U.S. goalkeeper wins hearts of Rayo Vallecano fans and takes on the language barrier
During his first game for Rayo Vallecano, Kasey Keller urged his defense to push forward, shouting, "Arriba, arriba!" A lagging striker on the opposing team, Atletico Madrid, turned to Keller and corrected his pronunciation, trilling his tongue on the roof of his mouth.
Thus, Keller received his unofficial welcome to La Primera, the Spanish First Division.
Rayo followers, however, were withholding a greeting and did not care whether or not Keller could roll a double-r. They wanted to know why Julen Lopetegui, one of their favorites, sat on the bench while an American patrolled their club's penalty area.
But with a solid performance in a surprising 2-0 victory over host Atletico, Keller made a crucial first step toward earning the favor of those devoted to the littlest of Madrid's three sibling clubs.
"It was a bit of a surprise to the fans at first," said Colin Pomford, a Madrid-based lawyer who represents Keller. "[Lopetegui] was extremely popular with the fans. Not one single Rayo fan expected a new goalkeeper this season."
Keller's first performance commanded his doubters' attention and subsequent outings converted them. With Rayo winning six of its first eight matches to take a startling position atop the Primera, it wasn't long before Keller's name was being chanted at El Estadio Teresa Rivero in southern Madrid.
Keller, a man who just about always exudes calm, seems even more at ease since his free transfer from Leicester City of the English Premier League, where he played three seasons. He likes living in the suburbs of a big city, where he can find good restaurants and original-release movie theaters. He likes playing for a club that is popular but not overly scrutinized.
Rayo, long dwarfed by Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, qualified for the Primera last year after finishing fifth in the Second Division because Atletico's reserve team, which finished fourth, was ineligible for promotion. Three of Rayo's previous five seasons in the Primera resulted in relegation, and its best finish was 10th place.
"We are in a big city where everybody knows who you are, but nobody pays too much attention," Keller said. "You don't have people who dislike you and you don't have people who are really fanatical about you.
"Everyone just kind of likes you. It's a nice place to be. The whole city is behind us. We're never going to compete with Atletico and Real in terms of fan base, and that's where animosity would come from. It would come from a fan base instead of a place in the standings or a string of results."
The hammer falls
Rayo's initial string of results did draw new levels of attention for the club. Coach Juande Ramos did his best to play down the hype and his warnings proved prophetic when the club dropped five of its next six matches before recovering with a 4-1 victory over lowly Malaga Dec. 12.
"The goal was always to remain [in the Primera]," Keller said, reiterating Ramos' preachings. "We knew that it was going to be a long, hard season, but I think some of the guys may have been taking in this first-place thing a little too much. Now it's starting to come down like a hammer that it is going to be a tough season. It is nice having some points on the table early, rather than be chasing the entire season."
A serious injury to German defender Gerhard Poschner played a large part in Rayo's skid, but Keller said the team also lost some of its mental commitment.
"We're having some problems with concentration in the second half of the game," he said. "We're going into halftime tied, 0-0, or up, 1-0, and end up losing the game, 3-1 or 3-2. That's getting a bit frustrating. Earlier in the season we would take the lead and finish it out. I don't like what I'm seeing, so hopefully we can get that squared away."
A pleasant pace
Personally, Keller has found his routine to be easier in Spain because the schedule is not quite as hectic as the one he had in England. Ramos uses Lopetegui in the Spanish Cup games, and the league schedule is planted firmly on the weekends.
"You have more time to get physically and mentally prepared for the game," Keller said. "For me, I'm looking forward to each game, whereas in England, at times, I was thinking 'Oh God, I can't believe we have another game now.'"
Another less stressful aspect of his move to Spain should be Keller's releases for national team duty. Bruce Arena met with Ramos in November in an effort to diplomatically open communication lines.
"It'll be smoother [than with Leicester] because they'll talk to each other, but I don't think Rayo is going to give me up without a fight," Keller said. The release issue left a bitter taste in Keller's mouth at times in Leicester. "From the point where they asked me to retire from the national team, that was getting to be a bit much. They retracted it later, but it was there at one point."
Through the ups and downs of the season, Keller has remained one of the few constants for Vallecano. He has received the highest possible ranking in the Spanish daily Marca as often as any player in the league. The association of European sports magazines named him the goalie of the month of October.
But the language barrier is still substantial. Keller and his wife, Kristin, began taking Spanish classes in early December.
"I studied a lot before I came, and at first I kind of learned how to talk on the field and what to say in what situations, but then I got a little lazy with the rest of it," Keller said. "I can pretty much read articles and figure out what's being said, but when someone whips it out at you in conversation at a hundred miles an hour, it's a little different."
Fortunately, Keller's lack of fluency hasn't prevented him from bonding with teammates, which is done over Nintendo's Mario Cart in hotel rooms.
"You get a lot of camaraderie and competition," Keller said. "Depending on how many people are in the room, if you don't place, you get bumped and you have to wait. It's a lot of fun."
Pomford said his client's name keeps surfacing in connection with some of Europe's Goliath clubs, but for now, Keller is content to play David with Rayo.
"The main reason for going to Spain was that I'd been in England for seven and a half years," Keller said. "I just turned 30, so I have five or six years left, and I didn't necessarily want to spend my whole [professional career] in England. The way it's been, I couldn't have asked for a better situation."
by Soccer America associate editor Will Kuhns