Kevin Ellis’ road to Major League soccer was equal parts traditional and out of the ordinary.
On one hand, Ellis is the second Sporting Kansas City junior player to be promoted to the full team, starting in the under-16 team and progressing all the way through the under-19s to join goalkeeper Jon Kempin as the club’s inaugural homegrown signings.
On the other hand, Ellis chose a slightly nontraditional route on his way to the Sporting first team, spending two seasons at Barton County Community College in Great Bend, Kan., before making the jump to the professional game this season. And although he is still adjusting to a positional shift to right back, Ellis has proven to be a quick learner, more than holding his own in reserve games and making the 18-man roster against New York and Columbus.
MLSsoccer.com sat down with the 19-year-old to discuss his road to professional soccer, his experiences as a full-fledged member of sporting Kansas City thus far as well as his long-term goals in the game.
MLSsoccer.com: It’s been about two months since your first professional season began. What has it been like to take the first step toward accomplishing your dreams and becoming a professional soccer player?
Ellis: It’s been a dream of mine since I started playing soccer. To be able to actually do it is an unreal feeling every day, waking up and being able to come out here and play the sport that I love.
MLSsoccer.com: Has anything surprised you in these last few months? Lots of rookies talk about the level of intensity day-to-day and the speed of play.
Ellis: Not really. From the beginning before I came in, Peter (Vermes) had talked to me and told me ‘You’ve got to be fit. You’ve got to work hard. It’s not a joke, and you have to be prepared for it.’ I told him I would be. Talking to some of the guys before we started, I kind of had a good idea about how intense the training sessions were. I’ve just been working hard trying to keep up with these guys.
MLSsoccer.com: How do you think you are doing when it comes to keeping up with them?
Ellis: I think I’m working hard, and I think I’m prepared every day. I’m beginning to get more and more comfortable with the level and the guys. I think I’m doing alright.
MLSsoccer.com: You’ve been on the bench a few times recently. It would seem that’s a pretty good indication that you are doing alright. Does it feel that way or does it just feel like one step in the journey to where you want to be?
Ellis: That’s just one step in many steps that I want to accomplish in my career. To be able to be on the bench and travel to places like New York and Columbus is a dream. To be a part of the game, even sitting on the bench, is unbelievable.
MLSsoccer.com: Those would be obvious highlights, but is there something that sticks more than everything else so far?
Ellis: I would say going to New York, walking into Red Bull Arena and just being a part of that. That’s the highlight as well as playing them in preseason. Getting to play against a guy like Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez, you grow up watching those guys and they’re legends. To be on the same field as them is unbelievable.
MLSsoccer.com: When you came out of high school and decided to go to Barton, did you feel like where you are now was a legitimate goal for you in that timeframe?
Ellis: Yeah, I made it a goal of mine. I came here once before and Pete told me I wasn’t ready. I told him when I came back, I was going to be ready. Every day when I was at school it was just school, working out, getting fit and preparing myself for the opportunity.
MLSsoccer.com: You played forward your first year at Barton and then moved back into defense. Was that a move with an eye toward your professional future?
Ellis: At first, it was a team thing. At Barton I was kind of the guy who fit needs. If we didn’t have a forward, I played forward. When I went in the back and started to get comfortable, it hit me that I could play the game back there.
MLSssoccer.com: You played forward your first year at Barton and were very productive. That production didn’t dip much when you moved to the back. How is that possible?
Ellis: I scored the majority of my goals at Barton on corners and restarts, getting in the box and winning headers. People underestimated me and left me free sometimes at school, and I would just sneak in and run through on the ball.
MLSsoccer.com: Most people don’t look at the junior college route as necessarily being the best route to professional soccer. What about Barton made it best fit for you?
Ellis: I just found the right place. I think that’s everyone’s goal when they are going to school, to find the right place. I chose the junior college route because the coach at Barton (Oliver Twelvetrees) told me he would help me and prepare me for playing soccer in the future as opposed to just winning there. When you find the right place and the right group of players, you just have to work hard every day. That mindset of coming to training everyday against good players kind of prepared me for this. I come here and I’m playing with the top players that there are. Just playing with those guys just makes you better.
MLSsoccer.com: What is it about your skill set that has allowed you to successfully transition to right back? Obviously, your attacking experience helps when it comes to getting forward. But what is it about your game that has landed you there at the professional level?
Ellis: I take pride in not getting beat one on one. With my speed and pace going forward and attacking mindset, I feel like that’s my main quality.
MLSsoccer.com: What are some of the places you’ve identified as areas in which you need to be better?
Ellis: Just growing into the position, knowing where to be and not having to think about it. Automatically getting to the spots. It’s just getting used to the position of right back. I just started playing there during preseason. At college, I played center back.
MLSsoccer.com: What are your long-term goals when it comes to your career? Most people don’t get to this point without some sort of track or timeline to work from. Obviously, you already did that by taking Peter’s advice to heart and coming back stronger, faster and fitter.
Ellis: I just need to keep that same attitude, coming every day to get better and eventually become a starter and an everyday player in this league in the near future. I’m just working harder every day to do that and be better technically, tactically and physically.
MLSsoccer.com: The league seems to really be placing an emphasis on developing from the academies. Does it give you a sense of pride or accomplishment that you were able to climb from the Sporting juniors to this point?
Ellis: Yeah, I think that’s every kid’s goal when they have the opportunity to play with a professional club. When you are training and see the professional team training at the same time, you want to be on the other side of the fence. Seeing that every day in the summers, I said to myself ‘That’s where I want to be.’ I just worked hard to do it, got some good advice, listened, studied how these guys play and tried to develop the best I could.