New York suddenly bullish on fill-in defender Keel

Stephen Keel, New York Red Bulls

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UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – During the Red Bulls’ preseason training last winter, most New York fans didn’t know much about Stephen Keel outside of a quick Google search.

Seven months later, the former trialist is a fan favorite and making a serious statement for inclusion in the Starting XI.

Keel was at the center of the defense in the Red Bulls’ 1-0 road win over FC Dallas and their 2-0 triumph against Portland at Red Bull Arena last weekend. Even though he hadn’t played before that since Aug. 6, Keel has been praised by head coach Hans Backe and his teammates for his dedication in training and his attention to fitness.

“I do think I take pride in working here in training, and these sessions are really good for staying in shape and staying sharp, not just physically but mentally,” Keel told MLSsoccer.com. “I just want to be ready when called upon, always ready, because you never know when you’ll be called upon in this league.”

Keel was a starter for Portland when they were in the second division last year, but when the club moved to MLS, they decided to look for other options at the center of their defense. That came as a stunner to Red Bulls assistant coach Mike Petke, who was teammates with Keel in 2005 when both were with Colorado.

“I was very surprised to learn that he wasn’t brought into [the Timbers] preseason, very surprised,” Petke said. “I keep looking at him as a rookie, but he’s not. A lot of guys look up to him. They look up to the Rafas and Thierrys, but they look up at him as someone who has stuck around, been in this league and keeps working hard.”

Keel has impressed with his stay-at-home defense and willingness to bring a physical presence to a backline that has relied on finesse and positioning more often than muscle.

After the Red Bulls were booed off their home field in the wake of a sloppy 3-1 loss to Real Salt Lake, Keel was inserted into the lineup for Saturday night's match with Portland. He replaced the suspended Rafa Márquez, and though he lacks the Mexican captain's international experience, the backline stayed compact and tight throughout.

“He has done well every time, even not playing," Backe said. "His attitude in training is fantastic. Always 100 percent in everything; he is hard working. He’s a quiet guy but always working hard, dedicated to being sharp. I’m very happy for him.”

Keel is equally happy with the way things have worked out so far this season, helping the Red Bulls as they inch their way toward a postseason berth.

“I just wanted to come here and do anything I could to help New York succeed,” Keel said. “If that is playing or being on the bench, I just want us to win. That’s the mentality I try to bring every day, to just get better.”