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Kasey Keller Previews the 2010 MLS Season

With the 2010 MLS season fast approaching, caught up with former U.S. Men's National Team goalkeeper Kasey Keller. After 16 years playing abroad, Keller returned to his hometown Seattle Sounders to keep goal during the club's inaugural season. With 102 caps in his National Team career, Keller has seen it all and we asked him for some perspective as his Sounders get set for First Kick 2010 against the expansion Philadelphia Union this Thursday. Having spent your entire career overseas, what was your reaction to your first season in MLS?
KK: “My impression was a little bit warped from the sheer fact of the huge deal that the Sounders are to the city. We were happy to be able to reward the fans with a very good season and winning the U.S. Open Cup. Equally as important, we established ourselves as a professional organization on par with the Mariners and the Seahawks. We are not competing with them, but to be on equal footing with those two franchises is something we are very proud of.” And your impressions of the quality of the competition?
KK: “MLS is set up to be a competitive league. Everybody has the same salary cap, and you can’t really go out and spend money to make huge improvements to your team. I think the league is truly moving in the right direction. You have the recent successes in Toronto and Seattle. I’m really excited to see new stadium in New York and what that will do for the franchise. The Galaxy are a steady team and have a great facility at The Home Depot Center along with Chivas USA. Sure, some situations could improve, but that’s the same in every league. For every Manchester United, you have a Wigan Athletic. For the most part, the league is turning a corner, and adding Vancouver and Portland only continues to get us around that bend.” As the league heads into the 15th season, where do you see the real competitions taking place on the field?
KK: “That’s the crazy thing about MLS: you can’t make that judgment before the season starts. You can’t know who will be healthy, or point to a lot of major signings that will drastically alter a team. There aren’t situations like at Manchester City or a Real Madrid going out and spending 100 million dollars on new players. It doesn’t exist. In our league, you have to see how things shake out as the season progresses, and that makes it interesting. You throw in the excitement of the new team in Philadelphia, and wonder ‘can they be competitive? How much will the city embrace them?’ The bottom line is, it is extremely hard to predict who will be in the mix come playoff time.” Given that uncertainty going in, at what point in the year can you start to get a sense of which teams are going to be in the hunt?
KK: “About midseason is when things start to shake out. Because of the playoff system, any team can get in form late in the season, slide in and win the thing. Real Salt Lake proved that you have to find the form at the right time. Having said that, points are just as important in the beginning of the season as they are at the end. You want to guarantee yourself getting into playoffs, and then focus on things like winning the Supporter’s Shield, keeping yourself going and being healthy for the playoffs.” With 16 teams in the league, playoff spots increasingly at a premium, and much more focus on the sport, is the pressure starting to increase on teams to perform?
KK: “For us, as a starting point we are going to have 36,000 fans at every game. We experience a pressure, level of expectation, and level of criticism that hasn’t been matched in club football in America. When you don’t perform here, it’s the subject of talk radio and fan forums, just like the NFL or baseball. I like having these guys start to feel what the European pressure or World Cup pressure is like. It’s a big part of elevating the level of the competition that we need as a sport. When in the Olympics they talk about American athletes rising to the occasions, it’s because of that pressure and the feeling of wanting to succeed. In Europe in soccer, it’s promotion and relegation. If I had a bad game over there, I didn’t want to go to the grocery store. Now here in Seattle, if I go to Starbucks people will know I had a bad game. That’s actually a cool pressure to be under.”