Asked what goes first as goalkeepers age, Sounders FC keeper Kasey Keller responds: “Hair.”
Then he amends the answer: “At least, in my case – not Pat’s.”
That is a reference to Houston Dynamo goalkeeper Pat Onstad, who at 41 is the only regular goalkeeper in Major League Soccer older than Keller, who turns 40 later this month.
The fates of those teams’ seasons will be riding on their veteran keepers Sunday, when Seattle visits Houston for a loser-out game in their first-round playoff series.
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Keller ended the regular season with a 0.92 goals-against average – second in the league. He, Donovan Ricketts of Los Angeles and Zach Thornton of Chivas USA are finalists for the MLS goalkeeper of the year award, which will be announced today.
“There’s a lot of comfort in having Kasey behind you,” Sounders defender Patrick Ianni said Tuesday. “When he calls for a ball or a cross from a corner kick he’s very confident. Everything is very clear cut. His confidence is his biggest thing ... he keeps us organized, all those things. You know that when he says ‘Man on your left,’ that’s the man who is most important. It makes it easy for you.”
Keller also is a nominee for MLS newcomer of the year, along with teammates Freddie Ljungberg and Fredy Montero. And he is a finalist for the fair-play award, along with Onstad and Steve Ralston of New England.
Onstad’s nomination came just days after he picked up a yellow card for intentionally knocking Montero down Thursday in Game 1 of this series. And while that incident drew boos from Sounders’ fans, Onstad also matched Keller’s shutout performance.
“It was nice to get a clean sheet, but sometimes we defended with our lives,” Onstad said. “They had some close opportunities. We knew coming into the game it was going to be difficult. ... I thought our guys defended it well.”
For the season, Onstad finished three spots behind Keller with a 0.97 goals-against average. He was one of three MLS players in goal for every minute of their team’s regular season: 2,700 minutes.
These veteran keepers will meet for the final time this season at noon Sunday on the tight pitch of Robertson Stadium. The winner will continue into the Western Conference final against the winner of the Los Angeles-Chivas USA series, which also will be resolved Sunday.
“Experience for keepers is very important,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. “Goalkeepers have the privilege of when experience takes over – which is when your mind does what your body used to do – they can play to a more advanced age, as long as their reflexes stay reasonably sharp. Both those guys ... take care (of themselves) and they have experience so now the ball seems to hit them a lot more because their positioning is good, their angles are good.”
For the most part, Keller agrees with his coach’s assessment. He said he needs more recovery time after a game’s pounding than he once did.
And in addition to losing his hair, he admits he also doesn’t jump as high or run as fast as he did when he was younger. But so far, he said, experience has allowed him to compensate.
“Most of the reason now is that I’m reading the game so much better than I ever did that I can make up (for deficits),” he said. “I can do a lot better from reading than I ever could from speed, so that’s made a big difference.”
Since growing up in Lacey and attending the University of Portland, Keller’s experience has come with the United States national team and in 16 seasons in the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga. He was named U.S. Soccer athlete of the year in 1997, 1999 and 2005. Schmid calls him “arguably the top goalkeeper that the United States has ever produced.”
That pedigree not only gives Keller experience that he uses to outplay younger men, but it also inspires the confidence of his defensive teammates.
“Just hearing him encouraging you to continue doing the right things motivates you to continue to do so,” Sounders defender James Riley said. “It’s almost like you want to impress your uncle or your grandfather. You don’t want them to yell at you, so you want to do your bit. He’s like your godfather.”
Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808