Goalkeeper begins final pro season tonight, vs. the LA Galaxy.
It will mark the beginning of the end for one of America’s soccer icons — a player who will be remembered for his long length of service — twenty seasons spanning four of the world’s top professional leagues — and as a pioneer for Americans playing professional soccer in Europe.
Keller, 41, was the first Americans to play in the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, and he was one of the first American captains for a German Bundesliga team. Along the way, he earned a small fortune, made four U.S. World Cup rosters and has been named U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year three times — 1997, 1999 and 2005.
Obviously, in goal, hes one of the icons of American soccer, for sure, Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said.
To think the first seeds of such a career germinated on an egg farm in Lacey, WA. — far from the maddening crowds of Europe and now circles back to the Seattle Sounders is a story that “continues to get bigger and bigger and bigger,” Keller said. “You couldnt have written a script any better.”
The ending is potentially pure Hollywood — and a script Sounders majority owner and Hollywood mogul Joe Roth would gladly put together if it includes an MLS Cup. But given Keller’s achievements, the Disney treatment would fall short of capturing the depth and complexity of his career. For the secret to Keller’s success — beyond mere athletic gifts — is one of hard work, some luck and lots of discipline. That rarely translates well onto film.
When reporters asked Keller Sunday if he was treating his final season any differently, his response sounded impatient. It was as if the questioner just didn’t really understand the level of energy and dedication — the near monastic devotion — to staying fit, healthy and razor sharp that had served him well over a collegiate and professional career approaching two decades.
“No, its exactly the same. I want to treat every game like I have my whole career, Keller said Sunday, following training for Tuesdays MLS opener against the Galaxy at Qwest Field. Theres nothing different because this is my last season. That has nothing to do with it.
The season isnt about me, the season is about the Sounders continuing to get better as a club and go and fight for everything we possibly can.
Keller will tell you it’s always about the soccer — it’s always about competing and winning something. He didn’t return to Seattle to nestle into a cozy state of semi-comatose retirement when he signed a two-year contract two years ago. His name never sold many jerseys anyway, and really, few outside the local soccer community knew of his achievements abroad.
Still, it’s an impressive record. Add the league matches, cup games, friendlies, Olympics and World Cup qualifying and national team appearances, Keller has logged about 700 career matches.
Some of those moments remain as clear as a Kodak snapshot:
Of course, perhaps his finest moment: His Gold Cup performance in 1998 against Brazil. It so impressed Brazilian star Romario that he shook Keller’s hand on the field after one point-blank save. Following the Americans’ 1-0 win, Romario said it was the greatest goalkeeping performance he’d ever witnessed.
There were disappointments, too. Keller lost out to Brad Friedel for the starting keeper spot in the 2002 World Cup. The U.S. National team reached the quarterfinals and it remains its best finish. But the competition between the two keepers was legendary and ultimately helped the team.
“The competition was fabulous,” recalled Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, who was the head coach for the U.S. Men’s National Team then. “The part that made it real difficult is that they both played very well for the us leading up to training camp. In training camp, they both played very well. There wasnt a whole lot that separated one or the other.”
For all of Keller’s achievements with the national team, his role as one of the first American soccer players to compete in Europe helped to pave the way for others. His signing with London club Millwall, along with midfielder John Harkes joining Sheffield Wednesday and forward Roy Wegerle going to Coventry City began the migration of American players to England.
Keller went to England following two years at the University of Portland, where he played for the legendary coach Clive Charles, an English footballer who had settled in Portland following the collapse of the North American Soccer League. Charles was a mentor to Keller and helped him map out his start overseas.
From Millwall, in Division One back then, Keller went to Leicester City and the Premier League, helping to lead the Foxes to a League Cup that helped establish his place in England. He left for Rayo Vallecano and La Liga for two seasons, becoming the first American there. Then he returned to the Premier League and Tottenham from 2001-04 before spending nearly three seasons in the Bundesliga with Borussia Monchengladbach.
“In the ’90s, Kasey was the one American player in Europe everyone knew about,” Arena said. “He is responsible for the notion that America produces great goal keepers. Kasey has proved that everywhere hes been. Hes been simply an outstanding player.”
Keller was ready to retire following his stint in Germany. But Fulham called in 2007, asking if he’d be interested in helping save the Cottagers from relegation. That gave the expansion Sounders enough time to offer Keller a contract so he could finish his career in front of hometown fans for the first time since his youth soccer days.
Like he did in Europe, Keller became the backbone of the Sounders — a vocal and competitive player who demanded the same intense commitment from his teammates that he demanded of himself. Since joining the Sounders, Keller has started 59 consecutive games, opening his MLS career with a record 457 shutout minutes. He has helped lead the team to the MLS playoffs twice and to two Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championships.
“We know that hes fantastic at clearing crosses and taking pressure off the team,” said defender James Riley, who adds that Keller is one of the more vocal leaders from his box.
But his two years haven’t been flawless, either. Some observers say last season Keller had lost a step or two.
“If there is an area of concern that isnt being talked about enough, its the form of veteran goalkeeper Kasey Keller,” Ives Galarcep wrote recently for FoxSoccer.com. “The 41-year-old former U.S. national team star showed his age at times last season, with some uncharacteristic blunders.”
Keller says his longevity can be traced to a little bit of luck, a little bit of hard work.
But it really comes down to a matter of still enjoying the game, the training, the teammates, the competition.
Why exit now? For the competitor in Keller it’s all about leaving while still being able to play at the highest level.
I think it was time because I feel that I can play at a level I want to play at, he said. I dont want to say, Oh, God, what am I doing out here? I want to finish knowing I can still play.
He rejects efforts to assess his legacy, saying the time for that will be after the season in January when he will no longer be preparing for preseason training.
For myself, the personal side of it is just getting ready to play the way I want to play to help the team, he said. Yes, Ill make mistakes this year like everybody else, but at the same time, can I help make a difference for the team to win games? Thats where Im going to truly judge myself every time I step on the field.
And what about his future? For Keller, the future can wait until the end of the season. Nothing else matters except the match against LA and the remaining 33 MLS games.