Back on March 19, 2009, when the curtain was lifted on the Sounders FC, there was so much unknown and such high expectations. With Kasey Keller sporting the captain’s armband, though, they knew that they had the leadership they would need over the years that the Olympia native played with the club.
That night, the Sounders topped the New York Red Bulls 3-0 amidst an elated crowd at CenturyLink Field.
Three seasons later, on November 2, 2011, the curtain fell on Keller’s illustrious professional career with a 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake with an equally jubilant crowd on hand. Although the scoreline wasn’t enough to lift the Sounders to the Western Conference final, he still left to a rousing ovation, walking up the tunnel like a valiant gladiator who had fought victoriously in his last battle.
On Thursday, he was also named to the MLS Best XI, punctuating his final season with something that Sounders fans had known all along – the best goalkeeper in MLS plays in Seattle.
“I wanted to go out on my terms, still being able to play at the level that I’m happy to play with, that you all are happy to have me play and used to have me play, and the fans and the coaching staff and my teammates,” Keller said at a press conference wrapping up his career on Thursday. “I didn’t want to go out where I wasn’t able to perform at the level that I expect of myself and that everybody else expects of me. I’m proud that I was able to finish my last season at that level.”
When he came to Seattle, signing with the Sounders in August of 2008 before the club had even hired a coach, Keller admitted that he was nervous about what he was getting himself into.
A highly acclaimed pro, Keller had played 17 years in Europe for the top leagues in England, Spain and Germany. He’d just finished a relegation battle with Fulham, remembered as The Great Escape to locals after he helped them stay in the Premier League. And he was among the most decorated players for the US National Team, finishing with 102 career caps.
However, he had no idea exactly what he was getting into with Major League Soccer until he met with the club’s then-CEO Tod Leiwecke and senior vice president of business operations Gary Wright.
“I was extremely nervous. I’d heard horror stories from different friends of mine who had come home from big European teams and come back to MLS and were extremely disappointed. I don’t know how I could have handled that,” Keller said. “From those couple of meetings I knew that wasn’t going to be the norm for this organization.”
Those worries were further alleviated at MLS First Kick in 2009. 32,523 packed CenturyLink Field in heavy anticipation of the storm that was about to strike the league in the form of the rave-green clad Sounders.
It was also another moment when nerves struck Keller.
“A lot of people for many, many years were hoping and praying for that day to come,” he said. “I felt a responsibility, and I know a lot of the guys did, to not let those people go home disappointed.”
In addition to the support, both in the staff and in the stands, Keller’s transition from top clubs in Europe to the Sounders FC was eased by Seattle’s goalkeeper coach, Tom Dutra, who grew up in Olympia with Keller and began working with Keller in the off-season upon his own retirement when he took up coaching in 2002.
“I don’t think quite a lot of people quite understand that Tom and I have been friends since we were kids. I trained with Tom before I’d go back to Europe for preseason when I was home in the summer ten years ago,” he said. “That also made that transition for myself easier.”
In the three seasons he played in Seattle, he found a much different experience in Seattle, where the club broke league attendance marks in each of the first three seasons while maintaining a professional standard that has drawn praise and helped the club achieve success on and off the field.
In 2011, those successes were as prevalent as they’ve ever been. On the field, the Sounders won more games outright than any club in MLS history, they won their third straight US Open Cup title, reached the playoffs for a third consecutive year and reached the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.
In the stands, they smashed their own league attendance record with an average crowd of 38,496, which included a crowd of 64,140 for Keller’s final regular season home match, a 2-1 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes.
“Nobody could have anticipated what this has become,” Keller said. “Everything that’s going on with the club now is about as good as it can get under MLS rules. I don’t know how much bigger we can get.”
Now, eight days since his final professional match, Keller finds himself in the throes of retirement. He’s already been off to ride the motorcycle that was a gift to him from the club and he plans to attend MLS Cup next week before a hunting excursion.
Boredom, he says, will not often be in the cards.
“Bored? Probably at times,” he smiled. “But I’m sure my wife will find plenty of jobs around the house for me.”