Keller continues to earn plaudits
MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany -- Kasey Keller has a first-hand feel for how much more respect American soccer players get around the world these days.
The 36-year-old goalkeeper might be the most successful American abroad, having spent 15 years starring at five different clubs in Europe's top leagues.
When he started at Millwall in 1990, he was the first to play in England on a U.S. passport. The Europeans were surprised any American would bother playing their favorite game, much less do it well.
"The change has been massive for Americans, but there is still a long ways to go," Keller said. "We're breaking down a lot of stereotypes. The football people know, but you still get a lot of that from non-football people."
Keller has played his part in changing the perception of Americans. So did the U.S. reaching the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup, a surprise to many around the globe.
Keller believes it could be harder for the Americans this time at June's World Cup. They drew a first-round group of Ghana and European powerhouses Italy and the Czech Republic.
"We're not going to sneak up on anybody any more," he said. "We could do well, but I'm not going to sugarcoat it. Anybody could advance out of that group. It won't be easy."
Keller now plays at Bundesliga club Borussia Moenchengladbach, where he is so highly regarded the notoriously critical German fans unfurl banners praising "Kasey 'The Wall' Keller."
He is rated second in the league among goalkeepers, ahead of the likes of Bayern Munich's Oliver Kahn, a two-time world goalie of the year.
"Kasey has been outstanding," Moenchengladbach coach Horst Koeppel said. "I prefer to say defense is a team effort, but he alone has won us points."
Keller also picked up the Honda Award earlier this month as the best U.S. soccer player, his second such award, drawing effusive praise from American teammates for his role in the team reaching the World Cup. He recorded a record eight shutouts.
But the balding veteran wouldn't call this his best season, although he seems to be showered with more recognition.
"No, I've been fortunate to have several good seasons throughout my career," Keller said. "But I'm happy that I get asked this question at every club I have played for."
Keller had a 15-shutout season for England's Leicester City in 1997-98 and 77 saves for Tottenham two years ago, second best in England's top league. His four shutouts in four UEFA Cup rounds boosted Rayo Vallecano of Spain into the quarterfinals in 2001. The two years he spent with the club make him the only American to play in Spain's La Liga.
Keller's performance in the Americans' 1-0 win over Brazil in 1998 prompted Romario to say it was the greatest performance he had ever seen by a goalkeeper.
Since he joined Millwall in 1990, the reputation of young American players has changed so dramatically that standouts such as Bobby Convey, who drew interest from Tottenham, and Freddy Adu are now targets for big European clubs.
But Keller thinks many have unrealistic expectations, considering the top European teams choose from the world's biggest stars. Keller believes they should build a reputation first in the second division, a smaller European league or hone their skills at a small club in Europe's big four leagues.
Keller said his own adjustment to Europe was smooth after he came out of the University of Portland. Millwall is located in London, a big city, and he didn't face a language barrier.
Shortly after he arrived, his future wife, Kristin, joined him to further ease the transition. The pair have made a good life for themselves in Europe while raising 8-year-old twins Cameron and Chloe.
"Family helps, no question," Keller said of his longevity in Europe. "If you don't have a wife or girlfriend that wants to go home every day, it helps."