One-on-One Interview With U.S. MNT Goalkeeper Kasey Keller
Of all the American soccer players who have paved the path to Europe, veteran goalkeeper Kasey Keller stands above the rest. In this extended one-on-one interview, Keller discusses his career in Europe, his goals for the World Cup and the possibility of returning to play in the U.S.
May 25, 2006
First of all, just evaluate how the training camp went in Cary?
“Well, I got in a few days late, but I was pretty happy with the way training went. Very happy. I think it was a good balance between real hard work, proper amount of time off, and we got some good golf in. That was cool. And, also, we haven’t really picked up any injuries. So, the combination between the fitness, the non-injury issue and a little bit of mentally being able to get away from things at times was a great combination.”
How critical are those type of things you talked about?
“For me, I think it’s huge. I know a lot of managers don’t believe in that. They believe in these concentration camps and, for me, it’s the opposite. As long as you have that balance and you trust your players, that they’re going to look after themselves and when they step on the field they give you everything they have, then it’s great to be able to give them some time to get away from things. We’re still three weeks away from the first game, so to think that you are just beaten into submission so early, for me, I think is the devastation of a lot of teams before the World Cup.”
Bruce (Arena) said he thinks that’s the best way to deal with American players. Do you think that this approach would work in other countries?
“I think it would work but I think it has to work gradually. I think it might be difficult if you have a bunch of players who are used to a very strict situation and just give them free reign. I think sometimes you have to do it a bit gradually. It’s not really that much different from how you would live your normal life in the pro situation. You go home. If you want to go out during the week, you go out during the week. So you’re staying in the hotel? Normally you drive yourself to training, you train and you drive home. It’s not like someone has a leash on you 24/7. To me, you make it as comfortable as you can for players. I know England and Germany, at their training camps the families are invited and they come. It’s your choice if you want to bring your family or not. It’s even a little bit more for them because I think they pay for it all.”
How would you evaluate the makeup of this team? For example, when you saw the 23-man roster, what goes through your mind?
“You always feel sorry for a few people that didn’t quite make the 23. I think the difference in this year over some years in the past is that you had some guys make the 23 who were making up the numbers. This time I think we could have named a 27-man team and everybody would have deserved to have been there. That’s the sign of a country developing and that’s a good thing. It’s difficult, obviously, for those players that didn’t make it but it’s a good thing for the sport in general.”
How would you say the team is in 2006 at this stage compared to where we were in 2002 at this stage?
“I think the team is in great shape right now. I think the team was in good shape in 2002 but I think what 2002 did was, we had a real mystery factor. We had a lot less experience coming off of kind of a nightmare situation in France and zero expectation. I think it’s a little different this time around. In a continent that had never hosted a World Cup and the whole mystery of all the Europeans and South Americans (in Asia), there was no real comfort zone for anybody and that was a leveling factor. But now, with it in Europe, the majority of the South American players play in Europe. Obviously, the European countries are going to be giving great support for their teams. This is a difficult task we have ahead of ourselves but the team is better than it was in 2002, but you still have to step on the field, perform and get the results and you won’t know anything. You can feel great going in, you can feel ready, feel better, feel everything and lose the first game. So I’m not really going to say too much about what the team is going to do or how it is. I think we’re in good shape to perform well. We have three games to improve and some good time in Germany but it all comes down to that first game and how we perform on the day.”
You talked about the team having more experience. You also talked about expectations. Are the expectations on this team both from outside and within and is that a good thing?
“Oh, definitely. I think so. I would much rather be a team that is better and expected to do okay. We’re not expected to win the World Cup. In a lot of circles, we’re not expected to get out of our group, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if we did. Whereas it was a surprise in Korea and it would have been a surprise in France, as well. Right now we’re getting closer. I think if our group would have been a little bit easier, I think if you would have thrown one of the lower seeded South American teams in our group, let’s say. Or, we didn’t draw the Czech Republic, we drew, like, a Poland or something, then I think, maybe, the expectation of us to go through would have been that little bit greater. But I still feel very confident that we can and I’m sure the Italians and the Czechs and the Ghanaians are thinking, ‘Man, we could have had an easier draw,’ as well.”
Do you think that confidence that the team can get out of the group exists among the players?
“No question. I don’t think Bruce would have anybody here that didn’t have that confidence that we could. I mean, we’re all realistic. We all know it’s difficult. We all know that it’s a possibility that we can’t, but we’re all very confident that we can. Like I said, it’s going to come down to a team playing very well over three games, individuals making plays and a group of individuals playing very, very well. We have the players, we have the capability, we will be ready and it’s just going to come down to doing it.”
Can you talk a little bit more specifically about the strengths of the U.S. team?
“I think one big strength we have right now is balance. We’re not a slow team, we’re a pretty quick team. We’ve got good size in multiple positions. We have good experience, both professionally and nationally. We’ve got age and youth, we’ve got a factor in that we’ve got a team that’s not tired, where half our team is just starting their season and we’ve got guys that maybe haven’t played as much, or are playing at the high level but maybe haven’t come through a 50-game season of Champions League and all that kind of travel. I think we’ve got a lot of advantages.”
What do you say to the American public about the expectations of making the quarterfinals in 2006 because we made the quarterfinals in 2002?
“I don’t think it’s that simple. I think if you really analyze the situation that it would be a great feat to come in second in our group and then you draw Brazil, the favorite. So, sometimes the seeding doesn’t work real well for you. Don’t get me wrong. We’ve beaten Brazil before and we’ve given them some very, very tough runs in the past so by no means do you roll over and die. We could have a successful World Cup and, you know, lose in penalties in the second round to Brazil and what are you going to do? I don’t think you can necessarily just put a round: ‘Okay, we need a semifinal,’ and that’s a successful World Cup. We’re not quite there yet. Close. I would think 2010, 2014, that’s a possibility. Don’t get me wrong. I think this team is more than capable of getting into a semifinal but it might be a little bit soon to just call that out and say, ‘This will make this World Cup a success.’”
So then, how do you define success in this World Cup?
“For me, it’s defining this World Cup as being better than the teams we play against. If we can go play Italy and, even if we end up with a draw but we are better on the field than Italy, and get out of the group. If we can play the Czechs and the Czechs go, ‘Wow. They beat us one-nil and they were a good team.’ And then you beat Ghana. You do what you have to do to get through. That would be successful.
It was about two years ago when you made the decision, professionally, to move from England to Germany. How much of a factor was the 2006 World Cup in that decision?
“Percentage-wise, I don’t know. It definitely was a thought process. What I was looking to do when I was leaving England was to find something that was interesting. Or I was going to possibly move back to MLS. Interesting meaning someplace I hadn’t played before, someplace where it was financially worthwhile, someplace where the family would still be comfortable. When the Moenchengladbach thing came up, I spoke with my ex-teammate, Christian Ziege, and he said Dusseldorf was a great international city with a great international school for the kids, which is only 20 kilometers from Moenchengladbach. Moenchengladbach is a team with a tremendous amount of history and a tremendous amount of fan support, a new stadium, training facility, a real team that was in some trouble but, by far, had the capabilities of being better. And then you look at moving to the country that’s hosting the World Cup that we have a better than probable chance of qualifying for. So to be in the country hosting the World Cup, playing there professionally, was a factor.”
What’s playing professionally in Germany like?
“For me, it’s been a great experience, one that has greatly surpassed any expectation that I had going into it. The Bundesliga, obviously, has a storied history but the preparation for the World Cup and what the country has done, it’s a knock-on effect. Four or five teams get new stadiums and then 15 other teams and their fans are saying, ‘How come we don’t have a new stadium?’ And so that knock-on effect goes through the whole league and, as the profile grows, as people keep talking about the World Cup and this stadium being a World Cup stadium and the preparations for that, the other cities want to feel a part of it too, so they make improvements and try to get national team games and try to do things and I think it’s been a huge benefit for the Bundesliga. I think what you’ll find is that in the next five or 10 years after the World Cup, I think you’ll see the German teams really competing with Italy, England and Spain for the top players in the world.”
How much has the experience personally benefited you in relation to playing in the World Cup in Germany?
“I think it will be a benefit. What that percentage will be, I don’t know. But the whole comfort thing will be huge. I remember going to Korea and thinking, ‘What’s going to be with the families and should my wife and kids come over?’ and everyone thought that as well. And then you have to get a phone. (In Germany), everything is already set up and there is no problem. I’ve been to every stadium, except for Leipzig. I know all the press people. I know the way to get places, helping family travel. I have a lot of family and friends coming over who want to do more than just the world cup thing, so their suggestions, you know, go this direction, do that, see this. So for me it’s almost like going home. Well, it is going home. That’s where my home is.
It’s a fascination for people, not just in the U.S., that we do have family and friends staying with us. How important do you think that is for the overall success of the team?
“I think if your players are comfortable, and they have to know what makes them comfortable, they have to be mature about it and find the right balance between family, friends and team. One hundred percent team would not make me comfortable, just as 99 percent family and friends and one percent team would not make me comfortable. It’s what works well for each individual person and they have to find the balance because, ultimately, they’re judged by how they play. That’s the first thing they have to get in their mind is, what is going to help prepare them to play the best they possibly can. Most of it is to have your family and friends close by because that’s how, normally, your life is. And if that means that a day or two before the game you have to say, ‘I need to do some other things’ and, ‘Okay, we can’t go shopping.’ It’s the same for me in my professional life. I’m not doing a bunch of stuff on a Friday if I have a game on Saturday. In fact, I’m doing very little. I don’t want to go out to dinner and out to the movies, but for some people, that’s what they need to do to kind of get away. Each person prepares differently and will be judged on the field.”
Have some of the other, younger players sought out your advice on things like this?
“I don’t know specifics, but I talk to a lot of the guys about a lot of different things. A lot of it is the European thing, I’ve been there so long, and they are looking in that general direction, about maybe playing in Europe. I’ll give them any advice I possibly can. I have talked to a lot of players about finding the balance between personal and professional life. I’ve really found that the more stable you are off the field, the more stable you are on the field. And, if you can find that good balance between having a good time and good life and, at the same time, are really looking after how you prepare to play a game. You can’t necessarily prepare the same way every week, but if you have a good pattern that works well for you, it’s common sense that you’re probably going to perform more consistently on the field as well.”
Where does this World Cup fit into your international career?
“I don’t know. You ask me that after the World Cup is over. You’re always judged by success and, you know, I played okay in the ’98 World Cup, we just didn’t perform well as a team. Was I able to have the unbelievable game against Germany or Iran and keep it at 0-0? No. I played solid but we didn’t score any goals. Brian (McBride) got the one goal against Iran but what I was so impressed about in Korea was scoring three goals against Portugal. You score three goals against most teams and you’re going to win. And that’s what I want. I want to just be able to come into this world cup, make a couple saves and keep applauding the guys as they keep knocking them in the back of the net. That’s what I would really like to see. I don’t want to be the focal point of this by any means. If I can come up with a key save at 0-0 or 1-0 or whatever and then watch Brian or Landon (Donovan) or Eddie Johnson or Gooch (Oguchi Onyewu) come up and score a couple more, then, that’s what I want.”
I know not a lot of things surprise you anymore but I remember the look on your face on that third goal against Portugal and it was a little but of (shock).
“Portugal was the U.S. of 1998. I was speaking with their backup goalkeeper after the game and he said it was an internal disaster. Their team had just imploded before the world cup, and during, and the results showed it. We got lucky. We hit them at the right time and surprised them and then hung on. And hung on with merit, because, okay, they got the own goal, unfortunately, and the other goal but then, after that, we really just closed up shop. I don’t remember Brad (Friedel) making a save in the game. So, that’s a credit to the guys in front. They stepped up and did their job.”
A lot of people are going to be impressed with you going to the World Cup because of how you handled yourself after 2002 and how you’ve performed since then. For you, is that a matter of pride at all, the way you handled that situation, or is that just what you do as a professional?
“I would have been disappointed in myself if I would have handled it any other way. And I think the nice thing is, there are ways you handle things publicly and ways you handle things privately and I like to try to be both, consistently. I don’t want to be that guy where everyone says, ‘Oh, he’s so nice,’ and everyone goes, ‘Yeah, you ought to know him off camara.’ I think I’m pretty much what you see is what you get. If people respect how I handle myself, I try to do it, and I think what they see is legitimately the way I want to do things. There is a right way and there is a wrong way. Most of the time, I hope I do it the right way, from the way I was brought up, from the way I was coached. There have been times when I didn’t do things the way I would have liked, but I think most of the time I’m pretty happy with the way things have gone. And, what do you gain by airing everything publicly? You gain things for the short term. If I would have done that, I wouldn’t be here right now. I’m pretty sure of that. Having said that, there’s no point. I’ve had a great time in the last four years playing for the National Team, starting with the Gold Cup in, I think, the summer of 2003 and it’s been a great run ever since. If I would have done things differently, I never would have had those experiences and I would have left my national team career on a bad note. I’ve had a great run and I wouldn’t have wanted to end like that.”
Instead, no matter what happens at the World Cup, you’ll end with almost every record the U.S. has for goalkeepers.
“I’m not worried about records. I just think I have those records because of the consistent play I’ve had for the National Team over a long period of time and I think a lot of questions that people have always asked me was, ‘How come you have had these little incidences when, obviously, your statistics and everything speak for themselves? How could you not be playing in that game or this game when, look, you basically win most of the time you step on to the field for the national team?’ I say, ‘Look, there are a lot of factors into that.’ I can only play well when I’m asked and I think, for the most part, I’ve done that. So I’m proud of that.”
One of the things that is known about you is your approach every time you step onto the field, not just in games. Is there a goal that is scored against you that doesn’t make you mad?
“Oh sure. There are a lot of goals that you have to just credit the guy scoring the goal. I get disappointed when I think somebody should be somewhere where they’re not. I get disappointed on deflections. Not disappointed at somebody, just disappointed at the way it happened. I’m disappointed when I get a touch to a ball and it goes off the post and goes in, doesn’t go out. Sure. I mean, I got disappointed the other day, even in the training session, because I came out and made the save one-on-one and it popped up in the air and Claudio came up and headed it into the goal. Then, two minutes later, Claudio slams one into the corner from 16 yards and there’s nothing to be disappointed about in that. I just hope he does it against one of the three teams we’re playing against in the World Cup. There are times when you’re disappointed and there are times where you have to say, ‘Hey, that was something special.’ And you just hope your guys at the other end pop a couple in so it doesn’t matter. There are plenty of times when I am extremely upset, but that’s part of the game.”
How important is leadership on the field from a goalkeeper?
“I think it’s a little bit difficult. I think you lead by example and you do little things but you can’t do a whole bunch from back there, especially in big, loud, crazy games, because people can’t hear you 20 yards in front of you, anyway. It’s important to lead by example. At least, that’s the way I’ve done it. If I can be a stable factor, where they’re not thinking, ‘Oh my god, what’s he going to do now? He’s back there and, first of all, he’s not going to get us in trouble and, more often that not, he’s going to get us out of trouble.’ That’s what I’ve always strived to achieve.”
It sounds to me, when you talk about your professional and national team career, it’s not so much the accomplishments that you’re proud of, but that you’ve done things the way you’ve wanted to do them? Is that a fair statement?
“That’s a very fair statement, that I’ve done it the way I’ve wanted to do it. The way my late coach, Clive Charles, had really kind of pushed me in the direction to do it. I started at a starting point and now I’m finishing at a finishing point. My career has been very gradual and very rewarding in many different ways. The ’90 World Cup, why was I there? Why was our whole team there? We were so far over our heads. But we didn’t know any better. There was no one to blame. We had to get there to get this ball started. Like I said, you have to start at a starting point and that team was at a serious starting point. I was a 20-year-old kid who had never played a professional game in my life at a world cup. Tony Meola was a 21-year-old who had never played a professional game in his life. The majority of the other players were maybe a little older but, not a lot of experience there. To then go and start in the English First Division, get 200 games in four years in a tough professional league, get to the Premier league and win a cup final and lose in another cup final, stay in the Premier league for three years in the top half with Liecester, then move and play in La Liga and have the good times I had there, then come back to Tottenham and start almost 100 games in a row for Tottenham before moving to Germany, I’m excited with the way the progression was. That’s the way it should be. And I think that’s probably what has taught me more than anything is that I didn’t have anything handed to me. I had to work for everything but I enjoyed working for it and I think I appreciate it that much more because I feel I paid my dues and earned what I got.
What can someone tell you about your game at this stage of your career?
“You’re always listening. You don’t have to accept what they’re saying to you, but you never know when somebody might give you a little piece of advice that you might think, ‘you know what, you’re right.’ I’ve had that over my career. My coach in Spain wanted me to be a little more aggressive off my line. I started working with my coach at Tottenham, improving little things about the way I kick a ball. My coach in Germany, we’ve been able to work on the real physical side at this stage in my career without going too crazy, but being able to pick up the physical side of things because there are no midweek games, which is nice. So, it’s not where you’re not always thinking about the next game. I now have time to work on it. I think you’re always listening to things and think that it might help you. I think what has been nice is I’ve had a lot of coaches that have respected what I’ve done, respected where I am at as a goalkeeper and don’t shove it down your throat and say, ‘This is what you have to do.’ They’re saying, ‘Hey, think about this.’ I think the minute you say, ‘I am this way,’ that makes it tough. I think you always got to be thinking, ‘Let’s see if that’s better.’ The problem is with any pitcher, with any batter, with any guy who’s struggling hitting free throws, there are aspects in sports all over where things are off in your game and you need someone who you trust to say, ‘Move your foot here a little bit. Move your hand there a little bit. Maybe drop two yards back or two yards forward.’ And if you have those people that you trust and know your game well enough, you find yourself maybe not in those bad positions as often as you have in the past. There’s a difference between a coach that can put you through a drill and a coach that can put you through a drill and give you, ‘Your foot is off there.’ Little things like, ‘Your foot is a little bit back when it needs to be six inches further forward.’ Then you dive and you get the fingertips pushing the ball around the post rather than getting your fingertips to it and pushing it on the post and going in. But you have to find those people who know your game well enough to make those little points.”
“I remember thinking that it might have been a good thing not being on the field for those three games. We all felt going into the World Cup that if somebody plays well the biggest teams in the world are going to buy you. But it was also a catch-22 because if the team was not successful, you would just lose credibility everywhere. It was a little tricky. Nobody was ready. They didn’t know they weren’t ready. How could you know you weren’t ready? Nobody had the experience to know any different. We didn’t know. We needed a starting point and some people had to be the sacrificial lambs. But, without that original disaster, you can’t move forward. And once again, there’s no blame. How could there be blame? There’s no one to be put in a position where they could have done any better because no one knew what better was. It takes a process. And that process has been improved, and improved, and improved and improved. It will improve even more. We’ve gone from also-ran, laughing stock to a top-10 team in the world capable of stepping on the field at a World Cup and beating anybody. In 16 years, that’s a good place to be in.”
“I don’t know what the statistics are, but I think half of the ’94 team was a residential team who weren’t signed to pro teams, they were playing as a club team. You had Tab (Ramos) playing in Spain, John Harkes playing in England and a handful of other guys, but the majority of that team was in residence in Southern California. You could maybe get that with an Arab team, maybe Emirates or another would play their team as a club team. But the majority of guys are playing around the world in great leagues, or their own league is better than it ever was before. U.S. Soccer has made big steps in players, organization, MLS. It’s not a case where, if the national team is not successful, the sport is going to suffer. The game is much more stable than that in this country to be solely dependent on the success of one tournament and that is a great position to be in as well.”
What younger players excite you?
“I get excited by different players all the time. We had a little inter-squad game the other day and Claudio (Reyna) excited me. I was training on one side and a game was going on on the other field and I saw Eddie Johnson jump above somebody and hit a great header into the far corner and that was cool. I see stuff all the time that I think, ‘All right, that’s good.’ Michael Bradley has impressed me this camp. When Marcus (Hahnemann) makes a big save or Tim (Howard), I go, ‘Wow, that was a great save.’ It’s not a case any longer where you’re thinking, ‘Wow, I sure hope this guy doesn’t get hurt because we’re in a lot of trouble.’ Now it’s a case of, ‘Man, that’s unlucky this guy might not get on the field because he’s a good player.’ Or, ‘It’s unlucky this guy didn’t make the squad because he could have easily played.’ I’m excited. The state of the game is strong.”
Still having fun?
“I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t having fun. I think that’s the one reason why I’m still here. I’ve had fun for 99 percent of the time I’ve been with the national team. I’m too old to do things now where I really dislike what I’m doing. I’ve left situations and clubs because I was not having fun. Nobody wants to wake up in the morning and go, ‘I really don’t want to do this.’ We all have those days where you want to call in sick, but you can’t have that everyday. When you have that everyday, it’s going to show in your performance that you really don’t want to be there. I do enjoy coming here. I enjoy the way Bruce sets up the camp, I enjoy the interaction with the guys and, living in Europe the past 15 years, I enjoy the opportunity to be back in America and stay in touch with the American fans. There are many, many things I enjoy about playing for the national team and that’s why I’m still here.”
On reading a lot of fiction:
“There’s an open ticket anytime Dean Koontz wants to come to a U.S. soccer game. If you see this interview let me know if you ever want to go to a game. Big fan. Read every book as soon as it comes out. I like the dark side, so keep it creepy.
On living a life of an almost fictional character:
“I’m just waiting for aliens to come down or crazy ghosts at my house. I’m looking for something out of the norm. No, I have a great life and I’m never going to complain about that, and that great life starts with a great family life. My wife and I are extremely happy together. We have two healthy, beautiful, intelligent children. The family life around that from our extended families is good. So, from there, everything is basically downhill. No complaints whatsoever. I’m looking for the next phase as well. I’m not one of those guys agonizing that their career is coming to the end. Time stands still for no man. I’m looking forward to the next chapter, to what’s around the corner. I’m excited about that. I’m excited to be in control of my own time. I’m glad that everything is in a position it’s in.”
Do you have any “How did I get here” moments?
“I think sometimes. I know the sacrifices I made and how hard I worked to put myself in situations. But there are some strange things that I’ve been able to do, such as steak dinners at the White House with the king and queen of Spain comes to mind. Being at the side of stages at huge rock festivals, hanging out with rock stars and just having a great time. There are times when you kind of think, ‘Okay, living the life, having fun.’ But doing it the way you want to do it, doing it, like we mentioned before, with a bit of morality. I’m so tired of seeing these athletes just beating their chest and pointing to me, me, me. Have a little tact, have a little class in what you do. That’s the thing that you realize, there are ways you are supposed to do things in most situations and try to do it the right way. That’s all I’ve tried to do, is try to do it the right way. What you usually find out is if you do it the right way, yeah things are not going to be perfect all the time, but for the most part it comes around. What goes around, comes around. That statement is there for a reason. If you’re an ass all your life, eventually it’s going to come around where everyone is going to be an ass to you. I think if you do things the right way, you’ll be rewarded for it. ”