The U.S. Men's National Soccer Team heads to Germany this week for the 2006 World Cup to compete with 31 other nations for the sport's ultimate prize. This will be the first time in four World Cup appearances that goalkeeper Kasey Keller is the undisputed starter for the U.S. men.
Off the field, Kasey Keller's conservative appearance and wire-framed glasses make him look more like a mild-mannered accountant than one of the world's top netminders. But on game day, Keller's intense glare is filtered through a pair of contact lenses and his attitude is all business.
The 1.88-meter-tall goalie is known for his uncanny shot-stopping ability and talent for making big saves. That, combined with a calming leadership presence, makes Keller what U.S. head coach Bruce Arena calls a "top-class goalkeeper."
"Not only does he do what his primary job is, to stop shots, but the comfort level for the team is much greater when Kasey is on the field. And I think as you trace Kasey's history with the U.S. team we have been successful a high percentage of the time when he is in the goal, and he's a winner as well, so he brings a lot to the table," Arena said.
Coach Arena also praises Keller's work ethic.
"I am amazed because there are days, obviously, when you don't feel like going to work, and it seems like Kasey every day is into it. That is really outstanding for a guy his age and his experience that he brings it to the field every day," he said.
U.S. goalkeeper coach Phil Wheddon agrees, and says the 36-year-old Keller's composure beneath the crossbar sets him apart from other goalies.
"Kasey just makes good decisions on the field and that really distinguishes him as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. I don't think that he ever really changes his mood during a game. He is very calm at all times, whether he is under pressure, or whether he is not under pressure. The other thing that builds confidence within the team is his leadership. He has tremendous leadership. The fact that he commands the box both physically and verbally," he said.
Keller's leadership and disciplined work ethic have made him the backbone of the U.S. national team.
He is the all-time leader for U.S. goalkeepers with an amazing record of 51 wins and 45 shutouts in 93 international appearances. He is the first-ever three-time recipient of U.S. Soccer's Male Athlete of the Year award, winning the honor in 1997, 1999 and 2005.
Keller helped lead the U.S. team to two regional CONCACAF Gold Cup championships in 2002 and 2005, and the semifinals in 2003.
Wheddon says Keller is a big reason the U.S. will be playing in its fifth straight World Cup.
"Every goalkeeper at this level can save shots. Everyone can make saves, everyone can do the simple things, but the mark of a great goalkeeper is coming up with the big save when it is needed, and Kasey does that time and time again. And if it was not for Kasey Keller, I am sure we would be in a little bit more of a tricky situation right now," he said.
Keller has spent his 16-year club career in England, Spain and Germany, playing in three of Europe's top leagues. He currently is the starter for Borussia Monchengladbach in the German Bundesliga, so he will be familiar with the World Cup stadiums.
Despite all his success, Keller spent all but two games of three previous trips to the World Cup on the bench.
For 10 years he dueled with Brad Friedel for the starting job on the U.S. team. It was not until Friedel retired last year that Arena elevated Keller as his undisputed number one goalkeeper.
At the age of 36, Keller is the oldest player on the 23-man U.S. roster. He says he does not feel the need to impress anyone, and enjoys his role as a team leader.
"At my age and my experience, it is a role that [coach] Bruce [Arena] expects out of me," he said.
Wheddon also appreciates Keller's experience and skills.
"I think now that he is at the top of his game, I have said before, he is like fine wine, he seems to get better with age instead of losing a step as many older players do," he said.
Keller says having the 2006 World Cup in Germany is very comforting. In fact he lives only about an hour's drive from where the United States plays its opening match June 12 in Gelsenkirdhen against the Czech Republic.
Keller and his family live in a rented 1,000-year-old castle outside the German city of Duesseldorf, complete with a moat and a luxury spa. Keller says it is just a small castle built in the year 970.
"My wife found it online. It is just a great experience and the kids are really enjoying it, and it is out in the country, which kind of takes me back to my roots," he said.
Keller's roots are in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. He grew up on an egg farm in the state of Washington outside the city of Olympia.
He says the variety of sports he played growing up in America helped him develop as an all-around athlete.
"There is no question if you look at American sports everything you do growing up - either your are playing basketball, baseball, football - that most of our sports are with the hands. There is a lot to that, why we create such good athletes is because of the multiple sport facet that we have in this country. It creates total athletes as opposed to just one person who is good at one thing," he said.
Keller has asked his fans from home and Europe to give him a shout and a wave from the stands at the World Cup. He says chants and cheers from the fans really mean a lot when you are facing the best in the world.