In December 2021, Kipp Keller sat at home waiting to hear his name called in the 2022 MLS SuperDraft to start his professional career. He was joined by friends, family, and even local press came to his house to celebrate the occasion. There was a chance he would hear his name called first overall and be the next in a line of great St. Louis based players to enter MLS.
The college junior left school early to sign a Generation Adidas contract and knew he was going to be picked, but didn’t know where. A first overall selection would have been a nice feather in his cap, but the stakes were lower given his deal was already signed.
High on his list though was FC Cincinnati who owned the second pick of the draft that would ultimately be used on Roman Celentano. The recently named NCAA All-American had grown more and more fond of FCC as a landing spot in the pre draft process. He interviewed with the technical staff and began to envision himself in Orange and Blue.
But the fates wouldn't align that day. Keller was taken sixth overall by Austin FC and would eventually be a game one starter for the Verde.
Somewhere along the line though, Keller fell out of favor. The transition from NCAA to MLS is challenging and Austin struggled to find him moments to shine and grow through the challenges. He would play 13 MLS matches in Austin, starting just six, over the next two seasons. He would make appearances in Leagues Cup, the U.S. Open Cup, and even subbed on late in the Concacaf Champions League match against Violette AC. But the once highly touted draft pick found himself on the outside looking in.
Meanwhile, at FC Cincinnati, general manager Chris Albright continued to hold Keller in high regard. While the draft pick of Celentano ultimately worked out very well for The Orange and Blue, Keller’s high upside potential continued to be something Albright and his staff tracked. So when the defender became available two years later, the faith was still there to pull the trigger and bring him to Cincinnati.
Now Keller is set to play in the Queen City.
“I’m grateful for the past two years with Austin,” Keller said via a Zoom call from his family home in the suburbs of St. Louis, wearing a FC Cincinnati ball cap.
Thanks to the uniqueness of the MLS SuperDraft, Keller was sent merchandise for all MLS clubs in the event he was taken by any of them. Once the Austin green was used the rest found their way to a box in the house. When Keller signed with FC Cincinnati, he went through that box and pulled out the FCC section. The only club he wasn’t sent a scarf for? FCC. But the stylish hat would suffice until he arrives for preseason.
“I'm grateful for all the experience I had with Austin. Coming into the league, you go from college to first team in MLS, and it is definitely challenging,” Keller added. “But definitely looking forward to FC Cincinnati and just so grateful and pumped for this new opportunity for me.
“I've learned so much. It's only gotten me stronger, mentally. I've gotten stronger physically because of it. And I can say I'm grateful for everything that happened and transpired, and now I'm going to FCC, and I can't wait for this new opportunity. I'm just pumped to start working and get ready for the season.”
The acquisition of the young center back also stands as a tidy bit of business that represents very little downside for FC Cincinnati and a fresh start for a player on the outside looking in to playing time at his former location.
After Austin FC declined the contract option on Keller, FC Cincinnati traded their third-round pick in the 2024 MLS SuperDraft for the rights to the defender and signed him to a deal through the 2024 season with options for 2025 and 2026, essentially flipping a pick that historically has very little yield in terms of translating to success on the pitch for, at the very least, a more proven commodity with MLS experience to fill out the depth chart at a position of need. At best, Keller represents a high ceiling for potential and should he succeed in Cincinnati and reach that potential, The Orange and Blue would capitalize on what was once considered a possible number one overall selection.
Given the balance of risk, it’s a shrewd move that many in the MLS community have come to expect from a general manager like Albright.
Now the task is getting the potential out of the player. It’s all good and fun as a thought experiment to say you're going to recover the asset in theory, but the work of turning Keller back into that high-capability prospect rests with Pat Noonan and his staff on the field.
The Orange and Blue have shown an ability to develop SuperDraft picks and turn them into contributing MLS players. Since the Albright/Noonan era began at FCC prior to the 2022 MLS season, draft picks Roman Celentano (2nd overall in 2022) and Ian Murphy (17th overall in 2022) have become not just starters, but instrumental to the success of the club.
Bret Halsey, who came to FC Cincinnati after signing a Generation Adidas deal and being drafted by Real Salt Lake in 2021, represents another similar case. Despite being selected seventh overall, injuries and other unfortunate circumstances left Halsey on the outside at RSL. A quick loan spell to Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC didn’t reassure the Utah club and Halsey was cast out. He was quickly picked up by Albright on a MLS NEXT Pro deal then promoted with a first team deal at FCC where he instantly made an impact as a wingback with attacking prowess, playing in 13 games across all competitions.
Ben Stitz, a draft pick of D.C. United, was picked up on a second team deal after not signing a deal with DCU. Stitz helped anchor the attack of FCC2 in 2023 and made his first team debut after a call-up in a 2-1 win over the New York Red Bulls in July. He would make two more appearances with the first team while also scoring seven goals for the second team.
The examples are abound; very few are as proficient at developing high potential talent into contributing members of the first team as Noonan and Co.
With Keller now in the system, the hope is that he follows in that pathway and reaches the potential that Albright believed he could have in 2022 despite being a few years older. While he will certainly get opportunities with the first team, especially considering the density of the 2024 calendar with Leagues Cup and Concacaf Champions Cup already cluttering the year, Keller would be an instant upgrade to the back line of FC Cincinnati 2 should he get time there and will bring a leadership and poise that the young squad lacked in 2023. Keller played 16 matches for Austin FC II, who ultimately won the 2023 MLS NEXT Pro Cup.
The connections between Keller and Noonan run deep. Both grew up in St. Louis and played in the St. Louis Scott Gallagher academy system. Noonan’s De Smet Jesuit High School and Keller’s Principia School don’t play as they are different classes but both have won state titles with relative frequency (Noonan won in 1997 whereas Keller was MVP in their state title run in 2015) and are powers in the city at their respective sizes. Noonan would go to Indiana University where he would be named an All-American three times, whereas Keller stayed in STL to join the Saint Louis University Billikens (where he would be coached by a teammate of Noonan’s while he was at Gallagher, Kevin Kalish) and would be named an All-American in 2021 while leading the Billikens as captain to an A-10 conference championship and a trip to the NCAA Men’s Soccer Quarterfinals.
“He’s kind of a legend in St. Louis,” Keller said of his new head coach Noonan. “Obviously I respect him and looked up to him because he was achieving what I wanted to achieve when I was just a younger kid. So being here now and receiving the phone call from him is like a dream come true of mine.”
The point being, the tissue is there to make a seamless connection. Many of the same people who helped shape the career of Noonan also contributed to the soccer education of Keller. When the young center back was playing his best soccer, which he openly admits was not while with Austin FC, it was under the tutelage of someone from the same soccer branch or education as Noonan.
There are no guarantees with Keller. But that street goes both ways. With talented center backs already on the roster including the MLS Defensive Player of the Year in Matt Miazga, a SuperDraft success story in Ian Murphy, Cincinnati’s own Nick Hagglund, Alvas Powell, Joey Akpunonu, London Aghedo and Isaiah Foster, playing time is not a given. Keller will have to compete for time on the field.
“We all have the same goal as a team. We want to win,” Keller said of his new center back collective. “I just look forward to learning from them, getting better each and every day.”
What Keller brings to the equation off the field is what also makes him an easy gamble in this situation. Even with so many pieces already part of the club’s defensive depth chart, coaches of old rave of Keller’s commitment and leadership skills on and off the pitch in addition to his performance on the field. Despite not earning the playing time that a draft pick of his stature would usually yield, sources tell FCCincinnati.com that his personality never soured and he was still an exemplary professional.
In Cincinnati, Kipp Keller has found a second chance. It didn’t work in Austin, but a fresh start with a coach who not only walked a very similar path to him, but has the experience and receipts to prove this kind of project is right up his alley.