. The guy has scored everywhere he’s been. He scores goals. He’s dying for an opportunity to prove himself in the league and we felt it’d be very good depth for us and it’d be a good risk to take for us. Give this guy an opportunity to see if he could make it or not.”
For Kelly, it was all about keeping a positive attitude and consistently putting the ball into the net. Eventually, he hoped, there would be too many goals to ignore.
Kelly left Charleston after five seasons to sign for Swope Park Rangers, Sporting KC’s USL side, in his first attempt to break into an MLS first team. He scored just eight goals that season, his first season since 2012 not to hit double digits in goals. A move to Reno in 2017 proved the right decision. Kelly scored 18 goals in 28 games – 0.80 goals per 90 minutes – to earn 2017 USL MVP honors.
A short-lived move to FC Pune City in India followed before D.C. came calling.
Kelly is yet another example of MLS teams’ increased awareness of players who have impressed enough in USL – which kicks off its 2018 season on March 16 – to earn a contract in the top flight. Two higher-profile examples are Louisville City’s Mark-Anthony Kaye, who signed with LAFC and started the expansion team’s first two games, and New York City FC defender Sebastien Ibeagha, who was inked after earning USL Defensive Player of the Year with San Antonio in 2017.
But the signings are now a regular occurrence around MLS; 16 teams signed players from the USL or NASL this offseason.
Kelly is aware it won’t come easy in D.C. He is behind Patrick Mullins and fellow Jamaican Darren Mattocks on the depth chart. He didn’t have preseason to get to know his teammates and coaches. But the speedy forward is optimistic his approach to earn this opportunity will pay off.
“I always tell myself that no matter what happens I have to keep on doing the work and my family encouraged me and said, ‘Don’t stop doing work, because you never know who is watching,’” Kelly said. “That’s what motivates me. … I have to work hard and hopefully when I get my chance I take it.”
And for the coach who scouted Kelly all those years ago, there will be no leaving the TV early when Kelly gets his first shot.
“Don’t be surprised, it might not look the prettiest, and he’ll have three goals in three games,” Anhaeuser said. “He’s definitely earned it. I’m very happy for him and I’ll be watching and I’m sure our staff and every player who played with him will be too.”