Aug 10, 2014; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Sporting KC goalkeeper Jon Kempin (21) awaits play during the second half against the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place. The Vancouver Whitecaps won 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

USL PRO Affiliations Strengthen Sporting Kansas City's Development

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When he was signed in 2010, Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper Jon Kempin might have been ready to wait until he was a veteran to finally play in a competitive game. Like, you know, with a league table and players that actually get paid to win instead of practice.

The Kansas City native actually got his chance to play with USL PRO team Orlando City when MLS announced in January 2013 that the Reserve League would dissolve and MLS clubs would partner with USL teams to send players on loan. The first players to be sent by Sporting to Orlando were Kempin, Kevin Ellis, Christian Duke, and Mikey Lopez.

It is difficult to overstate what this loan deal has meant to Sporting Kansas City, and the best evidence is found toward the top of MLS’s Golden Boot standings.

Dom Dwyer was Sporting’s first round (#16 overall) pick in the 2012 Superdraft. He played just 14 minutes in 2012, 4 in the Regular Season and 10 in the playoffs. The English striker subsequently joined Orlando City and caught fire, scoring 15 goals in 13 games, breaking the record for goals scored in an entire USL PRO season. Dwyer returned to Sporting for the second half of the season and scored 2 goals, including the winner in Sporting’s 2-1 Conference Final second leg victory over nemesis Houtson Dynamo. The rest doesn’t need much telling, but Dwyer has scored 16 goals in 24 appearances this season and is 2 behind New York’s Bradley Wright-Phillips for leading scorer in MLS.

Given the example of Dom Dwyer, maybe it wasn’t so surprising that the 21-year-old Jon Kempin returned from a loan spell in Oklahoma City to win MLS Save of the Week last week and only give up a single goal in Sporting’s 4-1 win against Toronto FC on Saturday. In fact, Kempin was nominated for another Save of the Week, a Jimmy Nielsen-esque block of Gilberto’s breakaway effort.

Nielsen, Sporting’s MLS Cup 2013 hero, was Kempin’s coach at Oklahoma City Energy FC, a team playing in its first USL PRO season. Sporting’s partnerships with these clubs, Orlando and Oklahoma City, haven’t been successful by accident. They are products of Sporting’s ability to network and put players in places where they were set up to succeed. When Nielsen took the reins at Oklahoma, he signed center back Cyprian Hedrick and midfielder Michael Thomas, two players Sporting signed and released previously.

After the match, I asked Kempin how his loan spells helped his development, to which he responded, “I thought it was unbelievable for my development and we did it again this year. It’s the biggest part of my development and I recommend it for any young player that comes in the league.”

Before MLS announced a partnership with USL PRO, MLS teams organized Reserve League teams that played in their own league, but these teams weren’t as conducive to giving young players valuable match experience. Often when a senior player was coming back from injury, they would play in the Reserve League, so there often may have been less realistic match play so as to prevent another injury. Reserve League games also didn’t tend to be held every week, unlike USL PRO.

With youth player development a hot topic in American soccer circles, this program has undoubtedly been a huge step forward in making American players more talented and raising the level of play in MLS. Sporting KC is a team known for its incredible depth and their USL PRO partnerships have been instrumental in their realization that they can win by developing the club, not simply signing players from outside the league.

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