When Baltimore Blast midfielder Keegan Kelly was deciding what jersey number he would wear in his first professional season, he had a few options.
No. 10, his college number, is retired for Blast great Stan Stamenkovic, and No. 23, his high school number, was taken by current Blast veteran Jonatas Melo. None of the single-digit numbers had any meaning to him, so he considered No. 21, the number his father Danny Kelly wore for Baltimore from 1998-2006 before taking over as coach of the indoor soccer powerhouse for 14 seasons.
The younger Kelly had no interest in following in his dad’s numerical footsteps, eager to forge his own path on a team that for years was molded in his father’s image before the coach’s departure in 2020.
So, Kelly opted for No. 47, the same as his favorite soccer player Phil Foden, the 21-year-old midfielder for Manchester City of the English Premier League.
“I was not going to take my dad’s number, to be completely honest,” said Kelly, who turned 23 this month. “Foden is my guy. I love the way that he plays. He really burst onto the scene because he’s so talented.”
Kelly is hoping for a similar explosive debut in his first season playing indoor soccer after starring at McDonogh and later playing college soccer at the University of Maryland and San Diego State University.
The Blast kicked off its season Dec. 4 against the Florida Tropics, nearly two years after Kelly signed his first pro contract with the Blast in February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the 2019-20 season and stopped the Blast from playing any games in an abbreviated 2021 season.
Much like Foden with the defending Premier League champions, Kelly will be asked to provide a youthful spark on a Blast roster full of experienced veterans. The learning curve going from outdoor to indoor is steep, but Kelly is up to the challenge, according to first-year head coach David Bascome. Bascome was an assistant during Danny Kelly’s tenure and also played midfield for the team from 2003-2008.
“He’s got a passion and a love for the game. He would do anything within reason to develop and be great. He gives you everything he’s got,” Bascome said of Keegan Kelly. “You know what he brings to the table. You know you are going to get everything. He is hungry for the game, hungry for learning. He’s a good listener and puts it into action.”
Along with his fellow newcomers, like former UMBC and Archbishop Curley midfielder Alejandro Arbelaez and Jack Shearer, a former graduate transfer at Mount St. Mary’s, Kelly is looking to make an immediate impact on a team that expects to win a MASL title every year.
“I think the energy we can bring … to be able to press and kind of throw people a little bit off their rhythm is something that will be big,” Kelly said. “But just doing my job, being in the right spots defensively, staying with my man at all times, and just paying attention to what’s going on around me.”
Even though Kelly chose a number that’s uniquely his, it hasn’t stopped the comparisons to his father by some of his teammates.
“Everybody calls me Danny now,” Kelly, who sports similar long locks to his father, said with a laugh. “It’s the hair.”
The nearly two-year wait to play his first professional game felt like a long-term injury without the rehab, Kelly said, something he dealt with multiple times in college.
Kelly’s collegiate career began with promise. He made 17 appearances as a freshman at Maryland in 2016, notching a goal and an assist.
His sophomore year, however, was derailed before it could even begin. He suffered a concussion in practice, and 11 days later, during a preseason game against Syracuse, he took an elbow to the face that cracked his nose and orbital bone and concussed him again. The injury required surgery and kept him out for the entire season.
In 2018, Kelly transferred to San Diego State, where he made an impact. During a game against Santa Clara in 2019, Kelly showed off the skills he had flashed as a freshman by tying the game with a perfectly placed header from a long free kick.
But the injury bug struck at San Diego State as well. In the eighth game of the 2018 season, his foot landed wrong as he was checked out of bounds and he broke a metatarsal. That knocked him out for the year. His senior season was then marred by another concussion.
Overcoming the injuries has made him a stronger, more resilient person, Kelly said. Waiting to play again during the pandemic was yet another challenge.
“Just to still be able to do what I enjoy and know I can still compete is something right there,” he said. “That shows resilience. Being where I am at right now, as well, kind of shows who I am, just kind of scrapping and fighting through COVID to get an opportunity.”
“Give Me A Ball”
Kelly attributes his deep love of soccer to his father, who from a young age put a ball at his son’s feet so often that it came at the detriment of learning other childhood skills.
“I don’t even know how to ride a bike,” Kelly said. “I had tried to learn and I fell off once or twice. I was like, ‘Screw this, I don’t want to do this anymore, give me a ball.’ There are pictures of me just walking around with a ball at my feet and it was his doing to get me into the game from Day One.”
After his dad coached him until he was 13, Kelly starred at McDonogh, where he was selected to All-County and All-Metro teams three times and earned two All-American honors. As a sophomore in 2013, Kelly helped the Eagles go undefeated and capture the MIAA A Conference championship. He also won a national title with his club team, Celtic Soccer Club, in 2014.
During his junior year, Kelly accepted an invitation to the U.S. Soccer U17 Residency Program in Florida, where he matched up against some of the top young soccer talents in America. Kelly grew close with current U.S. Men’s National Team players Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams, with whom he still keeps in touch. Kelly returned to McDonogh for his senior season and was ranked the No. 9 recruit in the nation by College Soccer News and No. 28 by Top Drawer Soccer.
“It was honestly indescribable,” Kelly said of playing for the national team. “Putting on the jersey and hearing the national anthem, you’re like, ‘Wow, this is actually happening. I’m really here.’ Even at that age, it’s still so surreal to be able to do that.”
Now with the Blast, Kelly hopes to translate those lessons he learned in Florida to the indoor game. He talks to his father on a daily basis to glean any insights he can while he adapts physically and mentally to the indoor game.
He knows he must stay patient, Kelly said. After all, his dad told him it took him almost a full season to adjust and get comfortable. But as Kelly starts his professional career on the team his father helped shape, he’s hoping he can make an impact sooner than that.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of San Diego State Athletics