U.S. Soccer: Keller's Quandary

Relegated to the bench at Tottenham Hotspur, Kasey Keller is still pushing hard to start for the USA at the 2002 World Cup.

Once again he's at odds with his coaches, which might cause most players much consternation.

It's business as usual for Kasey Keller. Despite a celebrated, decade-long career in the pros, the 31-year-old keeper has, on several occasions for club and country, had to fight for a spot on the field.

"I don't know what else can be done," he says. "I just look at the next game, and hopefully have a good game, and feel confident that you're going to play in the next.

"But I've done that before and it hasn't happened. So I don't know. I just wait and see."

Sound familiar?

The quote was made last May, when U.S. coach Bruce Arena was using both Keller and Brad Friedel in World Cup qualifying play.

Keller has since moved from Spanish club Rayo Vallecano to England's Tottenham Hotspur. The dynamics are different, but once again he's floating in limbo.

Spurs manager Glenn Hoddle allowed Keller to play for the United States March 2 against Honduras but forbade him from staying for the subsequent game with Ecuador.

Keller, who says Hoddle had assured him he could play in both games, is mystified.

"The only thing I hear is, 'Things change,'" says Keller. "And things do change, but they like to give themselves the get-out clause by saying that. This has nothing to do with Hoddle."

Speaking of clubs and managers in general, Keller says, "They say what I told you three weeks ago was true at that time, but now it's different."

This isn't new to Keller.

COACHES AND KEEPERS. "It's always going to be an issue when you have two good goalkeepers," says Arena. "Last time I checked, you can only play one at a time."

Keller's club battles have been of a different breed.

Former Leicester manager Martin O'Neill once threatened to hold Keller out of a League Cup final because of the club duty he missed playing for the national team. He relented, Keller played, and Leicester won.

At Rayo Vallecano, Keller was caught in a political tug-of-war with Coach Juan de la Cruz Ramos, who bent to pressure from certain factions within the club to use veteran Juan Lopetegui.

Keller has been a pawn in the national team game as well.

He played just one U.S. match during the reign of ex-coach Bora Milutinovic despite starting regularly for English First Division club Millwall. Milutinovic was convinced Keller would not accept a backup role and, having chosen Friedel in support of No. 1 Tony Meola, left Keller off the 1994 World Cup team.

In the case of Hoddle and Keller, the U.S. keeper says, "The conversation we had was, 'I'm going to let you go and play in these games and show that you should be the No. 1.'

Then it was, 'Well, no, now you can't go.' I just don't have a clue."

Several media reports stated Hoddle had changed his mind after Spurs lost to Blackburn, for which Friedel played superbly, in the League Cup final Feb. 24. A UEFA Cup spot had been at stake.

Spurs can still qualify for Europe by winning the FA Cup or finishing high enough in the Premier League, thereby prompting Hoddle to recall Keller.

An intriguing theory, but wrong, according to Keller.

"The decision was made before the League Cup," says Keller of a match he watched from the bench. "We play Manchester United in the League and then Chelsea in the FA Cup, and I guess he wants me there to sit on the bench."

BLESSING IN DISGUISE. Hoddle had never explained to Keller why he played three games around New Year's and then was returned to the bench as backup to Neil Sullivan.

With Keller in the nets, Spurs won and tied in two Premier League games and lost to Chelsea in the League Cup. His only previous first-team appearance had been a League Cup game against Torquay in September.

Hoddle, it seemed, played Keller to motivate Sullivan rather than to give the American a shot at the starting spot. Hoddle put him back on the bench after the Chelsea loss Jan. 9. Released a few days later for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Keller buttressed his claim to the starting U.S. job with four shutouts in five games. He also won a penalty-kick tiebreaker, against Canada in the semifinal.

"That may have been a blessing, I have to admit," says Keller. "The Gold Cup helped me a lot and Bruce reiterated that point to me.

"Now I've got Honduras and Germany. I play well in those games, and we'll see what happens in the future."

Keller has no doubts that he can be sharp enough for the World Cup despite not starting for Spurs. He plays in a smattering of reserve games and believes a decade of pro experience has decreased the need for a heavy diet of matches.

Younger keepers need as many games as possible to confront the dicey situations by which they save or sink their teams. After more than 400 matches for club and country, Keller has no such issues.

"No doubt about it," he says of an ability to jump right into the fray. "There were times I'd come back to preseason at Millwall having been off for six, seven weeks when I wasn't involved with the national team, and it would take three or four games in preseason.

"Now I don't feel rusty at all. I've had enough games, even though they've been spread out. In goalkeeping you're doing a lot more work in training than you're ever doing in games. The decision-making just seems to click.

"In a lot of aspects I feel fitter now than I would have felt if I was playing the entire season, because I'm not as beat up. In some ways I feel fresh."

Keller does more than pluck crosses and save shots and thump punts and throw himself into flailing feet. He wins games.

READY TO PLAY. In his U.S. career, Keller's won-lost-tied record is 30-15-10. Friedel is 23-24-23.

"Kasey is always ready to play," says teammate Jeff Agoos. "He's shown that during qualifying and showed it again at the Gold Cup.

"In that way, he and Brad are the same. You can count on them when they're called upon."

Keller doesn't know when Hoddle will call upon him again, if ever. The manager has declared his intent to clean house during the offseason.

Regardless of the outcome, Keller stands by his decision to join Spurs. He admits the choice between Spurs and Turkish club Besiktas came down to the wire: He was in Istanbul talking with Besiktas officials when word came from Spurs.

"I never second-guess anything," he says. "The Besiktas move could have been fantastic, but the risk was just as great. I was literally in a room talking to Spurs on the telephone with Besitkas people in the next room waiting for my decision.

"The game I saw when I was there I knew I definitely could have helped, that team. Then you have what happened with Sept. 11.

"Now I'm at Spurs, and I'm very confused on that front."

He may need a few more months for clarity to emerge.

by Soccer America Senior Editor Ridge Mahoney

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