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Jul 25, 2005

Keller comes up clutch

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- No one ever wants to go to penalty kicks. It doesn't matter whether you're a 12-year-old kid competing for a trophy in a Memorial Day tournament, a collegiate athlete playing for your conference championship or a renowned star having to step up at the line to decide a World Cup. Just ask Roberto Baggio.

The walk from the center circle to the box to line up for your kick is among the longest, most nerve-wracking moments a player will ever experience on a soccer field. And for goalkeepers, it's practically a helpless situation, having to cover eight yards of turf against a player shooting from a mere 12 yards away. It makes the entire system to decide a match one cruel and drawn-out experience.

However -- and that's an Oguchi Onyewu-sized "however" -- if you've just played 120-plus minutes of soccer under grueling 88-degree temperatures in the smoggy air of New Jersey and you know you have Kasey Keller on your side, going to penalty kicks is not the worst thing in the world.

Such was the case for the members of the U.S. national team on Sunday. Just as the team rode its hot keeper throughout the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Keller once again saved the day as the Americans outlasted Panama in the tournament final, which was decided by penalty kicks (3-1).

"He's the number one keeper in the world I want on my team in that situation," defender Jimmy Conrad said.

After watching Keller stymie a gritty Panamanian side time after time for 90 minutes of regulation and an additional 30 minutes of overtime, it was no surprise to see the 35-year-old goalkeeper produce just a bit more magic at the end of a long afternoon at Giants Stadium. His diving save to his left to deny Luis Tejada and keep Panama off the board after their first penalty shot had to be the key moment of the entire tournament. It allowed the two national team neophytes -- Santino Quaranta and Brad Davis -- to take their kicks without the maximum amount of pressure on them, and convert with ease to give the U.S. its third Gold Cup championship in eight tries.

"That save gave Kasey a lot of confidence," assistant coach Curt Onalfo said. "After that, there's no secret why two of the next three players missed their shots."

As the players were walking off the field after the overtime stanza was complete, Onalfo actually went right over to Keller. In their quick talk, he reminded the veteran goalkeeper that Tejada went to his right when taking a penalty kick against South Africa in the quarterfinals of this tournament.

"We scouted how they took their kicks, so I went through the players and pointed out where they liked to go and what height," Onalfo added.

Keller said that he hadn't been in a shootout since losing (5-4) to Middlesbrough as the goalkeeper for Tottenham in a Carling Cup match back in December 2003. He said he's "probably won more than lost" in his 15-year career as a professional.

"I don't have a phenomenal record with penalties, but I have a decent record," he said. "I feel comfortable, especially when I have a little bit of knowledge and maybe have seen them take a penalty once or twice before."

Keller's heroics were side by side with Davis' clutch execution of his penalty kick to clinch the title. The oldest player on the side led the way, while the two least-experienced field players did their part by converting on their kicks, making this a victory that saw unlikely heroes, as well as a usual stalwart like Keller, shine. The win upped Keller's record to 4-0-1 in the tournament and a sizzling 12-3-4 over the past two years -- ever since reclaiming the No. 1 role ahead of Brad Friedel, who has since retired, and Tim Howard.

As of the moment, there's not a more important player on the U.S. side.

"Generally, he's going to make the save we need to win the game," said Landon Donovan, who made one of the three PKs for the U.S. "You hate putting that pressure on him, but he always does it. It's nice to know that if you get the goal, you're going to win."

That was the thing against Panama. No one wearing a U.S. jersey could get the goal. Despite having several opportunities, no one on the American side could find away to sneak one by goalkeeper Jaime Penedo. Even though Penedo was named the "player of the match" by CONCACAF and put forth an outstanding performance, the U.S. players made it a bit easier on him by wasting many golden chances by placing their shots right at him in the middle of his line.

The same can be said for the Panamanians, who were able to get looks inside the box, yet were either left frustrated because of a save made by Keller or were just a bit off on their shots.

"I think that both teams had a handful of chances that they missed," said Glenn "Mooch" Myernick, who acted as the head coach on the sideline because of the one-game suspension Bruce Arena was serving. "Both teams were poor in finishing, quite frankly."

Said Donovan: "If we do better on our finishing, it's a different game."

Part of the reason behind the lack of goals had to do with the exhaustion of the players. Aside from a few spectacular individual runs at the defense, it wasn't the prettiest exhibition of soccer. For a tournament that spanned nearly as long as the Tour de France, that's to be expected.

"The game was very sloppy and very ragged," Myernick said.

Panama played a very direct style that saw them launch ball after ball up to Tejada and Jorge Dely Valdes up top. At the same time, the U.S. also was a bit more direct than usual, as combination play in the midfield was lacking throughout the match.

As expected, the U.S. once again employed a 3-4-3 formation. With so many regular starters out with injuries, it featured a few players in different positions from those they usually play. Normally used as a defender, Frankie Hejduk played more as a right-sided midfielder than as a right back, while Clint Dempsey played up top as a target striker. In the back, Onyewu manned a three-man backline with Greg Vanney on his left and Conrad on his right. Chris Armas played behind Donovan and John O'Brien in a midfield triangle in the middle of the field, with Hejduk inching up on the right flank. Dempsey was joined by Josh Wolff on the right and DaMarcus Beasley on the left as strikers.

The Canaleros stayed in a straight 4-4-2 that featured a very organized back four led by center back Felipe Baloy and right back Luis Moreno. Moreno was only allowed to play in this match after CONCACAF overruled his second yellow card in the semifinal against Colombia and green-lighted him Sunday morning. For the most part, they were able to shut down Beasley and Donovan as well as take care of both Wolff and Dempsey.

"We had a number of guys who had poor games today," Myernick added.

He was likely talking about the aforementioned players, particularly Donovan, whom he singled out.

"Landon would be the first to tell you, that he just wasn't evident in the game much of all," Myernick said.

Donovan made some creative passes and served in several good free kicks, yet he was a bit long at times in his through balls and wasn't able to hook up with Beasley as much as usual.

The back three definitely bent at times, but did not break. Chasing down the active Panamanian strikers was a tough chore in the hot sun.

"Those two guys are just so strong and fast and are able to run behind you or get the ball and play in front of you," Conrad said. "You almost had to pick your poison."

Conrad was fooled at the beginning of the first overtime session when he slid in to stop a shot by Dely Valdes on the right side of the box. Once the veteran striker and former member of the Colorado Rapids moved swiftly to his left, he was able to crack a shot to the left corner. Only a tremendous diving save to his left by Keller, who was able to knock it wide with his fingertips, kept Panama off the scoreboard in what had to be their best chance of the entire match.

"He's writing another chapter every time he comes in," said Arena, who watched the match from a luxury box above the field and will return to the sideline when the U.S. takes on Trinidad & Tobago in a World Cup qualifier Aug. 17 in Hartford, Conn.

Or, as the always sharp-witted Conrad put it:

"In German, Kasey Keller loosely translated means 'Soccer God.'"

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com.