U.S. Abroad: King of the Foreign Legion

by Soccer America Executive Editor Mike Woitalla

Kasey Keller's father couldn't fathom his son's desire to become a soccer star. At the time, career options in the United States didn't include professional soccer. The boy, it seemed, was squandering his superb athletic talents.

That was a long ago. Before the King of Spain invited Keller for dinner with the President of the United States. Before Kasey's father, a baseball man, visited his son in England, where Keller's pro career began more than a decade ago.

The length and success of Kasey Keller's European career was unimaginable when he left Oregon in 1991 at age 22.

''I had told my father about Europe,'' says Keller. ''That in Europe I could do it. But he didn't understand. When he came here for the first time, he understood.''

After his senior season at the University of Portland, Keller signed with Millwall, a London club in the second tier of the English League. A club whose fans' motto is ''No one likes us, we don't care'' and whose stadium, The Den, was shut down a record number of times for crowd trouble. The BBC once had an ad that read: ''Earthquakes, Wars and Millwall reports as they happen.''

But Millwall was also where a young American had a shot at cracking the starting lineup.

''To make it in Europe,'' Keller says, ''you have to be considerably better than what the club already has available. You have to go somewhere where you have a chance to prove, week in and week out, that you deserve to play. It doesn't do you any good to sign with Manchester United and not play.''

Keller went to Portland because its coach, Clive Charles, was former English pro.

''I was recruited by most top universities,'' Keller says, ''but Portland would prepare me best for Europe, and I have not been disappointed. I got my money's worth out of Clive.''

Offers from abroad had been piling up after Keller won the Silver Ball (runner-up in MVP balloting) at the 1989 World Youth Championship. During his senior year, several English clubs contacted Charles, who kept quiet about the queries until the college season ended. Then he advised Keller on which team would suit him best.

Keller arrived at Millwall on Dec. 3, 1991. The club offered to fly him home for Christmas. He declined, although his work permit hadn't been approved and he was restricted to training sessions. Refusing was a sign of commitment.

Early in 1992, when he started seeing reserve team action, he told Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner, ''I hope to stay in English soccer for another 15 years.''

''I don't remember saying that,'' Keller says, ''but it sounds like something I would have said. There weren't jobs anywhere else.''

Keller started the last game 1991-92 season and kept the No. 1 spot for four more seasons. His acclimation could hardly have gone smoother.

''One thing that really helped was that my wife, Kristin, who was my girlfriend then, came with me at the onset,'' he says. ''It helps tremendously to have a secure base when you're far away from friends and family. It keeps you from sitting in your room bored or going out and getting into trouble. Being young, stupid and in London is recipe for disaster.''

Foreign coaches and players have long expressed shock at the drinking culture within English soccer. Keller, too, was amazed.

''When I stayed at a hotel, teammates would want to borrow my key,'' he says, ''because pubs close 11 p.m. But if you show a room key, you can drink at the hotel bar until much later. When you're new to a team, you can feel pressured to join. That wasn't a problem for me. Besides not being much of a drinker, it was easier to avoid it because I would spend my time with Kristin.''

In 1996, Keller moved to the Premier League's Leicester City, a newly promoted team not expected to stay up. It finished in the top 10 during each of Keller's three seasons and won the 1997 League Cup.

In 1999, Keller signed with Madrid club Rayo Vallecano. The Spanish press declared him the most famous American living in Spain, and King Juan Carlos figured Keller and Kristin would be appropriate guests at a White House dinner with President Bill Clinton.

''It was a crazy couple of days,'' he says. ''To not miss a game, we flew the Concorde there and back. I spoke a little with Clinton, but mostly with the King, in what was then my not very good Spanish.''

During Keller's first season in La Liga, three Spanish teams reached the semifinals of the European Champions League.

''And none of those could win the Spanish League title,'' Keller says. ''The quality was excellent.''

Rayo Vallecano, newly promoted to the First Division, finished ninth and earned a UEFA Cup spot.

After his second season in Spain, Keller returned to the Premier League, signing with Tottenham Hotspur. Returning to London and joining a major club was worth the risk of knowing Tottenham wanted him as a backup to Scottish international Neil Sullivan.

''The period where I wasn't playing was far more frustrating than I ever imagined,'' Keller says. ''Training, I always enjoyed, because you could prove yourself to teammates and coaches. But going to games on Saturday and not play, I hated that.''

Keller won the starting job late last season and has kept it since, once again receiving the rave reviews that have followed him through his career.

''Twelve seasons,'' he says. ''Even if I don't make 15, it'll be pretty close.''

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