That was the last time a FIFA World Cup was played without Kasey Keller in contention for a spot on the US National Team roster. He was on the squad at 20 years-old backing up Tony Meola in 1990 and after being passed over in 1994, was with the team in 1998, 2002 and 2006.
So this off-season was decidedly more relaxed for the 40-year-old Sounders FC goalkeeper.
“Back then, it all started with qualifying, when you would have to fly back and forth across the Atlantic and go to games and go down to Central America and come back on a Friday morning and try to get ready to play a game on a Saturday. It was nice, not to have to deal with that (this year),” Keller said. “There are aspects that I miss – the only reason I did it so long was that I enjoyed it so much – but it’s nice not having to log all those air miles, that’s for sure.”
Four current Sounders and all three of the club’s draft picks were not even born when Mexico hosted the quadrennial tournament back in 1986. The US failed to qualify that year, but has been a constant contender in CONCACAF ever since, and Keller remained a prominent figure on the squad since 1990, gaining 102 caps in the process.
“It’s the first off-season I’ve had where I was actually home. Usually in the off-season, I was travelling to get back home,” Keller said. “I didn’t get to do quite a few things because I was busy moving house, but it’s nice now to have some normalcy.”
The biggest off-season landmark for Keller happened on November 29, when the Sounders FC captain celebrated his 40th birthday.
“It’s a little different saying you’re in your forties when you’re a professional athlete. But I feel the same, I feel good,” he said.
A pioneer in European play – he was the first to play in England on a US passport – Keller is not alone in the realm of over-40 keepers and has several examples of goalkeepers who were shared success well into their forties. Dino Zoff played for Italy and Juventus at 41 in 1983. Pat Jennings played for Northern Ireland in the 1986 World Cup at age 41 – and coached Keller at Tottenham. And even locally in the MLS, Pat Onstad remains among the top keepers in the league even after celebrating his 42nd birthday recently.
“I’m not breaking any new ground here. I’m just glad that my body’s in the shape that it is in and hopefully that continues and I can have another good solid season for the team,” Keller said.
So how can he do it? How, at age 40, can Keller do what some keepers who are 10 and 15 years his junior cannot?
“Some of it is just genetics and you have to hope that you have good knees and good ankles,” Keller explains. “For us it’s all about dynamic action. Maybe before when I used to cruise through a ten-ball set, maybe a six-ball set feels a little more comfortable. The funny thing about that is that I’m coming across kids at different times that are young enough to be my children that are coming in to train with us and Tom Dutra and I are talking later about why we have to whip these kids into keeping up. It seems like it should be the other way around. I feel good that it hasn’t gotten to the stage that I’m just solely relying on my experience and crawling out of the treatment room on Thursday morning to train on Thursday and Friday to get ready for a game on Saturday. I don’t know how many days of training I missed last year, but you can probably count on one hand, so I’m pretty happy about that aspect as well.”
While he has proven capable of great things on the field – he finished second in MLS in most goalkeeping statistical categories – there have been times off the field that have made him feel a little up in his years.
In one instance, at around age 30, Keller was approached by a young girl, probably 14 years old as he recalls, who said to him, “My mum thinks you’re lovely.”
Then while at Tottenham, a teenaged Ledley King caught Keller in a quiet moment in the locker room. “When I was a kid I used to watch you at Millwall,” King said in Keller’s laughing recollection.
“That’s when I knew I started to make that transition into the mature veteran,” he said.
Now preparing for his 18th season as a professional, Keller is leading a band that hopes to build on their success from the franchise’s inaugural season. After finishing 12-7-11 in the regular season to reach the MLS Cup playoffs and winning the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, Keller and the Sounders are hoping for improvements in Year Two.
“We want a few less draws – that’s something that we’re striving for. But we don’t want to have that sophomore slump and think that we’ve made it just because we had a decent year last year,” Keller said. “What I’m hoping is that we have a couple of new faces to freshen stuff up, some good competition, have some guys continue to mature in their game and improve and hopefully we can find that guy that bangs in 20 goals for us and I can sit back and watch us score a bunch of goals.”
The Sounders FC opens the 2010 regular season against the expansion Philadelphia Union in MLS First Kick on Thursday, March 25 at Qwest Field.