Faces of First Kick: Kasey Keller
Posted: March 7, 2011, 3:38 pm
The Seattle Sounders veteran boasts a string of accolades: one of the first players to establish himself in England, 102 caps with the US national team and first American to play in the European powerhouse trio of England, Spain and Germany.
However, the 41-year-old struggles with one question: Can he still play at the level he's set for himself?
When he decided during the offseason to rejoin the Sounders for one final year, he put it succinctly: "I don't want to be that guy that everybody says, 'You really should have retired last year.'"
With goalkeepers, a fine line separates the elite from the rest. It's an extra couple inches of reach on a dive, making the correct split-second decision to come off your line and knowing the opposing strikers' tendencies and where to position your defense to limit opportunities.
Keller knows this better than anyone. That's why he's so hard on himself after he makes a mistake.And Keller certainly allowed a few soft goals last season, exposing chinks in his armor each time the ball shockingly slipped through his fingers. His most vulnerable moment came on June 10, when D.C. United's Chris Pontius drove a seemingly harmless left-footed shot from the top of the box and that somehow skipped through Keller's hands, leaving him to scramble for the ball as it dribbled into the net.
WATCH: Keller fumbles Pontius' shot
After Seattle's loss, Keller was very open about his self-doubt and his convictions.
"I wanted to play another year, but not if I don't play to the level I expect of myself and the way the fans and the coaching staff and the players expect of me," Keller said at the time. "I will work extremely hard to try and make it better."
Keller did just that, helping lead the Sounders to a second consecutive US Open Cup and a second postseason berth in as many years in Seattle.
The Sounders need Keller to be that strong again in 2011. He'll captain the side and anchor a defense that allowed a league-low 29 goals in 2009 and a respectable 35 last season. With 2009 finalist for MLS Defender of the Year Jhon Kennedy Hurtado back after an ACL injury in 2010, Seattle's defensive personnel rates among the best in the league.
That is, if Keller can make his last year a memorable one.
An Inspirational Figure
It happens so often it can be taken for granted. Keller comes out with the rest of the team and goes through full training sessions. Day in and day out, the veteran goes through the same drills as the younger goalkeepers in camp.
Despite the pain inevitable for someone who's played this game professionally for 22 years, Keller never complains and always trains hard.
"With what he's done for this sport and the position of goalkeeping, for him to come out every day and bring his lunch pail to work and work as hard as he can, I think it's an amazing example from a guy who could get away with taking a few ‘pro days' every once in a while," Sounders backup goalkeeper Terry Boss said. "He doesn't. It sets an example and I think things like that trickle from the top down."
While he concedes that good genetics has something to do with it, Keller also maintains a strict diet and exercise regimen. His communication with goalkeepers coach Tom Dutra is exceptional, due in large part to the fact the pair have known each other for decades and began working together professionally in 2002.
"He knows that you have to get out there every day," Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said. "When you get older, as we all know, if you sit back for a couple weeks it seems like everything stiffens up on you. He knows he's got to roll out every day and do something every day."
Said Keller, "The one statistic that I'm proud of is that in the two years I've been home in MLS, I've played more minutes than any other player in the league, if you combine the league and the cup competitions. For a 39-, 40-year-old guy, I'm pretty proud to do that."
An Uncertain Future
While nothing has been decided, it's understood that Keller will continue with the Sounders after his retirement. Just where he'll fit is still up in the air, but there are several possible homes for Keller.
With his astute and sometimes cutting observations, Keller might make a good broadcast partner for Sounders FC voice Arlo White. Alongside good friend and part owner/general manager Adrian Hanauer, he could assist with player personnel matters.
Keller can also press palms with the best of them, which would serve him well in a business development position.
But until the time comes to hang up the cleats, Keller doesn't want to speculate on where he wants to end up. What is clear, though, is that as 2011 dawns, Keller is the focal point of a Sounders franchise that needs its veteran goalkeeper now more than ever.
"Kasey only wanted to come back if he was playing at or near the top of his game," Hanauer said. "He is still quick, still a great shot-stopper and a great organizer in the back. And as great as he has been on the field, he has been an even greater ambassador for Sounders FC and the game."