Nearly two decades after dazzling the local soccer scene as a phenomenal teenage soccer player, Kasey Keller is coming home. Discussions regarding Keller coming to MLS had run hot and cold for the past few years, but once the entry of Seattle Sounders FC into MLS became official last December, the only uncertainty boiled down to when, not if, Keller came aboard.
Terms and length of the contract were not announced but Keller is not a Designated Player. A source said he signed a three-year deal, and is likely to move into an executive role with the team once his playing days are done. The Sounders will receive a large cache of allocation money in their first season - San Jose started out with $1.125 million - and a lot of this will be used on Keller.
"Kasey is arguably the top goalkeeper that the United States has ever produced," said general manager Adrian Hanauer. "He is a natural leader and those leadership qualities should be of enormous value to Sounders FC."
As the only 2009 expansion team, Seattle would have been atop the allocation list, and used that slot to secure Keller via the MLS mechanism by which current or former U.S. national team players coming into the league for the first time are distributed. (Rights to returning national team players can be retained by their last club if they return within two years and other criteria is met.)
Upon being presented at a press conference Thursday at Qwest Field, where Seattle will play its home games starting next spring, Keller reminded everyone he's not yet ready for the rocking chair. "I'm coming home to help the Sounders win, to help the Sounders establish themselves as one of the top franchises in the country, if not really the benchmark for what soccer is going to become in this country," says Keller, 38.
Discussions regarding a loan to MLS to play with Real Salt Lake several years ago petered out due to complex logistics regarding an international loan, which by FIFA regulations must conform to the same restrictions as a transfer, and his rather high salary demands. Keller played last year for English Premier League club Fulham, which offered him the opportunity to return as a backup. Fulham has since added Australian keeper Mark Schwarzer to a roster that includes Finnish keeper Antii Niemi, who suffered an injury in preseason.
The season in Fulham came after 2 ½ years in Germany with Borussia Moenchengladbach. With the Seattle on the horizon and the offer to return to Fulham, Keller had to ponder several factors.
"No question about it," said Keller when asked if the complexities took some time to sort out. "Then there was a little bit of timing issues. I wasn't sure what I was going to do last season.
"I was contemplating retirement after the end of my last season in Germany. I wasn't sure if maybe if I took a year off would I be able to come back. And then it worked out that I ended up back in the Premier League for another year, and the timing was right."
Keller played at North Thurston High School in Lacey, Wash.; and starred at the University of Portland and the U.S. under-20 team before leaving Portland in January, 1992, to start his pro career with English club Millwall. He passed up a chance to play in the 1992 Olympic Games to concentrate on his pro career, but captained the Olympic team four years later. Keller represented the USA. on the 1990, 1998, 2002 and 2006 U.S. World Cup teams and accumulated 102 caps.
Keller, who owns a home in the area as well as one in Idaho, will spend the time leading up to the preseason settling his family, making personal appearances, and preparing for the start of training camp in January.
"Some of the conversations that Adrian and I had were, we have this little bit of a gap between now and January when preseason starts, and did it make sense for maybe to sign one more year somewhere," says Keller. "But then looking at it from with the way that the transfer windows open in the sport, I wouldn't be able to come back until the middle of July.
"And obviously when you have a new team, you have a new franchise, you have new players, to kind of have your experienced players with you from the beginning, from the first day of preseason, from the first game of the season, it just made a lot of sense to get it done now."
After Millwall, Keller played for Leicester City (England), Rayo Vallecano (Spain) and Tottenham Hotspur (England) before joining Moenchengladbach, which loaned him to English club Southampton for part of his first season. After 17 pro seasons in several countries, and trips to many more with the U.S. teams, he's back where it started.
"When I started my career in Europe, I always said that I wanted to finish playing back at home in the U.S," said Keller. "I wasn't sure that dream was ever going to come true. I still can't believe it's a reality."