With the Eastern Conference lead on the line heading into the final third of the regular season, Sporting Kansas City are likely to give the goalkeeping nod once more to 21-year-old Jon Kempin when they play host to second-place D.C. United on Saturday (7:30 pm CT; KMCI & SKCTV).
Veteran Andy Gruenebaum is working his way back from a shoulder injury that caused him to miss Sporting's last league match, and No. 1 Eric Kronberg is still several weeks away from playing again as he recuperates from a broken bone in his left hand.
“I don't really know where Andy is, honestly,” manager Peter Vermes told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “I really haven't had a chance to find out what he's been doing since we've been away. But right now, it's looking likely to be Kempin.”
Sporting lead United by two points in the standings going into Saturday's match, but D.C. have a game in hand.
Kempin has looked solid in his two starts across all competitions, with a 1-0-1 record and a 0.80 goals-against average in combined MLS and CONCACAF Champions League play – but he'll be coming off a long trip after Tuesday's 1-1 away draw against Nicaragua's Real Esteli in Sporting's CCL group opener.
“Obviously, we've had a crazy schedule, so I'm trying to get used to that,” Kempin said on Thurday. “But the team's been great back there helping me out, and I've just felt comfortable, so it's been good.”
Much has been made of Kempin's youth since injuries put him into the starting job, but less attention has been paid to the fact that this is his fifth professional season after turning pro as a 17-year-old Homegrown player in 2010.
“I think sometimes maybe people think I'm a rookie or something because I'm so young,” he said. “But this is my fifth year, and I have had a lot of experience in some ways. So obviously I'm a young guy, age-wise, but I don't think experience-wise that I'm that young.”
Vermes said Kempin's lengthy stint as an understudy, augmented by loan spells to USL PRO affiliates Orlando City SC and Oklahoma City Energy, have helped the young ‘keeper develop beyond his years.
“I don't think his age really matters,” Vermes said. “What matters is that he's been getting himself prepared, and when he gets his chance he's ready to play. He's done a good job. Him starting as young as he did has helped him a lot. He's a kid that works hard, pursues excellence, that type of player.”
Kempin's steady play – including a Save of the Week honor from his first outing, when he came on as a halftime sub for Gruenebaum, and another nomination this week – have made it easier for Gruenebaum to work on his recovery without having to rush back.
“The last couple of days have been good, to actually do some real handling,” Gruenebaum said, “but I'm not going to do anything stupid. I think Kempin's playing really well, and if I don't feel like I can help win a game then there's no reason to get in there. I want to play every game, obviously, but at least I'm out there and it feels pretty good.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.