One of three 2015 inductees to the National Soccer Hall of Fame, Kasey Keller has long been referred to as a pioneer for American players in Europe. At just 22-years-old and without a professional domestic league in the United States, Keller went across the Atlantic to sign for English First Division club Millwall in 1992.
He had no idea about the career longevity he’d have playing abroad.
“I remember going over to Europe and thinking, ‘Oh man, if I could play five seasons, if I could play 10 seasons,’ and then ending up playing 17 years,” Keller told ussoccer.com earlier this year.
A product of the University of Portland, Keller’s European club adventure took him from east London to Leicester City, Spain’s Rayo Vallecano, Tottenham Hotspur, Germany’s Borussia Monchengladbach, Fulham and even a short stint with Southampton. Seven clubs in three of the world’s top leagues and from the beginning, he did it while on an American passport.
Over time, Keller became a guide to fellow Americans interested in his advice for a potential move abroad.
“By the time I’d met him, he’d already been in England for so long,” said former U.S. international Eddie Lewis. “As a player that was older than me, both from an age and experience standpoint, having been abroad for so long, I often asked him many questions about Europe and particularly about England. As a young player coming into the National Team, I wanted to go overseas and I used him as a sounding board on many occasions.”
And while he spent 17 of his 20 professional seasons an ocean away, his devotion to playing for his country never wavered.
“At the National Team level, I very rarely had a player like Kasey that never refused a call up,” said former Men’s National Team head coach Bruce Arena. “Kasey would travel and play for the U.S. whenever – he was very dedicated to the National Team program.”
Keller’s international career really began before his club career at the 1989 FIFA World Youth Championships in Saudi Arabia. Playing at the University of Portland at the time, Keller won the Silver Ball at the tournament after helping the U.S. U-20 side to a fourth place finish.
Keller as an up-and-coming goalkeeper with the U.S. U-20 MNT.
Just a year later, the 20-year-old earned his first of 102 caps for the Men’s National Team. That summer he was named to the first U.S. World Cup team since 1950, pushing but eventually backing up Tony Meola as a young U.S. squad went three-and-out in Italy.
With a wealth of talented goalkeepers, Keller’s early competition with Meola was only the beginning of a battle for the number one spot on the U.S. team.
“I know when I first came on the international scene, Tony Meola was the number one goalkeeper and that’s who Kasey and I were trying to knock off the perch,” said fellow goalkeeper Brad Friedel. “Even from my college time, it was myself and Kasey – we were in the Olympic team together battling out to see who would play in ’92 in Barcelona.”
Though Friedel won that battle and Keller was left off the U.S. team altogether in 1994, his competition with Friedel would really heat up the following year as the two often split goalkeeping duties in important matches the next eight years. Both put in key performances in big matches along the way -- Keller’s wins against Chile and Argentina at Copa America ‘95, his form in World Cup qualifying and ultimately, his 10-save effort in the U.S. team’s 1-0 win against Brazil in the 1998 Gold Cup semifinal gave him the starting nod at that summer’s World Cup in France.
The following cycle, Friedel’s play down the stretch in qualifying and in the lead up to the World Cup gave him the nod in South Korea.
“The difficulty with goalkeepers is that only one plays,” Friedel continued. “One thing is for sure: the competition we gave one another made both of us much better goalkeepers and I think in the end, much better people. Kasey is up there, definitely as one of the best.”
While he was great all around at the position, most agree he stuck out in one particular area and perhaps the most important aspect of goalkeeping.
“Whenever he came back and played for the U.S. team he was well respected,” continued Arena. “When he spoke everybody listened. His leadership on the field was great, he was a great communicator, but at the end of the day what separated Kasey was that he was a phenomenal shot blocker. He played in an era where the U.S. wasn’t always the best team on the field and he managed to keep the U.S. in a lot of games and win a lot of them as well.”
“I remember instances of multiple saves with Kasey,” added Lewis. “You find, especially in the U.S., we have such a rich history of wonderful goalkeeping, but as you know, goalkeepers can certainly keep you in games and Kasey, on many occasions wouldn’t make just the one great save, but would turn around and make a second, a third and sometimes a fourth reaction save that would sometimes leave you kind of speechless, but certainly kept us in games.”
Still able to put in strong, multi-save performances, there was little question as to who the starter for the U.S. team was leading up to the 2006 FIFA World Cup. There, Keller stood out as a nine-man U.S. team tied eventual World Cup champions Italy. Keller, along with U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, became the first two Americans to be part of four FIFA World Cup squads – they were joined last summer by former teammate DaMarcus Beasley.
Keller would play one more year with the National Team, splitting matches with Tim Howard as the MNT won the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, before being a veteran presence for a young U.S. side that went to that summer’s Copa America. His 17 years with the National Team is the second longest after Meola’s 18, while his 47 clean sheets remain a record.
A celebrated figure in U.S. Soccer history, Keller continues to contribute to the Men's programs as both a goal keeper coach and TV analyst.
“Kasey’s legacy is really about his time,” Lewis said. “His stretch from 1990-2007, he was involved very heavily with the National Team. His experience transcended generations of U.S. players, and I don’t think there will ever be as big a growth period as there was during that time. In 1990, we were so young and inexperienced, certainly internationally, to today where all of our players are consistent professionals. We have a lot of players playing abroad, a strong league here domestically – it’s a much different sort of group and a much more consistent group. He was a part of carrying that flag to get us from where we were then to where we are today.
One of the few U.S. players to have played more than 500 league matches in Europe, Keller closed out his career by returning to his home state of Washington to join the MLS expansion side Seattle Sounders FC in 2009. After captaining his hometown club to three straight Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup championships, Keller earned the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2011, his 20th and final professional season.
As he goes into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, Keller glances back at a legendary career and simply says, “There’s so much that I just look back upon and go, ‘Wow, that was pretty cool how that all worked out.’”