United-Sporting Kansas City Preview

The Associated Press

Sporting Kansas City sits atop the Eastern Conference and is confident its 21-year-old goaltender can help it stay there as long as he's needed in a starting role.

With Fabian Espindola back in the fold, D.C. United believes it has what it takes to supplant Sporting KC.

Jon Kempin will make his second MLS start as Kansas City seeks a sixth straight home win over second-place D.C. on Saturday night.

Sporting (12-6-6) holds a two-point edge on United (12-7-4) with a game in hand. It's maintained its lead despite top goalkeeper Eric Kronberg missing the last seven MLS matches with a broken left hand and regular backup Andy Gruenebaum sitting out last Saturday's 4-1 win over Toronto with a shoulder injury.

Kempin stepped in and stopped a penalty kick in his solid performance, then started Tuesday's 1-all draw with Real Esteli FC in CONCACAF Champions League play. The latter contest was played 2,700 miles from home, making for a long travel week for Kansas City.

"Obviously, we've had a crazy schedule, so I'm trying to get used to that," Kempin told the club's official website. "The team's been great back there helping me out, and I've just felt comfortable."

With Kronberg expected to miss several more weeks and uncertainty surrounding Gruenebaum's injury, coach Peter Vermes is banking on Kempin to be strong in net.

"I don't think his age really matters," Vermes said. "What matters is that he's been getting himself prepared, and when he gets his chance he's ready to play. He's a kid that works hard, pursues excellence."

Kempin looks to help Kansas City avenge a 1-0 road loss to D.C. on May 31. Sporting KC had gone 6-0-1 in the previous seven meetings, but Espindola's goal in the 28th minute held up.

Espindola returned from a nearly two-month absence due to a knee injury in United's 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake on Aug. 9. He scored his first goal since the tally against K.C. in Sunday's 4-2 home win over Colorado.

"It's unbelievable to have him back. He's just relentless. I'm just glad he's on our team," coach Ben Olsen said. "He's not always the biggest and strongest, but he's an absolute handful. He just wills himself to succeed."

Espindola's goal capped the scoring for United, which got two goals from Luis Silva and one from Chris Rolfe. D.C. had lost its previous two MLS matches, both on the road.

United is 4-5-1 away from home this season and plays five of its next six MLS matches on the road.

"We would like to go on the road and pick up some points," Olsen said. "It's not going to be easy. There is a lot of travel and tough opponents."

D.C. forward Eddie Johnson will serve the first of a two-game suspension for kicking the ball at a Salt Lake defender Aug. 9.

Sporting KC's Dom Dwyer scored twice on penalty kicks last Saturday, giving him 16 goals to rank second in MLS.