Publish date:

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

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 Millwall 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 goalkeeping," 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
Romario at least four seemingly certain goals. "That was the
greatest performance I've ever seen by a goalkeeper," said
Romario, 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.

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

"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

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 settling 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.


COLOR PHOTO: TONY MARSHALL/EMPICS THE MIGHTY KASEY Keller's acrobatic saves have kept Leicester City competitive. [Kasey Keller and opponent in game]

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB MARTIN DOUBLE PLAY Between Cameron (left) and Chloe, Kasey can seldom keep a stiff lower lip. [Kasey Keller, Cameron Keller, and Chloe Keller]

The Brits have trained Keller to ignore what less worldly
Americans refer to as "distractions."

For the U.S., Keller says, winning the Cup will be "as close to
impossible as it gets."