Kevin Ellis fights through adversity on and off the pitch to earn first start

Homegrown player made first start against Orlando City

Kevin Ellis' journey from Homegrown signing to his first competitive start took 2 and 1/2 years. It was almost that long between his first and second competitive appearances.

And for much of that time, the game he loves had to share Ellis' time, energy and focus with the job of taking care of his family.

“I had a lot going on outside of soccer,” Ellis told MLSsoccer.com last week, on the eve of his start against Orlando City SC in the U.S. Open Cup. “I feel like I finally got a grip on everything. I feel like I'm finally able to put everything I have into the game that I love, and I feel better.”

That doesn't mean downplaying the heartbreaks and challenges he faced early in his career.

“My mom passed away, coming up on two years ago,” he said. “My grandpa got diagnosed with cancer. My aunt had cancer. I was just trying to deal with everything. I have a younger sister that I'm trying to look out for. I'm just trying to make sure my family stays together and stays strong.”

Along with all of that, Ellis had to contend with a change in position as well.

He joined Sporting as a forward, and it was there that he made his debut – subbing into a U.S. Open Cup game against Chicago Fire PDL later that season. He was subsequently moved to right back, a position where Sporting have had good depth in recent seasons, and was limited to appearances in Reserve League and exhibition matches until getting his break last week.

Chance Myers was dealing with a persistent groin strain, and Mechack Jerome was on international duty with Haiti, opening the door for Ellis to start against Orlando City.

“I felt kind of like a weight was lifted off my shoulders,” he said after going the full 90 in Sporting's 1-0 loss to the USL PRO side. “But I also felt a lot of pressure to finally be ready, to step up and play. From that aspect, I felt like I reached the first of many goals I have in my career.”

Despite the loss, Ellis earned good marks for a solid effort at both ends of the pitch.

“He played very well throughout the whole entire game, I thought,” manager Peter Vermes said afterward. “I'm proud of him and I'm happy for him because I know that he's worked very hard. He's been in a consistent form for probably three months now and I thought he did really well with his opportunity.”

And after waiting so long between appearances, Ellis hoped his effort in his first start would lead to minutes in league play and CONCACAF Champions League group stage action later this summer.

“That's up to Peter and the other coaches to decide,” he said. “But I left everything out there on the field tonight, and it's up to them how they assess my play.”