Picking up the pieces
HAMBURG, Germany -- To understand the multi-dimensional personality of U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller, look beyond the surface. Ignore the receding hairline, the contemporary eyeglasses and the gentle tone of his voice. And instead listen to the Tarzan ring tone on his cell phone. Look at the glimmer in his eye when he talks about body slamming his club team's mascot. And hear the way the self-proclaimed headbanger goes about getting the Borussia Moenchengladbach weight room all to himself.
"I just put in some of my music," says Keller, who joined teammate Marcus Hahnemann backstage at a Tool concert last week. "Usually what happens is you see a slow filtration of players leaving. Slowly, within about 10 minutes, I have it all to myself."
"There are plenty of times when I am extremely upset," Keller said. "Even in the training sessions. But that's part of the game."
So one can only imagine how Keller must feel this week, waking up in his Hamburg hotel room with horrific memories of watching three balls slip past his overstretched arms in Monday's World Cup opening loss against the Czech Republic.
In U.S. soccer history, no goalkeeper has more international victories (51) or shutouts (45) than Keller. He's the only three-time winner of U.S. Soccer's Male Athlete of the Year Award. But including Monday's loss to the Czechs, he has now dropped 13 of his last 14 decisions against European teams, dating back to 1998. He has a 1.68 goals-against average in those matches, as opposed to a 0.53 mark versus all other opponents, against which he's 33-9-9.
Monday was a particularly bitter disappointment. For this was supposed to be Keller's coming-out party. This was supposed to be the week that he'd erase the disappointment of not seeing action in 2002 and live up to his billing as one of the top goalkeepers in the world.
Instead, Keller was one of several players criticized by manager Bruce Arena in his post-match press conference. Arena was particularly irritated that Keller missed a punt intended for midfielder Bobby Convey, turning the ball over to the Czechs in a spot where the field was wide open and the U.S. midfielders were out of position. Two passes later 6-foot-8 striker Jan Koller headed a rocket past Keller and the Czechs had an early 1-0 advantage.
"It wasn't like I rolled the ball out in front of the goal and let them just volley it in," Keller said afterward. "Sure, in hindsight you can always do something different. But that's the reason they call it hindsight.
"We're disappointed in the way we lost. I know we can play better. I know we will."
Monday's loss makes Saturday's match against perennial power Italy a must-win. And that means Keller will have to be at the top of his game -- physically and mentally. Arena already has called upon him and fellow World Cup veteran Reyna to keep the psyches of the younger players intact. "Our older guys have to help the group recover and move forward," Arena said. "And I think we're well on our way there. They've started getting the group ready for Saturday."
Few voices on the American team carry more respect, and for good reason. In the me-first, highlight-driven era of the American athlete, Keller, despite his hard-rocking, fast-driving, Metallica-loving ways, would prefer to sit in the background and let his teammates get all the glory. He's the first one to offer a high-five when they succeed, the first one to offer words of encouragement when they fail. He lives his life by the simplest of mottos: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
"I'm so tired of these athletes just beating their chest, me, me, me," Keller said. "Have a little tact, have a little class in what you do. What goes around comes around -- if you're an ass all your life, eventually it's going to come around where everyone is going to be an ass to you." Perhaps at no other time were those words more tested than in 2002, when Keller allowed just one goal for the Gold Cup-winning Americans, but then found himself on the bench behind Brad Friedel once the World Cup began.
"A lot of guys would have made a big stink about it," Landon Donovan said. "He just dealt with it. He wasn't happy about it, but I'm sure he's ecstatic now and he's going to show he deserves to be back there."
Keller admits that watching from the bench as Friedel stood in goal for all 450 minutes during the Americans' improbable quarterfinal run was one of the greatest disappointments in his soccer career. But with it comes a sense of self-respect for the way he handled the situation, refusing to vent his frustrations publicly.
"I would have been disappointed if I would have handled it any other way," Keller said. "What do you gain by airing everything publicly? You gain things for the short term. But if I would have done that, I wouldn't be here right now."
Arena has said numerous times he regretted not getting Keller into one of the American team's group matches. And after the Cup was over, he contacted Keller so the two of them could hammer out his national team future.
"My message was you're a good goalkeeper and we want you to be part of our team," Arena said. "He was really eager to move on and show that he's a goalkeeper who can play in a World Cup and win some games."
Said Keller: "I didn't want to end my international career on that note," he said. "I was happy we were able to put things aside and I was able to play with the freedom that I like to play with."
That has brought him here to Germany. After leaving London's Tottenham Hotspur in January 2005, he was on the verge of returning home to play in MLS before signing a contract with 'Gladbach, a team just outside of Duesseldorf. The decision, Keller says, has been a great one. Besides living in the 1,000-year-old castle his wife found on the Internet, he was able to prepare for the World Cup by playing in its host country. And the German fans have fallen for the free spirit, who has earned cult status after picking up and body-slamming Juenter, the team's donkey mascot, after a victory over Frankfurt last season.
"My body-slamming days are over," Keller said.
The same can't be said about his soccer career. Keller already is signed with 'Gladbach for next season and after that there is talk of finishing his career in MLS and maybe, just maybe, becoming the first American to play in a fifth World Cup in 2010. He'll be 40.
"I've known a lot of players who just [have] fallen off the cliff tremendously and suddenly," Keller said. "I'm waiting for that to happen, but hopefully I have a few more years before I fall off the cliff."
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.