Kevin Ellis has waited. He waited through an unanticipated second season of junior college soccer at Barton County Community College when he was deemed not ready for the professional game in early 2010 following an accolade-filled freshman season. He then waited as playing time was sparse-to-non-existent his first two years as a professional. Ellis, 21, has done more waiting more than many young American players have had to endure, often times thrust prematurely into the limelight.
Now entering his third year as a pro with Sporting Kansas City, Ellis feels the upcoming 2013 season could finally begin to pay dividends for all of his patience.
"Personally I would like to think it's a big year for me," Ellis said Friday afternoon following Sporting KC's lone in-town preseason training session before departing for warm, sunny Tucson, Ariz. on Monday. "I feel like I did the work in the offseason to get there. But, at the end of the day, that's not my decision. That's Peter (Vermes') decision whether he thinks I'm ready to play some games."
Sporting traded experienced backup rightback and leftback Michael Harrington shortly after the conclusion of the 2012 season, which at the moment makes Ellis the de facto number two rightback behind starter Chance Myers. Capable of playing anywhere on the wide right side of the field, Ellis' best shot at immediate playing time is in defense, given a plethora of backup options behind starting right winger Kei Kamara.
Ellis was signed as the club's second-ever Homegrown player following a strong preseason showing in his second stint with the senior team in February 2011, but it hasn't been all smooth sailing for the Kansas City, Mo. native since becoming a professional. In fact, despite learning something new virtually every day on the job, Ellis has yet to make his first team debut in Major League Soccer action.
Always one willing and ready to put in hours of hard work, Ellis has certainly done his fair share this winter - something he admits he didn't quite grasp last year in his first offseason as a professional - and with that newfound knowledge and life's lesson, re-dedicated himself to be readier than ever once the 2013 preseason rolled around.
"I didn't really know what a professional offseason was like," he said. "I didn't really prepare myself well, but I think this year I've done the work and I think it will pay off."
One of a handful of players based in Kansas City year-round, Ellis - along with the likes of defenders Seth Sinovic and Kyle Miller, and midfielder Michael Thomas - came into the opening of preseason more physically fit than anyone else on the team. The four local products were the last four senior team players left standing at the conclusion of Friday's fitness and endurance exercise, known better as "the beep test."
It's not just the fitness and acclimatization as a pro that make Ellis more prepared than ever to become a first team contributor, though. Ellis has been monitored and instructed individually on a regular basis by certain member of the coaching staff - one which Ellis greatly respects and has fond memories of his own playing days in Kansas City - Kerry Zavagnin, ever since he made the jump from Academy prospect to senior team member.
"I look up to Kerry a lot," Ellis said of head coach Peter Vermes' right-hand man. "When he played in Kansas City when I was a kid, going out and watching his work ethic and technique on the ball, I felt like I wanted to model my game after him. To have him as a resource every day, I can't put into words how valuable that is."
Whether or not Ellis finds himself on the field at Sporting Park, the opportunity to play in a competitive environment in 2013 could be extended his way with rumors of MLS and USL PRO, which operates as the third tier of the U.S. Soccer pyramid, hoping to come to terms on a deal that would integrate the current MLS Reserve League into the lower division league. When asked what kind of experience that would lend a young player such as himself, Ellis didn't hide his desire for the chance to play every week.
"You can't stress the importance of playing games enough. That's how you get your fitness, that's how you get experience, that's how you get confidence," he said. "The more games I can play, the better for me. That would be a huge opportunity to play week in and week out, and really get comfortable with the system that we want to play here."
While 2013 is the first year of real chances in Kevin Ellis' young professional career, it's quite clear that he's waited long enough for it. First team, reserve league or USL PRO competition, Ellis is likely to get a healthy share of playing time in 2013. Once the minutes start rolling his way, it's all up to Ellis to make the most of it and shine through. Luckily for all parties involved, no one knows that better than Ellis himself.