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Sporting KC’s Kelyn Rowe: already “a better player”

“X-factor[‘s]” journey brings him to Kansas City from New England

MLS: New England Revolution at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Kelyn Rowe has been and has experienced a lot of things in his 27 years. As a #10 soccer prodigy, he has been cocky. As a person, he has been humbled. As a professional, he has risen near the pinnacle of his sport. And he has struggled. But what he hasn’t been the last two seasons in MLS is himself.

From Jonathan Sigal at SB Nation’s The Bent Musket in August of 2016:

[Kelyn Rowe’s] parents long instilled in him and his two sisters that being a good human being was as essential, if not more, than being a good athlete or student. Rowe freely admits, however, that he was cocky growing up. After all, he could practically do as he pleased with a soccer ball and hype swelled over what his career would entail.

Then Houston Kraft, a professional speaker, came around…

”Houston turned me around and said, ‘You’re going to be known, you’re going to make it big at some point in your life. I believe in you, so make sure you’re a positive for these little kids, because right now I’m not sure you are,’” Rowe recalled.

Everything’s falling into place

In two years at UCLA, Sporting Kansas City midfielder Kelyn Rowe was named the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and then Pac-10 Conference Player of the Year his sophomore year, while helping UCLA reach the NCAA College Cup. Overall, he produced 13 goals and 20 assists before declaring for the 2012 MLS SuperDraft. College bossed.

Shortly thereafter, the 5‘8”, 150lbs Rowe was picked third overall in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft by then-Head Coach Jay Heaps and the New England Revolution, a MLS side that had been a perennial contender, though recent years had been lean.

A strong rookie season (three goals, five assists in 30 appearances) followed, which was quickly supplanted by a 7G, 8A campaign in 2013 that culminated in a Conference Semifinals appearance against Kansas City. After that season, Rowe’s play prompted Heaps to claim that Rowe had “that X factor” in an article in The Boston Globe by John Powers.

The next season, Rowe led his team to MLS Cup where they fell in overtime to Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, and the rest of the LA Galaxy. In the next two seasons, Rowe played in 33 of the Revolution’s 34 matches and a US Open Cup final before the US National Team came calling. Rowe scored a goal and an assist to help the senior team win the 2017 Gold Cup. In six seasons, Rowe had established himself as an MLS player, made two finals, and been called upon by his nation. Pros bossed.

Downturn leads to down time

However, seventh-place Eastern Conference finishes by Rowe and the Revolution in 2016 and 2017 led to hopeful fixes and experimentation within the side as Rowe’s role changed, as did his playing time. Then with five matches left in the 2017 season, Heaps was fired as manager. But Rowe takes responsibility.

“If you want to go to it, it’s about the last two years, really, besides the National Team call up,” said Rowe while talking of his downturn at Sporting KC’s kit launch Monday night. “[2017] wasn’t the greatest year numbers-wise (1G, 7A in 23 appearances). I played a lot and didn’t produce.”

Before the 2018 season, legendary former US National Team, MLS, and English Premier League veteran goalkeeper Brad Friedel was named New England’s head coach. But things only got worse for Rowe. His 2018 stats: 27 appearances, 18 starts, 1,611 minutes (the least in his MLS career) with one goal and two assists.

“And, obviously, last year: off-and-on, in the lineup, not in the lineup, not even in the 18 a few times, and not playing my position at all (at left back often),” recalled Rowe, “that’s hard for you in soccer, in the community – I stayed pretty vocal with my charity, but I was a little bit off because I wasn’t myself. – and in life as well. It was a hard year for me.”

On the edge of Self

Perhaps one thing that kept Rowe himself throughout the seasons of struggle was his work with his charity, his giving of himself. As Houston predicted, Rowe was known. He had been near the mountaintop. He had relative security. But Houston’s words had long ago impacted Rowe.

From 2014-2017, Rowe earned the Revolution’s Humanitarian of the Year award via “Kelyn’s NEGU Crew” through a partnership with the Jessie Rees Foundation. NEGU stands for Never Ever Give Up, and the focus is on children suffering from cancer. Count on Rowe to continue to stay true to who he has become in Kansas City. After all, NEGU is a perfect fit for Sporting Kansas City’s Victory Project and its connection with Children’s Mercy Hospitals. The organizations are in contact already.

“As soon as [things] die down a little bit and I get settled, we plan to visit the hospital once a month. And we are working on ways we can either [tweak] The Victory Project to do something more or get my charity involved or do another event with both involved,” revealed Rowe. “We are using our heads to make things a little bit better… We’ve done it in Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake, in Dallas, and in New England. We’ve been able to do it in different markets, so it’s not a big deal coming in and getting it going again.”

A big deal

On December, 18, 2018, Rowe was traded to the Colorado Rapids for back Edgar Castillo, and then promptly traded, along with $300,000 in allocation money, to Sporting Kansas City for productive forward Diego Rubio.

Pardon the cliché, but facts are facts: the deal had to feel like an early Christmas present for Rowe.

“To get out of that [situation in New England] to come to a place where they want me to play in the middle, they want me to be here, they want me to play, and they think I fit their system… in every way – and it’s showed in the players and the coaching staff and the community around it – that’s a huge uplift in life, in confidence, in your game,” said Rowe. “And I’ve already seen [the uplift], and the guys have seen it, in [my] play in just preseason: I feel like I’m a better player.”

It’s good to be wanted.

Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes had watched and wanted Rowe for years for many reasons.

“The first thing is he’s a two-way midfielder. But he has one extraordinary quality: he likes to get in the box. So he has great late-timed runs, meaning he comes in late, but it’s great timing within the play. So it’s really hard to know where he is,” said Vermes. “The other piece of it is, he has great finishing abilities.”

Rowe feels like he is being freed to be the player he is. It’s all about coming back to himself.

“It’s the excitement and the confidence and the ability to go forward and score goals. I haven’t had that in four or five years, since maybe my rookie year in 2013, when I scored against you guys in the playoffs,” said Rowe somewhat hesitantly.

Yes. In the first leg of the 2013 Eastern Conference Semifinals in New England, Rowe assisted on one goal and scored the game winner in a stunning 2-1 victory over top-seeded Sporting KC.

“That keeps getting brought up to me; I have to spin this in a good way, because every time [my new teammates come back], ‘Oh yeah, and we beat you [in the 2nd leg on the way to the MLS title],’” Rowe chuckled.

The renewed Rowe has scored three goals in the three preseason matches, albeit against lower division opponents. Yet his acquisition and his hot preseason start does not mean Rowe will hit the 33 appearances and 26 starts in 2528 minutes in his best season of 2013. There is plenty of competition in Sporting’s three-man midfield with incumbents Roger Espinoza, Felipe Gutierrez, Gianluca Busio, Wan Kuzain, and Ilie Sanchez holding the familiarity advantage. But with Vermes repeatedly foreshadowing significant squad rotation in 2019, Rowe will be given his chances.

“He has the ability to be a really productive midfielder within the team,” Vermes stated. “He has an aggressive mindset to go forward, which is huge for us. He can give a final pass, and he values scoring. To add that to the current group we have is a good thing.”

Learning, the natural way

Learning how to play with holding midfielder Ilie – who is crucial to Kansas City’s possession-based attack – is important for any new player, especially one who will play in the #8 or #10 position. So far, so good for Rowe.

“[Kelyn] makes my job really easy. He’s always on the spot where he should be, waiting for the ball. He doesn’t need to come to take the ball, he knows the ball will come to him,” said Ilie. “That’s really good for us because this team is all about positional location on the field and having possession. He understands. I don’t know where he learned about it, but he understands really well what we do here.”

Rowe admitted it took him a few days to learn that the ball will come to him in spaces, coming from other teams where he had to find the ball. However, growing up playing up front as a playmaking #10 in Federal Way, Washington, Rowe has a natural understanding.

“[We] have the players to then find you the ball and move off of it… I know Felipe wants the ball on his left foot, and when he gets it, you can make a run and he will probably find you. Ilie is not going to lose the ball and will find small passes and cover you as much as he can,” Rowe explained. “You find those [nuances] out pretty quickly on this team. It’s been nonstop communication both on the field and off the field talking about different positional things. It’s been fairly easy.”

Those nuances continue, some out of Vermes’ lore. Kelyn, is ‘Sporting Fit’ a real thing?

“Oh, it is. It’s a thing. It’s nothing crazy, but if you want to play the system, you have to be as fit as the system. So, it is the way,” said Rowe with a smile about Vermes’ famed level of expected fitness from his players. “Luckily, I’m a golden retriever, and I can run around all day.”

Rowe has enjoyed Vermes’ approach.

“He’s definitely a player’s coach,” Rowe revealed. “He’s having meetings before practice, during practice, after practice, making sure that we both understand, that we know what’s going on, and if we have any questions.”

The culture, the charitable giving, the freedom to attack, and the easy learning are all a go for Rowe, as is his health. Rowe suffered a right knee sprain in 2017 that kept him out two months, then “minor structural damage” in his left knee in April 2018 that saw a quick recovery.

“[My] body feels amazing, feels like it’s 21, well, 25,” said Rowe with a grin.

Rowe has started 167 of 214 appearances in MLS action (including the postseason), recording 30 goals and 42 assists over the past seven seasons. Those are impressive stats, especially when compared to the attacking stats of his new midfield teammates. Could a Rowe revival mean another Houston forecasted “make it big” call up from new US National Team Coach Gregg Berhalter?

“At anytime I’d love to get a call up, but for now, my focus is all on Kansas City and making sure that my career doesn’t drop as much as it did last year,” Rowe said. “For me, it’s all about revamping my career. And [the move to Sporting has] done it the first three weeks now, but I want to continue that throughout the whole season.”

No matter what, count on Rowe to be true to who his journey has helped him become.