Ahead of home finale, Keller set to bow out on own terms

TUKWILA, Wash. — More than 62,000 fans will be in attendance at CenturyLink Field on Saturday for the final regular-season home game of Kasey Keller’s 23-year professional career. That seems only right.

The iconic goalkeeper will be the man of the hour when he is honored after the Seattle Sounders match against the San Jose Earthquakes (10:30 pm ET, FOX Soccer) in what’s sure to be a stirring and well-deserved tribute by his hometown crowd.

Long before Keller came to MLS to play for a reborn version of the NASL team he watched as a youth growing up in nearby Olympia, Wash., he was an American soccer icon. Long before there was a viable first division in his home country, Keller was out there reminding people that Americans could perform on the biggest stages.

Keller became the first American to earn a British work permit to play soccer when he signed with Millwall in 1992 and spent 17 seasons playing in some of Europe’s top leagues.

Among his more notable stops were stints with Tottenham and Fulham of the EPL, Rayo Vallecano of Spain’s La Liga and Borussia Mönchengladbach of Germany’s Bundesliga. He parlayed his success at the club level into a record 102 caps with the United States national team that included spots on four World Cup rosters, 53 wins and 47 shutouts.

When he was the second player ever signed by Sounders FC in August of 2008, he was still playing at a top level. That he has maintained that level through all of his three seasons in MLS is part of the reason he is choosing to retire now.

“I’ve accomplished what I want to accomplish and I can go out on my terms,” Keller said at training on Thursday, noting he will be turning 42 next month. “At some stage, it’s all going to come to an end and come to an end very rapidly.

“I don’t want that to happen in the middle of a season. I don’t want to not be able to train, not be able to play, not be able to perform at the level I’m used to, that you’re used to, that the team and the fans are used to and just be stumbling around there because of my name.”

Keller is in the midst of what might be his best MLS season. He is among the league leaders in virtually every statistical area for goalkeepers: goals against average (fourth, 1.09), save percentage (second, 75.6), saves (fourth, 102), wins (first, 16), winning percentage (third, .641) and shutouts (third, with nine). No other goalkeeper is in the top five of as many categories. He has also played in every minute of every MLS game this season and has only missed one game in his MLS career.

“I think it’s a tribute to his determination, his own ego to do well,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid said at training on Wednesday. “ I think all great players are driven by ego, although sometimes they don’t like to maybe hear that word. His determination to do well is there.

“I was watching him today warming up and I said to one of the assistants, ‘Can you imagine doing that for 25 years?’ Falling over like that for 25 years and getting up again and doing it every day and saying, ‘This is fun.’ To me, that’s absolutely amazing and I think it’s been great what he’s done.”

On Saturday, the Sounders and their fans will show just how much they appreciate it. The team is planning a postgame ceremony in his honor and will be handing out 40,000 Kasey Keller captain armbands.

Much to Keller’s relief, the game is relatively meaningless to the standings. The Sounders are all but locked into the No. 2 seed in the West with two games remaining, making for a much more relaxed atmosphere.

“We don’t need to win this game,” said Keller, noting the oddity that he could play in as many as two more home games, in the Western conference semifinals and the conference championship. “It would be a little tricky if we had all this stuff going on and we needed to win these two games to get into the playoffs and you had all this stuff distracting you.

“I think you know that I’m doing my best to let all this stuff do its thing. It’s the way I’ve played the game. I’ve never been a part of something like this. It’s an honor and I’m just proud that the club feels that I deserve this kind of attention.”