By Gail Wood
He grew up on a egg farm and lived in Lacey, hardly the hotbed of world soccer.
But what turned Keller’s dream into a fairytale-come-true story – he’s one of just two Americans to play in four World Cups and his 20-year professional career took him across Europe and finally home to play for the Seattle Sounders FC – is his commitment. His passion. His drive. It’s inspirational.
Everyone knows about his achievements – named the U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year an unprecedented three times, holds the U.S. record for career shutouts in international play, named a two-time winner of the Honda Player of the Year Award as the best player on the U.S. national soccer team and is arguably the finest soccer player America has produced.
But few know his sacrifices.
Before he could drive a car – his mother, Deter, was the designated chauffeur – Keller played club soccer and then joined national teams.
While soccer has shown him the world, playing in tournaments in Europe, Chile and Brazil while still in high school, Keller didn’t attend his first school prom until his senior year in high school. Of the first eight weeks of his senior year, he missed six weeks to play for the U.S. 20-and-under national team in a qualifying tournament for the World Cup in Chile and to attend clinics in San Diego and Brazil.
What price is glory? Keller knows.
Keller has been single minded in his goals since he first began playing soccer at age 6.
“I always wanted to play pro something and soccer became my best chance,” Keller said.
But Keller’s statistics tell only half his story. His integrity and work ethic are what caught the attention of Seattle Sounders FC owner and general manager Adrian Hanauer.
“There are a lot of numbers, statistics, that we could talk about,” Hanauer said at Keller’s signing press conference four years ago. “But there are several components that are more important than stats as to why we’re so excited in bringing Kasey back. One of them is character.”
Hanauer had tried for several months to sign Keller and bring him home.
“I’ve been a fan of Kasey’s for his entire career,” Hanauer said. “I’m proud to be involved in the process to bring his family back to Seattle.”
In 2010, at age 40, Keller signed to play his third and final season with the Sounders for the 2011 season. It was an incredible ride. And his dream had come true.
“This is how he wanted his career to finish out,” said Keller’s father, Bernie. “He wanted to get a chance to play at home before he retired.”
But with his life’s dream now in his review mirror – 17 seasons in Europe, three with the Sounders – Keller has retired as a player. But he’s still connected to the sport he loves. He was the color commentator for Sounders games the past two seasons. During his playing career, Keller talked about one day coaching. That could still be in his future. Last year, he assisted for stints with the U-20 national team during a training camp and with the mens U.S. team during the playoffs.
His 17-year career in Europe began in the 1992 with Millwall. From 1996 to 2008, Keller played for Leicester City, Rayo Vallecano, Tottenham Hotspur, Southhampton, Borussia Monchengladback and Fulham. He lived in England, Spain and Germany. While in Germany, he lived in a castle.
“He’s really become the face of our franchise,” Hanauer said when Kasey signed for one last season. “Certainly, he’s the most recognized player on the team and one of the most recognized American soccer players of all time. It’s an amazing asset for us to have as we build this franchise and try to build locally and build globally. Kasey has been such a valuable asset on the field and off the field.”
After he was a three-time Parade All-American at North Thurston High School, Keller played four seasons at the University of Portland, where he was an All-American and reached the NCAA’s Final Four. After college, he signed with Millwall in England’s second division in 1991 and played there from 1992-96.
Before he graduated from North Thurston, a team from Portugal offered him a pro contract. The Tacoma Stars called him to see if he’d sign if they drafted him. Coaches from North Carolina and Duke called him weekly, recruiting him. But Keller wanted to play for coach Clive Charles at Portland because of his connections to Europe.
He could have played at a bigger name school. But Keller, as he always did, had his his sights on playing in Europe. Mission accomplished. It was the dream that became an inspiration for others.
And it all started in Lacey.
*Photos courtesy Seattle Sounders FC.