Kasey Keller

Former Player Remembers: Kasey Keller, Part One

Earlier this season, Kasey Keller, in the first of a two-part interview, spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his soccer journey, which took him from being a youngster growing up in the United States to playing in the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga, the MSL, the final stages of the World Cup and being inducted into the USA Hall of Fame.
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Kasey began by challenging some misconceptions about soccer in the USA.

“People outside the USA often don’t understand how much youth participation in soccer there was when I was young. There is a thought that soccer in the USA was for a niche group. That may have been true 10 or 15 years earlier but like so many kids of my generation, both boys and girls, we all played. This was particularly true of the North West, where it really was a normal thing for everybody to play.

“My father was a good sportsman. He played baseball at university and was drafted to play professionally but he never took this up. I grew up always playing sports. When I was about six or seven I saw kids playing soccer. It looked fun and asked my mom to find me a team. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I still played baseball, basketball and American football until I was about 15 or 16, but when I started to make the youth national teams for soccer, it became really difficult for me to play the other sports."

Asked why he became a goalkeeper, Kasey laughed: “Oh, I was just stupid I guess! I can’t think of any other reason why anybody would choose to be a goalkeeper! As kids we took turns in different positions and when I took my turn in goal I was good at it. When you are good at something you enjoy it a bit more. When I was about 14 or 15 I stopped taking time in the field and focused solely on being a goalkeeper.

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Kasey Keller
Kasey Keller

Kasey Keller moved to Millwall in 1992 - his first club in England.

 “I went on to play college football at the University of Portland. I played under Clive Charles, the former West Ham left-back who had been an England youth international. He had played in the old NASL (North American Soccer League) and when it folded, like so many other former pros, he was truly ingrained in American culture and found coaching jobs to stay in the game. When I decided to focus on soccer, I really wanted to play for somebody who could help me achieve my goal of being a pro in Europe. Who better than somebody who’d had that success and knew about it better than anyone? Playing for Clive at Portland was really one of the best decisions I could ever have made.

“Even then I had the ambition to play in Europe. It wasn’t until later life that I realised that there was a confidence and arrogance that came with that ambition. My dad was a typical American who didn’t know much about soccer and had never really travelled out of the country so here was I telling him I was going to give up other sports and that my goal was to play in England. I hadn’t realised that there had never been an American on an American passport who had played in England. John Harkes was ahead of me, but he had a British passport. As a 16-year-old, I didn’t realise that if I was going to fulfil this dream, I would have to be the first player to do it.

“I think to achieve anything, you have to have that confidence in yourself that you can do it. When I talk to kids today about pursuing their goals, I say ‘You have think you are capable of fulfilling your dream, but always think in the back of your mind that you need to prepare just in case the dream doesn’t happen and you have to follow a different route’."

Thinking back to his university days, Kasey continued: “I have a degree in sociology. I don’t use it very often but I do have the certificate and they can’t take it away from me! At the time there was a reincarnation of Portland Timbers. Post-NASL, there were all kinds of different leagues and franchises popping up. Portland Timbers were reincarnated and while they were semi-pro, I was able to play for them when I was at university. However the year after that, they went fully professional and I then couldn’t play for them because I would have lost my university eligibility."

There was a kind of a slow progression of players coming in, but Martin O'Neill had a plan and it obviously worked out extremely well. We were the pundits’ pick to be relegated by Christmas in that first season back in the Premier League but we finished in ninth place and won the League Cup.

Kasey Keller LCFC.com

It was at this time that Kasey was appearing in the US Under-20 national team, which finished fourth in the 1989 FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia.

Reflecting on the start of his international career, Kasey remembered: “I won the Silver Ball for the tournament’s second best player. The following year I was part of the squad for the 1990 World Cup Finals. Looking back it was exactly what you would have expected from a team which hadn’t qualified for 40 years. With the NASL folding, we had guys who were coming out of university. There weren’t many who were playing in real professional environments. It was a good starting point though. For me, going there as a young player, and getting that experience was kind of romantic. I’d seen the World Cup as a kid, seeing videos of the 1982 finals and being able to watch the 1986 finals in Mexico.

“Going to the 1990 Finals I was thinking it was something more than it actually was. I thought, ‘Okay this is the World Cup. There will be a few games then it’s all going to go away. There has to be something more than that’."

Kasey experienced this professional environment when he signed for Millwall in February 1992.

“When I signed for Millwall, I got to understand the difference between the experience of playing in a tournament and playing week in, week out in a professional environment. Maybe this was a little bit in a reverse order because most people would have probably had the day-to-day experience before they had the chance to experience a World Cup."

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Kasey Keller
Kasey Keller

The former Leicester City stopper is capped 102 times for the USA.

Moving to Millwall was a culture shock for Kasey but it was a very positive experience, as he recalled.

“I had a Scottish professor at university and I remember telling him that I was heading over to England for a trial. When I told him it was at Millwall, I remember the look on his face and him saying, ‘They kill people there you know!’, but truly I couldn’t have had a better personal experience or a better platform for my career that the one I got at Millwall. I played 202 games for them in four seasons. I’d just turned 22 when I got the trial and it was wonderful to get that kind of platform as an American kid to come over and start my career. So much about goalkeeping is experience. To be able to play in so many games and experience so many different scenarios at a young age meant that I couldn’t have asked for a better start."

Kasey remembers that in the first three months or so, the interviews he did always had a certain slant.

“The majority of interviews were always prefaced with, ‘First of all, what is an American doing here playing so well?," he said. "Whereas several years later, when I was asked questions there was no reference whatsoever to me being ‘The American’. I’d been fully accepted and I think that was when I was really proud of what I’d done. I was not just this oddity, but was being truly accepted as an equal."

While at the Den, Kasey, who was Millwall’s Player of the Year in 1992/93, remembers playing against Leicester City several times and vying for promotion to the Premier League with the Foxes in 1993/94.

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Kasey Keller, Emile Heskey and Steve Claridge
Kasey Keller, Emile Heskey and Steve Claridge

Kasey Keller, Emile Heskey and Steve Claridge pose for a commercial photoshoot.

“Leicester got promoted that year though the play-offs while we just missed out in those play-offs”, Kasey remembered. “Leicester stayed up for just one year, got relegated and then got promoted back to the Premier League in the play-offs next time around in 1996 and then stayed up for several years."

It was at this point, in August 1996, that Kasey joined Martin O’Neill’s newly promoted Leicester City.

“I think the fee was £700,000 initially and then another £200,000 after so many appearances,” Kasey said. "There’s a responsibility which comes with that. There were a lot of question marks when Leicester got promoted. It worked out perfectly well, but to start with there were not a lot of players coming in. I know Martin had brought Muzzy [Izzet] and Neil [Lennon] towards the end of the previous season. Spencer Prior and myself got signed a little bit later. Then Ian Marshall came in and Matty Elliott and Steve Guppy after that. There was a kind of a slow progression of players coming in, but Martin had a plan and it obviously worked out extremely well. We were the pundits’ pick to be relegated by Christmas in that first season back in the Premier League but we finished in ninth place and won the League Cup."

The 1997 League Cup Final at Wembley was against Bryan Robson’s Middlesbrough side, captained by Nigel Pearson and containing such stars as Ravanelli, Juninho and Emerson. Emile Heskey’s equalising goal two minutes from the end of extra time led to a replay at Hillsborough 10 days later when Steve Claridge’s goal three minutes before the end of extra-time secured Leicester City’s victory, 33 years after they had previously won the trophy.

I didn’t want to celebrate a League Cup win until I knew that we had secured our Premier League status in our first season back. It’s great fun to win a cup but not at the expense of being relegated. So it wasn’t really until a few weeks later that I celebrated, when we mathematically knew we were safe, even though we felt we would be because of our form.

Kasey Keller LCFC.com

“We never expected that at the start of the season,” Kasey continued. “It was a huge bonus. The honour of playing at Wembley didn’t escape me. I truly understood what an honour it was to be able to do that. Today, American kids can watch more live Premier League games than the English can. Growing up in America, I didn’t see many games back then. The only match you could see, once in a while, was the FA Cup Final, so I understood what playing there means to the English.

“I have good memories of the replay at Hillsborough as you do any time you win and keep a clean sheet. I wasn’t the busiest that night. I didn’t have a lot to do. Defensively, we played very well and then Claridge got the winning goal. Unfortunately for myself, it was a little bit of a muted celebration because I had to go to a hotel that night at Heathrow for a very early morning flight out to play for the national team in a World Cup qualifier. Also I didn’t want to celebrate a League Cup win until I knew that we had secured our Premier League status in our first season back. It’s great fun to win a cup but not at the expense of being relegated. So it wasn’t really until a few weeks later that I celebrated, when we mathematically knew we were safe, even though we felt we would be because of our form. How many times have you seen a good team in mid-table going into their last six or seven games and then get sucked into a relegation fight? I didn’t want to celebrate the achievement of winning the League Cup without achieving the main goal which was maintaining our Premier League status, and then we could take the League Cup win for the bonus it was. We made up for it later though, and made sure that we were super excited about what we’d been able to achieve."

Kasey concluded by talking more about his time at Filbert Street, why he left Leicester City and his experiences playing in La Liga, the Bundesliga and the MLS. He also spoke about his selection for four US squads for the FIFA World Cup Finals, his participation in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, his induction into the US Soccer Hall of Fame and his current career in the media.

Read part two of Kasey's interview on LCFC.com in the coming weeks.

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