BY Stanley Holmes 09:20AM 03/15/2011

Kasey Keller’s last stand

Goalkeeper begins final pro season tonight, vs. the LA Galaxy.

Kasey Keller Sounders 2009

Kasey Keller directs the Sounders in what will be his final pro season / Sounders FC

On Tuesday night, Kasey Keller, captain of the Seattle Sounders, will walk through the Qwest Field tunnel to throngs of screaming fans.

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, he’s 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 couldn’t 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, it’s exactly the same. I want to treat every game like I have my whole career,” Keller said Sunday, following training for Tuesday’s MLS opener against the Galaxy at Qwest Field. “There’s nothing different because this is my last season. That has nothing to do with it.

“The season isn’t 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.

Kasey Keller practicing in preseason. / Seattle Sounders FC

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:

  • Stopping Barcelona star Luis Figo’s penalty in the 89th minute in his first season at Rayo Vallecano in the mid-1990s.
  • Drawing 1-1 against Italy in the 2006 World Cup that required world-class saves in an epic match where the tempo changed every second.
  • Getting named as a reserve to the 1990 World Cup team when the Americans made their return to the tournament for the first time in 40 years.
  • Starting all three World Cup matches in 1998 in France and in 2006 in Germany.

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 wasn’t 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 he’s been. He’s 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.

Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller and striker Fredy Montero celebrate after the Sounders' U.S. Open Cup win over Columbus. Drew McKenzie/Sports Press Northwest

“We know that he’s 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 isn’t being talked about enough, it’s 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 don’t 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, I’ll make mistakes this year like everybody else, but at the same time, can I help make a difference for the team to win games? That’s where I’m 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.


YourThoughts

  • Gc Rolander

    Art, you are the prototypical downer Seattle sports fan. I’m glad you’ve been banished to this dark corner of the internet.

    • spudzDP

      I think you meant “typical” rather than “prototypical,” which implies that Art is the prototype of the “downer Seattle sports fan.”  I am sure there were downer Seattle sports fans before Mr. Thiel.  Now go back to your brightly lighted corner of the internet, and leave us alone here in the darkness.

  • KevinD

    I gave up on reading Thiel’s articles when he was at the PI (or was it the Times?  … same thing.) because his Husky articles were so mean-spirited.  Unlike Jim Moore who loved to bash the Huskies, but did it with humor and tongue-in-cheek.

    So I figured I’d give Thiel a 2nd chance now that he’s working someplace new.   Nope … same ol’ bile from Thiel.  This is the last article I will read from Thiel.

    • Michael Kaiser

      No it is not.  Say something original.  

  • Michael Kaiser

    Oh, Art, are you now even going to use the increasing popular animal-like terminology for a woman using the restroom–”pee”?  Come on, you already are cool.

  • Don James

    Ignore the fools Art.  They missed reading comprehension.  It was snarky, far from personal.  Some guys get worked up over anything…. they squat to pee. 

    • Michael Kaiser

      If you are the real Don James, I always have wanted to ask you if you hold yourself responsible at all for what happened to the UW football program these past fifteen years or so as a result of your throwing a hissy fit and abandoning your players and team weeks before the start of a season?

    • Michael Kaiser

      And, by the way, I did think after the fact that the tone of my comment to Art–not the content–was arguably unnecessary.  However, as for my question to you, everything holds.

    • Michael Kaiser

      Lastly, if you do decide to respond, please confine your response to my question, not how upper campus, or whomever, “betrayed” you, which, as an aside, I find rather humorous coming from someone who walked off on his football team weeks before the start of a season.

  • Noone

    Art, this is a long ways from the biggest capital project in the school’s history. The new dorms they’re building are over three times that amount, for example.

  • EugCox

    I gotta call B.S. on the $ ideas here.  WSU spent the general-account on sports, and then there general funding refunded from the D.S. legislature.  So the UW tries to be honest, and asks for some of the tax money that the UW sports game make happen…… and then WSU lobbies against Seattle taxes being used for Seattle fixes….. and the D.S. legislature says “no”, to using some of Seattle taxes for Husky Stadium.

    Do your research, Art.  We have had more than enough of poor/lazy “work” from you.

  • Steve59

    Great column.  You are right-on.  And, nothing will happen.

  • spudzDP

    Mark Emmert reminds me of Gorbachev who, after becoming the leader of the Soviet Union, helped to bring it all crumbling down, basically ending Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. I doubt that Gorby had that intention when he came to power, but he facilitated it with his personality, his relative youth and his new school attitude.  Communism was already falling apart, but it needed someone like Gorbachev to help kick it down the stairs.  Emmert might be in that same position as far as the NCAA goes.
    He is younger than most of the senior citizens who ran the NCAA before, so he is probably more open to new ideas and new ways of looking at things.  This could open the door to paying athletes — not like professional football players, but on a scale perceived to insure college players won’t be as tempted to accept illegal payments.  This will be the beginning of the end of the NCAA.  It will come crashing down faster than any bust of Lenin ever did.  Once the cash begins trickling down, every thing will change. The athletes might benefit, but the entire landscape will go through a radical makeover.  The loss of the NCAA is no great tragedy, but Saturdays will never be the same.  

  • Anonymous Coward

    OK, pay the athletes to make up the difference between expenses covered by a scholarship and actual costs.  But can you pay them enough so the kid won’t still be tempted by a big-money sleaze ball agent who can put the kid’s family in a nice house rent free or set up anything goes weekends at a resort?  The problem is still there whether you pay them or not.  Effective enforcement and penalties will still be needed.

  • Rusty Shackleford

    “The likeliest solution, which is already on the drawing board in some
    form, is for the top 64 schools to break away from the NCAA and form
    their own professional association of four super-conferences, with
    limited connections to the universities and the old rulebook.”

    They can call it the Premier League.

    [Oops, that name's already taken.]

  • 1coolguy

    Come on Art – If the coaches are liable with JAIL TIME as the consequence, this whole issue becomes moot.
    You know it, I know it and Emmert knows it.

    The NCAA only needs to establish rules that result in jail time – it’s not that tough.

    End of strory.

  • http://www.alternativeenergyspecialists.co.uk/why-buy-solar/solar-in-kent kent solar panels

    i miss casual posh very much. Getting tired of her mature/professional style.

  • spudzDP

    Oh Husky fans, why do you need constant ass kissing.  Why does Art have to praise the Udub’s football program to the heavens in order to satisfy your Taliban like fanaticism?  I mean this team has sucked for quite a while now, and last year they finally made it to average.  So what?  
    This reminds of the time Oregon kicked the Dawg’s ass in Husky Stadium a few years ago, and a reporter asked one of Ducks how it felt to beat the Huskies on the Huskies’ home field, and the player (can’t remember who) said something nonchalant, like,”We try to play as good away as we do at our place.”  The reporter appeared a bit taken back with the player’s lack of excitement after beating their “arch rival” and all.  But the truth was that the rivalry between the two teams had become a one sided affair.  That train had left the station several years ago. The Ducks real rivals were now USC or Stanford or even the Beavers – anyone but Washington (well – and WSU.)  
    Oh Husky Fans, why does your arrogance linger so?

  • Sales

    No arrogance here Spudz, simply a strong fan following who watched a string of crappy coaches run (what was) arguably the dominant program in the Pac10/12 into the ground… sooo should we not want to bounce back or be excited about what appears to be th beggining of that bounceback? should we not want to get back to stomping a mudhole in the ducks year after year? I think not, to the best of my knowledge the ducks have a losing record against the huskies… so perhaps, just maybe you should stop worrying about what we’re doing and excitd about up here in Seattle, and focus moreso on keeping your players out of jail, off suspension or just getting straight booted off your squad… oh ya, arogance comes in many forms, just like the 213 different uniforms you have, half of which don’t even rep your schools colors. must be fun to play dress up, unless your uni’s have fake diamond plating and robofeathers on them that is.

  • Michael Kaiser

    In fact, the more I think about it, I can not recall in the history of college football a coach walking out on his team weeks before the start of a season.  However, I am sure such a lowlife exists.

  • Michael Kaiser

    One last thing:  With regard to any argument that somehow what James did was justified in part by some personal statement he wanted to make and that, furthermore, the players do, or did, not hold it against him; the players are just one small part of a much larger equation including the University, Athletic Department, team, community, etc. that must be taken into account when assessing the impact of James’ decision to storm off.  Furthermore, deep inside, what do you think mattered more to the players once you wash away the emotion of their leanings on the issue–James stomping off and “making a point” or having the coach they came to play for remain as the coach?  

  • Ed

    That situation was far more complex than you know.