Going out in style
Julie Foudy talked to Seattle's Kasey Keller on the eve of his final season
SEATTLE -- Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller is considered one of the greatest American soccer players of all time. He was named to four World Cup teams and appeared more than 100 times for the U.S. national team. After playing 16 years in Europe's best leagues -- the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga and the German Bundesliga -- Keller, who grew up on an egg farm in Olympia, Wash., seized the opportunity to return home in 2009 with MLS expansion franchise the Seattle Sounders. At the age of 41, Keller is closing in on the end of a fantastic career. Julie Foudy sat down with Keller to discuss his upcoming final season.
Julie Foudy: Twenty years of playing professional soccer. How have you been able to stay on top of your game?
Kasey Keller: I think it's multiple things. First of all, it's kind of looking after yourself, making sure you're not getting into the drinking culture that comes about in the English side of the game, because that will take its toll on you before anything. I've been very fortunate injurywise. I haven't missed a day of training with a knee injury in 20 years.
JF: Haven't missed a day of training? Wow.
KK: I mean, I've had injuries, but not anything knee-related. So many people are out of the game because of their knees and not even having that as an issue for a day of training. Genetics, looking after yourself, whatever you want to say obviously some luck has to be involved there as well. I almost retired a few years ago, and the opportunity [to continue playing] came really kind of through Brian McBride to go to Fulham for a year, which was a great stopgap in between the Sounders starting up. I don't know if I had retired if I could have taken a year and a half off and come back to this, so it was perfect timing. Obviously, then, with the Sounders joining and at different times people would ask me in Europe "Are you interested in going home?" Well, what is home? Is home playing in New York or playing in I mean that's still a five-to-six hour flight for me to get back to Seattle, so I might as well just stay in Europe. It's a 10-hour flight as opposed to a five-to-six hour flight. When Seattle formed, it just couldn't have been better timing for me. I had five months off just to rejuvenate the batteries and get started.
JF:You probably didn't know what to do with yourself for five months.
KK: It felt really good, and at the same time, when I was ready to train it was great because of the relationship we have with the Seahawks. It's not the nicest weather here in January, and so I made a few phone calls and was able to use the Seahawks' indoor facility and train there.
JF: You can't play 20 years without having some of these pictures come back to haunt you. [Julie holds up a picture of Keller with a mullet.]
KK: There's no doubt. There's plenty of those.
JF: All business in the front, party in the back.
KK: One of the kids was saying, I don't remember which website, some mullet website
JF: And this was on it?
KK: That one or one like it.
JF: Do you miss that hair?
KK: I miss hair. I don't necessarily miss that hair. But in all honesty, I don't care. What are you going to do?
JF: You went from an egg farm to living in Madrid, London, a castle in Germany for goodness' sakes. How did that affect your life as well?
KK: I don't know if it's affected my life too much. It just was my life. There's different times when you look back and say, "Wow, that was a little bit interesting and that was pretty cool." I remember one time in Madrid, the kids were young and they were in the bath, and I got a phone call and I went into the bedroom to get the phone. I have a friend of mine whose secretaries are very formal, and so you answer the phone and you hear this very kind of formal secretary and I'm thinking, "Oh, it's my friend calling and he's going to pass it over." But then it was like this is the assistant to the press secretary at the White House or something like that and we're just wondering if you've gotten our invitation -- the Clintons are holding a white-tie dinner for the king and queen of Spain and the king requested that you and your wife attend.
JF: The king requested?
KK: Yeah, yeah. You're kind of sitting there saying, "Yeah, that happens every day." So there are those few things, and then they said the reason we are giving more notice is because a white tie is more formal and it might take you awhile to get your suits and dresses and things to get organized. The club was great. It was on a Wednesday night and they let me take a Concorde over to not miss much training.
You just can't really imagine coming from an egg farm in Olympia, Wash., that [playing in Europe] was going to happen.” -- Kasey Keller
JF: Because when the king asks
KK: When the king asks, you don't want to turn him down. It's not even the Clintons, it's like I'm being invited by the king. The king had so many people that he wanted -- I think Meg Ryan sat next to him. That was one of his requests. Placido Domingo sang a couple songs at the post-dinner reception. It was cool to be in that. I was considered at the time within Spain as the most famous American living there on a permanent basis. It was cool.
JF: How difficult was that life or was it fun for the family and the kids?
KK: When my family moved back, my kids were 11 and it was their fifth school in their fourth country. So that was also another thought process to move home and be a part of something as cool as the Sounders and say can we be somewhere and let the kids go somewhere from sixth grade through graduation from high school. They were used to it [moving to different places], they were great, they did a tremendous job of adapting, but we knew it was going to get tougher the older they got. So we were hoping to get the someplace settled. My wife did a tremendous job as well. I remember once I got a phone call and the kids were at a birthday party. They were at a swimming pool and I stepped out of the party and had a phone call from [Monchengladbach manager] Dick Advocaat and walked back into the party and said we're moving to Germany and I'm signing for Borussia Monchengladbach. My wife didn't even flinch. That's the game. If it wasn't for that support and the adaptability of my kids and my wife, I wouldn't have the 20 years as a pro and the 16-17 years in Europe that I had.
JF: After crisscrossing the globe, how nice is it to be home?
KK: Well, it's the first time in the offseason where I was actually home as opposed to, OK, the season is over we'll go to our house in Olympia, we'll go to our house in Idaho for a couple weeks or we'll go on vacation. We're home and it seemed so normal for me to be like, "What are we doing here?" It got more difficult in England because of the way the school system worked. The kids weren't out of school until we were back to preseason. So those last couple of years it got even more difficult to take the kids out of school, to take them home. It's nice to be in one place.
JF: You seem to thrive in the role of playing superhero for a variety of teams you've played on that are either on the brink of relegation or have been recently promoted to the top division. Besides the incentive of playing here at home in Seattle, how enticing was it to come to a franchise that was brand-new?
KK: I think that was part of it. I think part of it also was being home. That was key. I had said in other interviews that if roles had been reversed, if Portland had gotten the franchise three years ago and Seattle not until this year, I would have felt just as comfortable going back to Portland as coming back to Seattle. But the way it's worked out here in Seattle with the fans, the ownership, the way everything has been handled, it's been the most seamless transition.
KK: Because I think it would have been tough to come from cities such as London, Madrid and Dusseldorf and leagues where it truly is the sport. In Spain, in particular, in Germany, soccer is the NFL, Major League Baseball and NBA all in one. There are other sports, but they are nowhere near what soccer is. I remember we were leaving for winter break in Spain and it truly was walking through the airport and having cameras follow you from your car to the terminal. And you're thinking, "Really?" And I was never a player that, I wasn't a [Lionel] Messi or a Cristiano [Ronaldo] -- those are few and far between. Go walk around a mall with Ronaldinho and you'll see what a true superstar is. But to think you have gotten to the point where someone wants to follow you and I haven't done anything wrong. There was no scandal -- they were following [me] because I saved a penalty from [Luis] Figo in the 89th minute before it was over. So to come home and to have a city embrace the team, embrace myself and family, it's just a tremendous feeling and something I hope the sport can continue to grow on with the addition of Portland and Vancouver.
JF: How has your practice and game preparation changed over the years?
KK: It hasn't really changed too much. I think in the two years that I have played for the Sounders, I have missed one or two trainings. I'm not a guy who is Band-Aided together -- play on Saturday and train on Thursday or Friday and play. I train every session as hard as I can, or as hard as the preparation demands for the game.
JF:Are you surprised at all that you're still playing at 41?
KK: Definitely. I remember when I was at Millwall and I was waiting for my first work permit, that is truly when my hair started to fall out. When I just truly felt that I got to the point where a team wanted to sign me. I had a chance to be a pro. I had a chance to do what I said from the first time I was a kid and [was] asked at school, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" And I said I wanted to be a professional athlete -- I didn't care what sport. That's what I wanted to be and here I was in England and being able [to have] a team saying we want to sign this guy and not being given that opportunity because of a technicality would have just been devastating. But I remember saying to my wife, "If I could just get so many games or could you imagine if we could be in Europe for 10 years," and 17 years later I'm finally coming home.
JF: What has been the highlight of your career?
KK: Impossible [to say]. But I think the one game that everyone always points to is the Brazil game, which was multiple things -- not just my performance, but who it was against, the players it was against, and that we won.
JF: 1998 Gold Cup.
KK: Right. That just doesn't happen too often when a goalkeeper has a great game and the team wins. More often than not, you're losing 2-0 or 2-1 because you've just been shelled so bad. I have been pretty fortunate, I have had other games -- Italy in the World Cup and club matches. I've won at Barcelona, at Manchester United, at Arsenal, just some big draws, [like] at the Bernabeu. It's been a good run.
JF: When you walked away from that Brazil game, did you know as a player that was one for the ages?
KK: I guessed it would be, just because of the circumstances. Just to be a part of the first [U.S. team] to beat Brazil and the things that Romario said after the game helped bring it into that status.
JF: You're too humble to say it, but he said "I've never played against a goalkeeper that has played that well," correct?
KK: Which was pretty cool and I think the images that went around the world -- that in the middle of the game Romario was so taken back by some of the saves that he shook my hand And I thought [for that] to have it happen under those circumstances was a great occasion.
JF: Some of the players on the Sounders weren't even born when you were on the World Cup team in 1990 -- any fun nicknames they have for you on the team?
KK: You'd have to ask them. If they did, they are behind my back. Obviously, it is kind of funny. I don't shy away from the fact that some of these kids are kind of young. We were down in Arizona for this last preseason and we had a party at Brad Evans' house because his family is from Phoenix. The party was breaking up and the guys had gone somewhere, and I was hanging out with some of the parents and I realized I was closer in age to most of the parents than I was to the players. But I'm as silly as they come. I can still hang with the kids.
JF: How is MLS different from the European leagues that you've played in?
KK: Well, there is obviously, kids are signing a little bit different contracts in Europe. And with that comes just a little bit different lifestyle. You have to look at it from an NBA, football standpoint. That's a close proximity when you're talking about payrolls and all that kind of stuff. You have a kid who comes through the youth team and is on a pretty small contract and does well, then it's Porsches and all the stuff, right or wrong. It's just you still have guys here where four guys are talking about finding a house to live together. It's just a different way the game is being developed.
JF: What does MLS need to do though to ensure that the league is getting some of these players in their primes?
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KK: You can't. You can't do it. You can't really try. I think what you have to do is develop young kids and be able to sell them to those leagues and at the same time can we bring in guys near the end of their careers who are truly going to contribute to the league. But we're not ready yet to compete with the leagues around the world.
JF: Let's look even bigger picture -- having played in four World Cups yourself and just having come off a World Cup year, what do you think the U.S. needs to do to win a World Cup?
KK: There's a whole lot of countries around the world who have been playing this game a lot longer than we have who are asking that same question. Why have the Brazils won so many times? And the Germans and the Argentinians and the Italians? It is truly an exclusive club and to try to break into that when soccer is pretty much the fifth sport in your country is an extremely tough task. I think we have to be extremely proud of the tremendous strides we have made to get where we are right now. To think that Scotland, for example, has never gotten out of the first round at the World Cup and we have gotten out of the first round in three of the last six World Cups and gotten to a quarterfinal -- that's a huge task.
JF: You have publicly announced that you're going to retire after this season. How will you handle the emotions of that last game?
KK: I don't know. Good question. I think I'll handle it well because I think I'm at the right time to [retire]. It's also on my own terms. It's not like I'm doing it because my body just won't take it anymore and I really wish I could play two, three more years I don't want to be in that situation where everybody says, "Man, you really should have retired last year." There's been plenty of athletes throughout the years who wished they could have taken that last year back and finish with what everybody thought of them the previous year.
JF: What would be that perfect ending?
KK: Obviously, an MLS Cup would be great. If you're in England and you're not playing for one of three or four teams, you're not winning the championship. If you're in Spain and you're not playing for two, three, four different teams, you have no chance of winning the championship. If you're in Scotland and you're not playing for Rangers or Celtic, you're not winning the championship. The coolest part of MLS is you truly have 10, 12, 14 teams in this league at any time [that] if things go right, you can win the league. I truly believe we are one of those teams. To be able to finish my career as MLS champion would be pretty darn cool.
JF: What about after you retire -- what's next for Kasey Keller?
KK: I think it's going to be a multiple of things. There are some cool things in my contract that I am going to stay with the team. I think there will be some TV work. I think there will be some stuff with the community outreach side of the club. I would like to look into the coaching side of things, at the same time I have no problem going on the technical side -- GM, that sort of thing. I also don't think I would have much of a problem going into the commercial side of the club. I think it will be fun to do different things and see what fits. There is nothing there that is specific. I think what is cool is to be able to do different things and see what works for me or what works for the club. There might be a tremendous opportunity that comes up elsewhere. But I don't foresee that, and that's not in the plans. I said in my press conference that I wanted to be a part of the Sounders' future for 30 years and that was kind of the reason why I came back to be part of this club.
JF: Could you see yourself running a team one day either as a coach or GM?
KK: I could. I would love to run a team either on the field or off it. I would have no problem running the league. I would have no problem running U.S. Soccer. I don't know if I'm capable, but in my own mind, I would be up to the task to see what happens. I know I have had some pretty good experiences over this past 20 years and dealt with a lot of people in three of the best leagues in the world, plus national team stuff. I would feel extremely guilty if I didn't take what I've learned and try to help this game get to the level.
Julie Foudy, a two-time World Cup winner and three-time Olympic medalist with the U.S. women's national team, is an analyst for ESPN and ABC.