Jamaican Striker Walter Boyd sliced through the left flank of the U.S. defense in the 45th minute of a final-round World Cup qualifying match on Sunday. The 35,000 fans at Kingston's National Stadium rose, their roar growing louder with every tap-tap-tap of the ball on Boyd's red-shod feet. U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who already had withstood four tests from Jamaica's attack, lay back, trying to read Boyd, who then surprised him by skidding a short crossing pass to Theodore Whitmore in front of the goal. Whitmore's first volley was blocked by sweeper Thomas Dooley. Then, as Keller charged out, Whitmore got off a half-speed shot from seven yards away that skipped toward the open net.
This was not supposed to be happening. The self-proclaimed Reggae Boyz were dominating the favored U.S. But Whitmore's shot took two small hops, slowing the ball down enough to allow U.S. defender Mike Burns to clear it just before it bounded over the goal line. If not for that bit of luck, the wobbly U.S. squad likely would have flown home a loser. Instead it escaped with a 0-0 draw, always a palatable result when playing on the road. And the shutout was the fourth in a row for Keller—persona non grata during the U.S.'s 1994 World Cup campaign—in the last three months.
Between now and November the U.S. will play nine more qualifiers, the next coming against Canada on March 16 in Palo Alto, Calif., in hopes of advancing to the 1998 World Cup in France. In addition to Jamaica and Canada, the U.S. will have home-and-home series against Costa Rica, El Salvador and Mexico; the top three finishers among the six teams will move on. Though Sunday's game was just the final round opener, several U.S. players conceded last week that they're already feeling the pressure of being expected to make it to France. "If we don't," said captain John Harkes, "it'd probably be the biggest setback for soccer in U.S. history."
Fortunately, the U.S. has the services of the 27-year-old Keller—unless he becomes further ensnared in a transatlantic tug-of-war. Keller was the team's most effective player against Jamaica, staving off a dangerous scoring chance by Boyd in the game's 20th minute with a spectacular one-handed diving save, and then stoning the Jamaicans on back-to-back corner kicks a few minutes later. Though he left himself vulnerable against Boyd late in the first half, the 6'2", 180-pound Keller was solid the rest of the way. "Kasey is a world-class keeper," says coach Steve Sampson, who has guided the U.S. team since April 1995. "He's got tremendous confidence and composure."
But Keller's burgeoning skills are also in great demand by Leicester City, the professional team he stars for in the mighty English Premier League. While FIFA rules stipulate that a club must make a player available for a call-up to his national team, Leicester City's management has been anything but supportive of Keller's commitment to the U.S. For the past four months, it has threatened Keller with having to choose between cash—his salary with Leicester City is $1.4 million—and country.
Two weeks ago Sampson made a trip to England to try to broker an agreement with the club. "The first words out of [Leicester City coach] Martin O'Neill's mouth were that he was going to advise Kasey to give up his national team career and forget about World Cup," Sampson says. O'Neill also threatened to acquire another keeper to replace Keller in Leicester City's starting lineup.
That he should be put in this bind is frustrating for Keller, especially considering the long, bumpy road he has traveled to achieve success at home and abroad. After being named All-America at Portland in 1990, he signed with Millwall of England's First Division. For four years there he paid his dues in front of one of the tougher crowds in Europe, playing in a bandbox known as the Den. While Keller's stature grew in England, his chilly relationship with former U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic doomed his chances of competing for the '94 World Cup starting job, which Tony Meola eventually won. But Keller no longer makes the sort of impetuous and self-promoting statements to the media that got him in trouble with Milutinovic. Now Keller keeps his focus steadfastly on one goal: playing in his first World Cup. "I know no matter what I say or do, I'm going to make one team unhappy," Keller says of the cross fire between O'Neill and Sampson. "What we've all tried to do is find something in the middle that everyone can live with."
For now, Keller, O'Neill and Sampson have agreed on a tenuous plan that will enable Keller to play for Leicester City except on the weekends when the U.S. has a Cup qualifier. Last week his first experience with this time-share arrangement held a few surprises. After playing sensationally in Leicester City's 1-0 loss to Chelsea on Feb. 26, Keller rushed to catch a red-eye from London—a flight that was delayed for more than two hours. When he finally got to the U.S. team's hotel in Kingston at eight the following night, more than 12 hours after he began traveling, he dragged his oversized bag upstairs, only to find that the key to his door didn't work. He had to schlepp his luggage back down to the lobby.
But much like Sunday's game, this was a struggle that ended well: Once inside his room, Keller discovered he had an urgent message to call his wife, Kristen, who is four months pregnant, back in England. When she said, "We're going to have twins," Keller started whooping and hollering into the telephone. "It's been a wild week," he said, still grinning, 24 hours later. "I don't really feel any jet lag. I just keep thinking, Twins? We're having twins!"
On Sunday the rest of the U.S. team needed some of that emotion. The Americans later blamed their performance on the absence of midfielder Tab Ramos, forward Joe-Max Moore and defender Eddie Pope, all of whom were injured. They groused about the washboard texture of National Stadium's sunbaked field. They lamented the stiff winds that left both teams struggling to control the ball.