If you knew today that a position you’ve been looking for at your company would be open in six months due to a co-worker’s departure, it’s fair to assume that you would spend most of your time until they leave preparing for the role and trying to show your boss you were up for the task, right? Well, that, in some ways, will be lives of goalkeepers Jon Kempin and Joe Bendik with Columbus Crew SC in the months that precede the departure of Zack Steffen for English Premier League giants Manchester City in July.
When Steffen’s transfer was announced back in December then-interim general manager Pat Onstad said that the club would be looking to “identify a high-caliber replacement” for the U.S. National Team goalkeeper in the months prior to his departure. It’s unclear if Steffen’s succession plan has changed after the arrivals of new president Tim Bezbatchenko and head coach Caleb Porter, but Kempin and Bendik will certainly do everything in their power to have their names included on that shortlist.
“It will happen and it’s a unique situation,” the 25-year-old Kempin, who is starting his second season with the Crew, told Massive Report. “Zack will obviously leave in the summer and I want to compete for that starting spot. That’s my main goal, to be ready for when Zack leaves and to take over the starting spot and compete with Joe and Ben (Lundgaard). The last two years were good for my growth, so I feel like now it’s time to take the next step for me and to continue from there.”
His strategy to accomplish this goal is simple: working hard every single day on the training field and helping the team to win games, which, at the end of the day, is always the most valuable argument a player can use to convince his coach that he deserves a place in the starting lineup.
“I’ve played for clubs which were winners and I want to win here,” Kempin added. “If that means pushing each other to get better and at the end of the day whoever is performing better helps us win, then that’s the most important thing for me. I’m not worried about standing out for the coaches or anything, I just want to win and if I’m doing my best, hopefully I’ll get their attention. Whoever the coach chooses when Zack leaves, it’s his decision, but I hope to make it a hard one”.
Bendik, who was acquired by the Crew after Steffen’s departure in a trade with Orlando City is still getting his feet wet while adjusting to a new club after spending the last three seasons in Florida. For now, he just wants to feel at home in Columbus.
“I feel fresh and excited to be here, especially in a time when the club is changing a little bit with a new ownership and a new staff,” the Marietta, Georgia-native commented. “I’m just here for whatever I can help with and to compete. It’s a group that really knows each other, so I’ll just kind of sit back for the next couple of weeks and kind of see how things are run here and just get on board as quickly as I can. I’m excited to be here in a club that’s very grounded and has a great base and infrastructure.”
The 29-year-old shot-stopper, who will wear the Crew’s No. 1 jersey, is indeed looking for a fresh start after a very tough season in Orlando, where he was a part of the worst defense in Major League Soccer history, one that conceded 74 goals in 34 matches – 58 of them with Bendik between the posts. From that perspective, a move to the Crew, a club where he will have six good months to adapt, meant just the right situation for him.
“It was obviously a complicated season in Orlando and one that really tested everybody in the organization,” Bendik acknowledged. “You can only learn from it. I obviously need to improve and I’m looking forward to doing that. We have a great goalkeeper staff here so as much as we can learn and push each other and compete together, the better it will be.
“I’m going to train and compete hard every single day, it doesn’t matter if I’m the starter or the third-string goalkeeper. I see it as an incredible opportunity to work with an excellent goalkeeper and to be part of his young career.”
Bendik has experience on his side in the duel with Kempin. Four years older, Bendik entered MLS three years after the former Sporting Kansas City and LA Galaxy keeper, but has managed to accumulate 170 league matches under his belt, while Kempin has been on the field just 20 times – five of them for the Crew last year, the most for a backup goalkeeper in recent years.
Kempin, however, endured what has probably been the hardest season in club history with the Crew, helping to take a team that was threatened with relocation to the playoffs. His familiarity with the club could be less of an advantage with a new coaching staff taking over, but luckily for him, new goalkeeper coach Matt Reis, a former MLS player and U.S. National Team coach, is not exactly a stranger.
“I loved working with Pat (Onstad), but I’m happy for him with his new role,” he explained. “I’ve watched Matt play a lot and I actually played against him back when he was with the New England Revolution and that’s pretty cool. I enjoyed watching him because we have a similar style of play and similar body types, so it’s good to work with him, someone who’s similar to you. He’s a great guy and I am looking forward to continuing this relationship with him.”
Bendik and Kempin are expected to have their first tastes as starters for the Crew in 2019 during the next couple of weeks, a stretch where the club will play three friendly matches against Japanese club Vissel Kobe (Jan. 28), Mexican side Club Tijuana (Jan. 31) and MLS rivals Los Angeles Football Club (Feb. 4) in California, where the Black & Gold will spend part of their preseason.
According to Porter, all of the goalkeepers should see some playing time during these matches.
“We’ll rotate everybody,” the coach said. “That’s the great thing about preseason, everybody will get time, everybody will get a look, everybody will play. We obviously know the team from the past, there are a few guys we don’t know, but there’s, at some positions, an audition for parts throughout preseason. We’ve got some things to decide in a few spots and always training matters. It’s part of training, but they will execute and we can evaluate.”
It will be first chance for both, but, as Kempin stated, not last or even the most important one. For now, the prize will be a place on the game day roster. When the summer comes, the reward could be significantly more meaningful.
“I’ve seen it in other clubs and you’ve just got to take it day by day and keep working hard and keep doing your best,” Kempin remarked. “If you focus on that too much, then it will maybe stress you out or maybe you won’t be as focused at the beginning of the season. So, for me, it’s just about keep pushing those guys, hopefully they keep pushing me too and getting better and working with Matt.”