By Ridge Mahoney
The tide may be turning for Dan Kennedy after several seasons of nearly constant bombardment in the Chivas USA goal, but even so, he’s been through it before.
“I guess maybe I was a bit of a confident kid and I was never on a great club team growing up,” says Kennedy, a Southern California product who played collegiately at UC Santa Barbara. “As a goalkeeper, it was a great thing for my development because I was always peppered. I always had a lot of work to do. Sometimes I’d get in the car and my parents would say, ‘Well you lost, 4-0 or 5-0,’ and I would say, ‘ But did you see that save?’”
Teammates, opponents, coaches, and observers have raving about Kennedy saves for several seasons since he established himself as the No. 1 keeper at Chivas USA in 2011. Though Chivas USA has plummeted from respectable to ridiculed, Kennedy has generated admiration and respect from all corners.
“He’s a good goalie,” says defender Carlos Bocanegra, whose experience abroad and with the U.S. national team has lined him up with and against many top keepers. “He’s proven himself for a long time. I didn’t know him very much before I came here, but he’s a good guy in the locker room, always upbeat, good spirits, encouraging people. He’s a leader on the field. He’s vocal, he has a presence. He’s a big part of our team.”
Ah, the team. A playoff team in Kennedy’s first two MLS seasons, during which he seldom played, Chivas USA has finished at or near the bottom of the Western Conference the last four years. In the past two seasons it has conceded 125 goals, the most in MLS. Yet seldom is the finger of blame pointed his way.
In 2011, Chivas allowed 43 goals, which ranked in the middle of the pack, as did his 1.22 goals-allowed average. He was fourth in the league with 100 saves. In the past two seasons he’s been second in saves, with 109 in 2012 and 104 last year. A bombardment has been the rule rather than the exception but his only expressed exasperation is of poor results, not his own stats.
“He’s been a rock for this club, the team MVP the last couple of years when I’ve been here,” said defender Bobby Burling after a 1-0 loss in San Jose April during which Kennedy was sent off for handling the ball outside the penalty area. Such gaffes are extremely rare. “He’s a professional, he’s been doing it long enough, he’s going to be all right.”
Kennedy left UCSB as an all-American and NCAA College Cup finalist after the 2004 collegiate season. Chivas USA picked him in the fourth round of the 2005 MLS Supplemental Draft; it had also chosen Brad Guzan with the No. 2 overall SuperDraft pick, so Kennedy took the kind of bold decision his position demands. He bypassed MLS to get games wherever he could.
He embarked on a traveling tutorial that took him to Puerto Rico Islanders of the USL, for which he was 2005 Rookie of the Year, and Municipal Iquique in Chile, which sold him to MLS in April 2008. During those travels, he sharpened his physical skills yet took important steps in the essential categories of anticipation and decision-making that he believes separate the shot-stoppers from the elite keepers.
He says, “For me, we emphasize a lot, ‘This kid’s got all the tools, he’s an amazing shot-stopper, a great training goalkeeper,’ but 75 percent of the stuff goalies deal with is basic. That’s the stuff you’ve got to do really well: receiving balls, distribution, supporting your defenders.
“And then you’ve got another 25 percent of the stuff that is really hard, but the majority of that 25 percent is all decision-making. There’s no real tangible program where you can say, ‘This kid’s got it, this kid doesn’t.’ Even if this player can stand on the line and save every single ball you put on the goal, he can fail, because it comes down to decision-making.”
So far in 2014, the record isn’t much changed; Chivas USA won its first game but has gone winless in its next eight and is again near the bottom of the overall standings. The outlook, however, is upbeat. The hiring of Wilmer Cabrera as head coach and the sale by which MLS bought out former owner Jorge Vergara -- along with the prospect of a quick re-sale -- has signaled a rebirth that has the players, especially those raised in Southern California like Kennedy, Burling and Bocanegra, really fired up.
Kennedy, 31, is proud to wear the team’s colors and if given the chance will continue to do so, regardless of when and how they change.
“Last year was definitely one of the craziest of my career in terms of change and ups and downs and the amount of players that came in and out,” he says of a dismal 6-20-8 season that still somehow produced nine shutouts. “Hopefully, right now we’re in a situation where we know what our roster is and this is a group we can move forward and build something with. For me, I’ve worked far too hard to get the opportunity to play at this level, to be distracted by things that I can’t control. Every offseason I just try to reset and re-focus and create new goals. n the end, we’re players. This club has been good to me and I’ve tried to be as loyal to them as they are to me. The one thing I firmly believe is if I can be a part of this and this group can turn things around, that will speak volumes.”