Asked to pick a highlight memory from his career, goalkeeper Kasey Keller offers a 240-word answer that runs a minute and 34 seconds.
It begins with, “There’s just too many things,” and ends with, “It has been a lot of fun.” In between, he skims through his time with the great leagues of Europe and ends with a nod to nearly two decades with the U.S. national team.
Before and after all that, Keller’s long playing career started at the same place it will end: the shores of Puget Sound.
That conclusion will come sometime in November, along with the Seattle Sounders FC season.
The beginning was in Thurston County, where Keller grew up on an Olympia-area egg farm and played a variety of sports before coming to realize that his soccer skills were special.
“I might have been only like 13,” Keller said. “And I remember the (opposing) coach – as I was walking by, they were in their huddle – and I remember the coach say something about, ‘You guys just have to be confident. You know you can score on Keller,’ or whatever else like that. And I’m thinking, ‘First of all, how does this guy even know my name?’
And second of all, ‘Why are they talking about me specifically?’”
By the time Keller was a sophomore at North Thurston High School in Lacey, college coaches from around the country were trying to get him to play for them.
“He’s always been just a great athlete,” said Eddie Gentry, a high school teammate of Keller and now a teacher at North Thurston. “All the coaches wanted him to do everything. Obviously, all the football coaches wanted him to play; all the baseball coaches wanted him to play. He could do everything.”
Keller finally settled on soccer as the sport most likely to pay for his education, and on the University of Portland’s Clive Charles as the coach most likely to make what Keller now considers an outrageous dream come true.
“I felt, ‘Well, if I’m going to make an effort at this, then I have to go to Europe,’” Keller said. “That was kind of an arrogant statement considering no one was really in Europe from America at that stage. But so then what it came down to was, if I was going to pick soccer and go to college, where am I going to go that was going to best prepare me to be a pro in Europe? And Clive Charles had just taken over as the coach at the University of Portland. And, comfortably, (that was) the best decision I made of all the choices I was ever going to make to get me prepared to be a professional player in Europe.”
It worked out for Charles as well. Keller opened his college career by leading the Pilots to the NCAA final four of soccer as a freshman and closed it by being named Adidas goalkeeper of the year as a senior. His 43 shutouts and 0.64 goals-against average remain atop the school’s record book.
One of those shutouts came in his freshman year against UCLA, which was led by current Sounders coach Sigi Schmid.
“You could tell,” Schmid said. “Even as a young goalkeeper, he was very fundamentally sound. I was always very impressed that, you took a shot, he completed the save and then let’s go on to the next one. He was very disciplined about it, he was very meticulous about it, and he was very clean technically. That was impressive from Day One.”
Keller started his run with the U.S. national team in 1990 and was part of the 1990, ’98, 2002 and ’06 World Cup teams. His most memorable performance may have come in the 1998 Gold Cup when he made 10 saves in preserving a 1-0 win over Brazil. Brazilian striker Romario called it “the best performance by a goalkeeper that I have seen.” U.S. coach Steve Sampson called it “the single greatest performance by a goalkeeper in U.S. soccer history.”
“With Kasey, I go way back, when I played with him on the national team,” said Frank Klopas, now coach of the Chicago Fire. “Great goalkeeper. I have tremendous respect for him.”
In 1992, Keller’s then-outrageous dream of a career in Europe came true. He signed with Millwall, then went on to Leicester City, became the first American to play in Spain’s Li Liga, returned to England and Tottenham – where he played every minute over 100 straight games – went to Germany’s Bundesliga and then back to England and Fulham, where he capped one of the great relegation escapes ever with a 1-0 shutout at Portsmouth.
“He had an unbelievable European career,” said Portland Timbers coach John Spencer, who played 14 years in England and Scotland. “ I must admit that that’s the only way I can explain Kasey: an American goalkeeping legend.”
Sunil Gulati, president of U.S. Soccer, agrees and takes Keller’s legacy even further.
“Kasey Keller is one of the most accomplished players in U.S. Soccer history,” Gulati said. “Having seen him play since 1985, we witnessed Kasey become a pioneer for U.S. players by having the courage to embark on a career overseas and the skill and determination to be successful for so many years in the top leagues in Europe and at the international level.
“In representing the United States, he turned in some of the most memorable performances ever by any player. Kasey’s achievements speak for themselves, and he should be extraordinarily proud of a tremendous career and a lasting legacy.”
Finally, Keller decided it was time to come home. He signed with the Sounders before their expansion season, and went on to start the 2009 MLS All-Star Game.
This week, as coach Jason Kreis prepares Real Salt Lake for its playoff-opening visit from the Sounders on Saturday, he might be telling his players something very similar to what Keller heard that youth team coach say all those years ago.
In Keller’s just-completed third and final MLS regular season, he tied for third in the league with nine shutouts, and his 1.09 goals-against average tied for third among keepers with 25 or more appearances.
That raises the question of why he is walking away.
“I think it would have been a little bit more difficult if I was 35, 36, 37,” he said. “But 41, turning 42 (next month), makes that a little bit easier, knowing that at any time I feel my body is ready to fall apart. And as I’m keeping it together, I love the fact that that question is being asked. That’s what I hoped to achieve: To finish with people still thinking that I could play longer, and not truly saying, ‘Yeah, we’re really happy that you’re retiring.’”
That retirement could begin as soon at Nov. 2, when the Sounders-RSL series concludes at CenturyLink Field. Or it could linger another week to the Western Conference final. Or Keller could get the Hollywood-movie ending at the MLS Cup on Nov. 20.
In any case, the end of his playing career will not end his association with the sport.
Since the day Keller signed, Sounders FC has indicated a willingness to have him remain in the organization. And it appears Keller will have other options, from broadcasting to work in a front office to coaching.
All he has decided for sure is that he will remain in the sport that took him from the banks of Puget Sound, around the world, and back again.
“I’m just interested to see where it’s going to map itself out,” he said. “What’s nice is I’m in a situation where I don’t have to just jump on something to jump on it. At the same time, I’ll absolutely lose my mind – and I’d also feel guilty – if I didn’t go back into the game, having experienced what I’ve experienced.”
WHERE HE’S PLAYED
North Thurston High School
University of Portland
U.S. under-20 team
U.S. men’s national team
U.S. World Cup team
Leicester City (England)
U.S. World Cup team
Rayo Vallecano (Spain)
Southampton (England, loan)
U.S. World Cup team
U.S. World Cup team
Seattle Sounders FC
BY THE NUMBERS
1997, 1999, 2005
U.S. Soccer athlete of the year
Captain of U.S. Olympic team
appearances: U.S. leader for goalkeepers
wins: U.S. leader for goalkeepers
shutouts: U.S. leader for goalkeepers
seasons played in the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga
saves in the United States’ 1-0 win over Brazil in 1998 Gold Cup, earning him MVP honors
shutouts to begin his MLS career — the first keeper to achieve this