- - Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Taylor Kemp recalls the wide-eyed enthusiasm with which he entered Major League Soccer. As a first-round pick out of Maryland in 2013, the left back set his sights on boosting a D.C. United team fresh off a run to the Eastern Conference final.

But his rookie reality fell short of that dream. As United slumped to a league-worst 3-24-7 record, Kemp made just eight MLS appearances. His sophomore season didn’t start any better, with the Colorado native only logging three minutes from March through July.

“I would get frustrated at times,” Kemp said. “At the beginning, you come in and you’re so excited — you want to play, you want to contribute. When you don’t, that can be a tough blow and it’s easy to get down on yourself and drop off. But you find that no matter what you will eventually get a shot, so it’s important that you make sure you keep yourself ready.”

That chance came midway through the 2014 campaign, when United abruptly parted ways with homesick Spanish veteran Cristian Fernandez. With the club in the midst of a worst-to-first turnaround, Kemp started 12 matches down the stretch and both of United’s playoff games.

The 26-year-old hasn’t let go of the left back spot since. After getting the nod for 25 matches last season, Kemp is poised to make his team-high 29th start of 2016 on Wednesday as United (8-9-13) hosts the Columbus Crew (7-11-11) at RFK Stadium.

“He’s still growing,” United captain Bobby Boswell said. “He’s still got a lot of room for improvement. The strides he’s made since I’ve been here are huge. When I joined the club [in 2014] we really didn’t consider him in the mix. He had three or four guys ahead of him, so the fact that he’s locked that down and he’s a two-way player, it’s great for him.”

Kemp’s evolution into that well-rounded left back has taken time. Long regarded as a gifted attacking talent, Kemp tied the club record with three assists in United’s 4-1 win over Orlando City on Saturday. With six assists, he leads all left backs in MLS this season.

But as a rookie, Kemp understood the defensive side of his game was holding him back. As he worked out the kinks, the United coaching staff remained hesitant to rely on him.

“That was a big knock on me coming out of college,” Kemp said. “I got a lot of criticism for that probably my first two years and some last year too, and it was fair.”

At 5-foot-11 and 153 pounds, Kemp knew there were some physical battles he couldn’t win. So he shifted his focus to improved positioning and operating more efficiently within the back line unit — allowing him to avoid the one-on-one matchups against bigger, faster players that can prove problematic.

As Kemp’s defensive prowess has grown, so has his importance to United. Having sat out just one game this season, the fourth-year professional leads the club with 2,565 minutes played.

“My first year in the league I would look at guys that were playing game in and game out and I was like, ‘How do they do that?” Kemp said. “Mentally, physically it’s so exhausting. But the longer that you do it, it just becomes easier. You’re more comfortable, you’re more natural, so it’s not as tolling on your body or your mind.”

Added coach Ben Olsen: “Taylor continues to get better with this club, and he continues to put in consistent minutes as an undervalued player for our team.”

It’s a role Kemp has filled admirably as United clings to the sixth and final playoff slot in the Eastern Conference with four games remaining. While the headlines continue to gravitate toward the goal-scorers and playmakers, Kemp — with his sturdy presence and quietly crucial attacking contributions — is happy to fly under the radar.

“It used to bother me, more than it does now,” Kemp said. “I used to want to get the sponsorships and the deals and the publicity and the media, but it doesn’t bother me now. As long as the coaches value me and my teammates value me and I think I’m contributing, I’m OK with that.”

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