Now that Kasey Keller is in uniform, the Iranis, the Yugoslavs and even the Germans seem a little less threatening. The U.S. will enter the World Cup knowing that it has a player capable of dominating games. Being an American, naturally Keller is going to catch the ball, not kick it.
His 10 teammates will be using their feet, however, which is why the U.S. is given little chance to win its June 15 opening match in Paris against Germany, a three-time World Cup champion. The 6'2", 190-pound Keller might help the Americans defy the odds. Off the field, he looks a bit like Clark Kent. He wears glasses when he isn't keeping goal, and at his country home, 110 miles north of London, he tends daffodils and eight-month-old twins, Cameron and Chloe. He grew up on his parents' egg farm in Lacey (pop. 27,570), Wash., thousands of miles removed from the world of English soccer.
That's a world most American sports fans are indifferent to, yet Keller, 28, thrives in it. For seven years he has defended his nets in some of English soccer's most belligerent neighborhoods. Even the hooligan fans of his first club, Millwall, warmed up to him. In 1993, near the end of Keller's first full season with the team, they poured over the railings and onto the field like beer from a sun-warmed keg and surrounded their Yank goalkeeper. It turned out they only wanted to help themselves to his clothes—which they did.
"It was their last game in that stadium, they'd been playing there 83 years, and everybody wanted to leave with something," says Keller's wife, Kristin, who was watching from the stands. "They had Kasey up in the air. They pulled off his gloves, his shoes, his shirt. He was holding on to his shorts." One of Keller's teammates was left stripped naked and standing behind his clasped hands as if worrying about a free kick. All together, the players trudged back to their locker room, put on fresh clothes and came out on the pitch again; after all, there was still another half to play.
Keller has made a career of bracing himself against unforeseen and often difficult circumstances. He has been a keeper at the sport's highest level since Leicester City of the Premier League purchased him from Mill-wall for $1.5 million two seasons ago and signed him to a reported three-year, $750,000 contract. Working for such less-talented clubs, he has had to nullify the attacks of richer and deeper sides, knowing that he would be sent back to the soccer backwoods of America if he didn't. In June, Keller will be up against the same challenge in France, albeit on a larger scale. It's as though he has been preparing all his professional life to defend his goal against the World Cup field.
"You have to be incredibly impressed with his confidence and his willingness to persevere in some of the crazy situations he's faced over there," says U.S. defender Alexi Lalas, who played in Italy's top division in 1994-95 and '95-96. When Keller comes jogging onto the Leicester pitch, American flags wave in the crowd. His best saves incite stadiumwide chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" Last season Leicester City won the English League Cup, one of England's major competitions, in front of Keller. This year it finished with a 13-11-14 record while allowing the third-fewest goals among the 20 teams in the Premiership. Local fans do Keller the honor of mentioning him with legendary goalkeepers Gordon Banks, who helped lead England to the 1966 World Cup, and Peter Shilton, who succeeded Banks both at Leicester City and on the national team. "I have a very traditional, English style of goal-keeping," says Keller. "I try to do things as simply as possible."
Socially he's much the same, content with silence, as farm folks supposedly are, and perhaps a bit amused that it makes city people nervous. If his teammates are sometimes in a panic on the field, doing everything they can just to fend off the opposition, they might gain strength from the fact that Keller doesn't seem worried at all. Most of the time he stands his ground as serenely as the leftfielder on Roger Clemens's finest day, blowing little pink bubbles with his gum.
The Brits have trained Keller to ignore what less worldly American players and coaches refer to as "distractions." In a three-day stretch in November '96 he shut out Trinidad and Tobago (for the U.S. team) and Manchester United (for Leicester) with a red-eye transatlantic flight in between. In February, following successive shutouts against Liverpool, Manchester United and Leeds—three of the top five clubs in England—he boarded one of those three-movie flights to Los Angeles to join his American teammates for the semifinal of the Gold Cup tournament. The opponent was Brazil, the defending World Cup champion, and Keller performed like a Hollywood stuntman, leaping from one emergency to the next and denying the striker Romário at least four seemingly certain goals. "That was the greatest performance I've ever seen by a goalkeeper," said Romário, a top scorer and the most outstanding player of World Cup '94, after the Americans' stunning 1-0 victory. "It was an honor to be on the field with him."
The U.S. went on to lose the Gold Cup final by 1-0 to favored Mexico, but Keller was named MVP of the tournament, and the upset over Brazil represented a breakthrough for American soccer. "The Brazil match put Kasey on a stage that allowed people to say he is definitely world-class," says U.S. coach Steve Sampson.
At his best Keller will frustrate America's World Cup opponents and liberate his teammates to go forward, mimicking the role Dominik Hasek played in leading the Czech Republic to the Olympic ice hockey gold medal in Nagano. The U.S. faces a far more daunting challenge than the Czechs did, of course; while only a handful of nations field medal-worthy hockey teams, the qualifying rounds for this World Cup began two years ago with 172 countries, most of whom treat soccer as a national religion. The tournament draws its players from a talent pool numbering in the hundreds of millions.