During this September camp, the U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeepers have been coached by National Team legend and soon-to-be National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee Kasey Keller. The MNT’s all-time leader in clean sheets, Keller’s most famous shutout and performance of his 102 international appearances came in the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal against Brazil. Playing the then four-time World Cup champions just four months before France ’98, Keller made 10 memorable saves and Preki scored the lone goal as the U.S. beat Brazil 1-0 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Legendary Brazilian striker Romario was so impressed by Keller’s performance that night that he shook the American goalkeeper’s hand after he’d made a save on his header in the 43rd minute, with the 1994 FIFA World Player of the Year remarking post-game, “That is the best performance by a goalkeeper I have ever seen.”
In 17 meetings, the win stands as the MNT’s only result against the five-time World Cup champions. With Keller serving as goalkeeping coach ahead of Tuesday night’s match against Brazil, he took a look back at that memorable evening of Feb. 10, 1998.
It wasn’t a normal tournament setup, because I had just come in from Leicester City for the game. The Gold Cup was played in the middle of the European season then, and so we had kind of split the opening round and the knockout rounds up with the goalkeepers. Along with that, there was actually a chance the game was going to get postponed because of inclement weather in LA. I remember there was a part of me that was still a little bit jet lagged and was kind of hoping that the game was going to be pushed a day. I was tired and I wouldn’t have minded getting an extra day to adjust after the long flight, but I started getting through warm-ups though and felt okay.
This wasn’t a makeshift Brazilian team. They had Romario, Bebeto … I think the only one who wasn’t there was Ronaldo. It was really a very, very strong Brazil team with lots of firepower. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, ‘Just don’t take a number. Just don’t get hammered 4-0 or 5-0,’ because you always know that’s a possibility against an opponent like that. It’s no different than when you’re playing for Leicester City against a team like Manchester United. As a goalkeeper, you’re thinking that you’re going to do everything you can to get a result in a game like that, but you’re always looking over your shoulder and thinking, ‘Let’s not get embarrassed here.’
As the game progressed, I made a couple saves and thought, ‘Okay, that’s a good start.’ Then you have to make a couple more saves, and a couple more after that, but still if you’ve been a goalkeeper long enough, you’ve played in those kinds of games where you are very busy and you’re always thinking, ‘Okay, when it breaks, it breaks.’ The majority of the games like that you lose 2-0, 3-0, and basically it’s: X team lost, but if it hadn’t been for the goalkeeper it would have been an embarrassment. Very rarely do you have the occasions where you do have to make a ton of saves and against an opponent that were the past World Cup champions and had a former Golden Ball winner, and you actually have an opportunity to win.
They have a ton of chances in the first half, but things are going our way. I’m making save after save and just before halftime, I smother a point-blank header from Romario and he just puts his hands at his hips and walks up to me. As I’m getting up, he stands there and shakes my hand. He said later in an interview that because of the series of saves throughout the game, he felt like he needed to acknowledge it. He didn’t know why he did it, just that it felt like the right thing to do. I just remember smiling and feeling the same thing. Was I supposed to say thank you? What else was I going to do there? It wasn’t the first or last time that had happened in my career, but for obvious reasons, it’s the time everyone asks about.
We get past halftime and start to dig in on the second half. Preki scores an unbelievable goal in the 65th minute and I’m still thinking, ‘Hey we got a goal! Okay now maybe we lose 3-1.’ Lots of times in the game, you see the underdog take a lead and it’s like they’ve poked the lion a little bit. The favorite has already created lots of chances and then the other team scores and they’re just saying, ‘Alright we have a little bit more motivation now, we’ll put these guys out of their misery.’
And sure enough, there was a response from Brazil. They made some substitutions; Giovane Élber, who was playing for Bayern Munich, came on and created some good chances, but they couldn’t get the ball in the back of the net. It just wasn’t clicking for them. I remember one of the saves I made in the second half where I completely dove the wrong way and just stretched my left foot out and the end of my toe just puts the ball around the far post and I’m thinking, ‘If I made that save, I think we have a good chance of actually pulling this thing off.’
The final whistle blows and it’s all celebrations. We’d beaten the World Champions. I remember the way Brazil players left the stadium – lined up, heads down, kind of understanding what they were going to have to go through when they got back home. Of course, you read the very kind words from Romario afterwards in the press and take in the things of that nature, which was all very nice.
Looking back - I’ve said it 1,000 times - but when you get an opportunity as a goalkeeper to have a good game and win, that makes all the difference in the world. I look at Tim Howard’s game against Belgium in the World Cup – Tim made 15 saves – he had one of the best individual performances any National Team player has ever had and I just felt disappointment for him. Putting a “W” next to a performance like that would have been everything. When someone asks me if this was my best game ever, I say yes, but it was because it was a win. I helped the team get a result and I think ultimately, that’s the goal for all of us.
The National Team has played 17 matches all-time against Brazil and nine since that game. All have been losses. I’ll always be proud of that performance and beating Brazil, but I’d love to see three, four or five more wins up there for the U.S. against them. Brazil has arguably been the best National Team of all time. They’re just a team that always finds a way to get results and I think that’s going to be the next evolution of U.S. Soccer – to be able to consistently challenge that caliber of team.
There are a whole lot of countries in the same boat as us when it comes to their record against Brazil – there are a lot of teams that want to be able to say they have multiple wins against Brazil. We’re a wealthy country, but it’s not like we can go and buy a bunch of great footballers for our National Team. You can’t do a Man City or PSG with your National Team. Instead, it’s a process of building a culture and evolution and everything else that’s coming along.
We have pushed Brazil a lot of times since then. In the 2003 Gold Cup semifinal, Carlos Bocanegra put us up in the second half and we led them until Kaka scored in the 89th minute and we lost on the golden goal. We had hit the wall and we were hanging on for dear life in that game. We were up 2-0 on them at halftime in the 2009 Confederations Cup Final as well. We’ve been there where we pushed it a couple times, but great teams almost always find a way. There have been a lot of coaches that talked about having them on the ropes and we’ve only been able to do that one time.
As I look at the big picture, I’m hopeful that we’re able to develop the core of American soccer players that can regularly compete. Once you can start beating the big boys like Brazil regularly, then you know you’re in the upper echelon of world football.