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
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.
But while the Jamaicans played with abandon, the Americans
mostly played not to lose. Their only noteworthy scoring chance
came in the 62nd minute, when forward Eric Wynalda slammed a
shot from 10 yards out off the chest of Jamaican keeper Warren
Barrett. "This was one of the uglier games you'll see us play,"
said Burns. But at least the vision of Keller stopping shot
after shot in goal was a lovely sight.
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Jamaican forward Andrew Williams left defender Jeff Agoos of the U.S. in limbo.