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In Good Hands
Ian Thomsen
May 18, 1998
Toughened by his seven years as goalkeeper in England, unflappable Kasey Keller holds the fate of the U.S. soccer team
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May 18, 1998

In Good Hands

Toughened by his seven years as goalkeeper in England, unflappable Kasey Keller holds the fate of the U.S. soccer team

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What Keller is about to say is going to sound distinctly un-American. For the U.S., he predicts, winning the World Cup will be "about as close to impossible as it gets." What if somehow, after facing Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia, America was not only one of the two teams from that group to advance to the round of 16, but the U.S. also went on to win a second-round match? "That would be tremendous," says Keller. "That's our dream," agrees Sampson. "Anything more is unrealistic."

By playing overseas Keller has gained a more sophisticated perspective, enabling him to put his accomplishments in a larger context. Keller grew up juggling the more traditional hand-eye sports of baseball, basketball and football until, one by one, he gave them up to concentrate on goalkeeping. He was a four-year All-America at North Thurston High, which came as a surprise to his father, Bernie, a former pitcher who was drafted by the New York Yankees. Before the 1990 World Cup, in which he backed up Tony Meola and didn't play a minute, Keller turned down a contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation. At the time he was starring at the University of Portland, which he selected ahead of dozens of other schools that had offered him scholarships; he made his choice largely because Portland coach Clive Charles could best prepare him for a playing career in Europe.

"He had all the natural athletic abilities of a goalkeeper," says Charles, 46, a defender for West Ham in the English first division before landing in the old North American Soccer League. Keller found out the hard way that Americans weren't—and still aren't—used to a college soccer player aiming as high as the stars in football or basketball. "He was probably the most misunderstood athlete I've ever had at the school," says Charles. "In his first week the press asked him if he might leave school early. He said, 'Yeah, if a team offered me $1 million, I'd leave.' Everyone was saying, 'What kind of a guy is this?' They thought he was bigheaded, but he was just being honest."

After four seasons at Portland, during which he was named All-America and appeared in a final four, he received a few feelers from clubs in Europe, none remotely hinting at a $1 million payday. In February 1992, Keller signed with Millwall in England's second division. He recalls telling his professor of philosophy, a Scot, that he would be leaving school early to join Millwall. The professor, aghast, fixed him with a stare and said, "They kill people there."

Millwall is the Hell's Angels of English soccer. It's a little, heavily scarred club with a big heart and brass knuckles that makes its home across the river from London's East End, stomping grounds of the murderous Kray twins and other Dickensian mutations. That was where Keller landed in December 1991 as a 21-year-old bespectacled American still hoping to finish his sociology degree by correspondence. "He knew he wasn't going into any five-star hotel," Charles says. "I told him, 'You're a Yank, and you're going to be called a Yank.' It would be like an English guy coming over here to play for the Portland Trail Blazers. The only thing they were going to know was that he was from the U.S.A., which to them would mean he wasn't any good."

Keller became Millwall's starting goaltender early in the 1992-93 season. In the following year he gave up only 53 goals in 51 games and was voted team MVP by the fans. In the narrow, 19,900-capacity stadium known as the Den they would stand in dense, terraced layers around the field, singing and threatening in a single belligerent voice, like a loud picture frame dominating the painting within. "They made it easier for me, because I knew I had to concentrate 100 percent," Keller says. "They're a tough crowd, and you have to try really hard to please them."

Keller tried to explain the subculture of soccer hooliganism in a sociology paper he wrote as part of his correspondence-course work several years after setting in England. He had lots of field data to choose from. Once during a game he was greeted with a "Hello, Kasey!" from a Millwall fan running across the field on his way to decking an enemy fan. During the peaceful times in goal, while the ball was at the other end, Keller would look up into the stands and watch the brawls. It was as if the movie Slap Shot were being remade by a British Studio. "The Den was basically a venue for people to fight," Keller says. "Most of it happened outside the stadium, but you wanted to make sure you were cheering when the right team scored."

Back in the U.S., soccer administrators were slow to recognize Keller's pioneering achievements as the first American keeper to make a name for himself abroad. For reasons never fully explained to Keller or to the public, he was left off the roster for the 1994 World Cup, which was played in the U.S. Coach Bora Milutinovic instead relied on Meola, who would play decently while helping the team advance to the second round. Sampson, then an assistant to Milutinovic, says that Keller was shunned for having directed critical comments at Meola, who had trained for two years with the national team. "I find that hard to believe," Keller says. "My 'critical comment' was that I was playing professionally and [Meola] wasn't. That's not critical. That's just a fact." Says Charles, a U.S. assistant coach since 1995, "I don't know why he wasn't included. The only thing I know is that Kasey Keller's not being in the World Cup had nothing to do with his ability."

Keller is untouchable now. He finds himself thinking more and more about the World Cup—not about the lost chance of becoming a star in his own country four years ago or even about the quick, precise attacks the Germans will be directing at him. In his mind's eye he's trying to ignore the obstacles that the U.S. is facing and prepare himself for the foot meeting the ball. "I just try to put myself in the right position, in the right place" he says. "I can't anticipate where the ball is going to go. My reaction comes after the ball is struck.

In that split second everything has to be right." In that moment, the finest soccer player America has produced will be trying to make all the difference.

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