Kasey Keller in Yellow
(Getty Images)

MLS on Timbers: Kasey Keller

With the advent of Major League Soccer coming to Portland in just a few short months, we reached out to a number of current MLS players who have some tie to Portland either having played here in the United Soccer League days, or in college, or via U.S. Open Cup clashes. We wanted to know what they remembered about the city, the fans, and also see what players and coaches are talking about for Portland next season.

Kasey Keller is one of the greatest goalkeepers the United States has ever produced. Heavily recruited as a teenager out of Olympia, WA, he came to Oregon to play with the University of Portland and learn under legendary coaches and former Portland Timbers stars Clive Charles and Bill Irwin. While at UP, Keller also played for a semi-pro version of the Timbers in the old Western Soccer Alliance winning MVP honors in 1989. He was a backup keeper at the 1990 World Cup in Italy and signed with Millwall shortly after going on to make 178 appearances for the English club. His European career also took him to Tottenham Hotspur as well as German Bundesliga club Borussia Mönchengladbach where he became only the second American after Claudio Reyna to be named captain of a German top division side. After a few seasons at English Premier League’s Fulham, Keller returned to his Pacific Northwest roots to sign with the MLS Seattle Sounders inaugural team in 2008. A four time US Men’s National Team World Cup veteran, Keller is the most capped goalkeeper in national team history and leads the team in all-time wins and shutouts.

He is a keen student of the game and having already captained the Sounders against the USL / USSF D2 version of the Timbers in hard fought U.S. Open Cup matches, Keller knows full well what the Portland–Seattle rivalry is and what it can bring to the league in 2011.

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

What do you most remember about your time with the University of Portland, playing with the Western Soccer Alliance version of the Timbers, and Portland in general?
Kasey Keller:  I think what it was, for me, was it was part of that transition of starting to play with men. I had always played up. I played in two youth World Cups. I had always played up on the state team and all that kind of stuff. To be able to get to college and to play with—you know, when your 18 years old, 19 years old—you’re starting to play with guys who are 21, 22, and that’s a big step. And then I think it was my sophomore year that I played with the Timbers. I think it was the next year it went more on the pro side so I wasn’t allowed to play. But that first year was still kind of semi-pro. Once again, it was another step towards playing with men and playing at that next level.

My experience at University of Portland was all about Clive [Charles] and Bill [Irwin] and learning how to be a pro. I wanted to be a professional soccer player and who better to go to than someone like a Clive Charles. I say, “like a Clive Charles,”—there is no one like Clive Charles. I am a better person for having known Clive and spent so much time with Clive and I am still a pro today because of all the things that were instilled in me from Clive and UP.

How did you end up at UP? Did he recruit you?
KK:  Yeah, Clive joked that I was one of his easiest recruits. It was probably true. I was heavily recruited all over the place but I wanted to go to Europe. That was my thought process. I had some very good advice from up here from people like Bobby Howe, from guys like that. Rob Walker, my goalkeeping coach said, “This is where I think you need to go to best prepare you to go to Europe.” There’s no question that listening to those guys was the smartest thing I ever did.

You’ve experienced first hand the Portland-Seattle rivalry. What do you think that rivalry brings to MLS that MLS hasn’t seen before?
KK:  History. MLS doesn’t have any history. New York weren’t able to be the Cosmos. So you can’t draw on the history that they had with Pele and Beckenbauer and the list goes on. Other teams have tried. San Jose is trying to draw on that history which is great and hopefully with their new stadium that’s going to make a big difference in the years to come but this Portland-Seattle thing, it’s been a rivalry that has stayed a rivalry through the USL, through the WSL, through whenever they could come, it just kept re-emerging and there’s factions within both supporters groups that truly relish that and have kept that alive. Both teams finally getting the opportunity to play against each other in MLS at the highest level in the States I think will be a true benchmark.

I think if you throw Vancouver into that equation as well and we’re truly going to have what sports fans love. You love that rivalry be it college football, be it pro sports . . . rivalry is what drives. You always have one eye on how your team does and then one eye on the rival. Hopefully, if you lost, hopefully they lost too and then your weekend’s not as bad. You know, “We lost but they won," or "We won and they lost,” and “Hey fantastic, great weekend!” It’s hard when you start a new league and new teams to be able to have that kind of history. What’s going to happen now is you have two teams that have a 40 year history, albeit it stopped and started a few times, but it’s there and it’s there very strong.

Would you say it’s similar to experiences you’ve had playing in Europe with rivalries there?
KK:  Oh definitely. It is but talk to me again in 60 years. That’s really what it comes down to. You have the Millwall-West Ham rivalry [that] goes back to dockworkers in the 1800’s. That’s where that started. So yeah, I mean, we still have a ways to go, don’t get me wrong, but this is going to be one of the closest that the U.S. is going to have to that kind of European rivalry

I love the billboard that Portland put up in Seattle. I thought that was hilarious. That kind of rivalry is fun.

Is there any kind of a buzz that you’re hearing among players in the league about what it will be like to play in Portland next year?
KK:  I don’t know how many people truly understand yet. I know they will be talking about it. Obviously, [the Sounders] know for multiple reasons though the USL guys or through myself, or through the U.S. Open Cup games we’ve had. But I don’t know how much certain people in New York [know]. They didn’t know what they were getting into when they came to our place two years ago in the opening game. Nobody knew what to expect in coming here. There are still a lot of people that are thinking, “Yeah, we’re hearing that it’s going to be great,” but they aren’t truly going to understand until they get there.

One of the best crowds in the U.S. that I’ve ever played in front of was the Costa Rica game in qualifying for ’98 down in Portland when we won 1-0. That was still one of the most electric crowds ever that I’ve played in front of in the U.S. There’s no question that the city will be behind the team and I’m excited to see how the stadium is going to shape up too. I think what it does is it sets another great standard that you have a stadium downtown, you’re going to have great fan participation before and after the games, and that’s what pro sports is all about. You get your city involved with your team.