A Big Net Plus
06/08/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Kasey Keller is rich, admired and at the top of his profession, and he may owe it all to chickens. As a kid seated at the end of a conveyor belt in the processing house of his family's Olympia, Wash., poultry farm, Keller nimbly sorted the daily ample output of 25,000 layers, taking care not to crack the shells. "It was nonstop," he says. "Eggs would just keep coming at you." Today, Keller, 28 and first-string goalkeeper for the U.S. national soccer team, relies on the same quickness and great hands to stop a seemingly endless barrage of soccer balls—skills the underdog American squad will need when the month-long World Cup Finals begin in France on June 10. But Keller proved four months ago, when the U.S. upset perennial power Brazil, 1-0, that the fate of his team can literally be in his hands. Stymied, Brazilian striker Romario called Keller's stonewalling "the greatest performance I have ever seen in a goalkeeper."
As an American playing a non-American sport, Keller has had to work exceptionally hard for years to earn that sort of professional respect. A teen prodigy—he was a member of the under-20 national team from the age of 15—Keller was cocky when he arrived at the University of Portland in 1988. "The first year, everybody on campus thought he was big-headed," said Clive Charles, a onetime British professional who is an assistant coach of the U.S. team and was Keller's college coach. But as a senior, Keller had mellowed, and the swagger was replaced by a quiet confidence.
That approach served him well when he began playing professionally in Britain in 1991. "Imagine an English basketball player trying to come here and play in the NBA," says Charles. "He had to keep his mouth shut and just play, and he did that." Keller—who currently has a reported $750,000, three-year contract with Leicester City in the Premier League—has gained admiration and improved his stock while retaining much of his farmboy mien. "To be consistent on the field, you need to be consistent off the field," he says. "I have a lifestyle routine."
Much of his personal routine revolves around wife Kristin, 28, the girl-next-door he has been friends with since the first grade, and their 10-month-old twins, Cameron and Chloe. "He's a big kid himself," says Kristin of Keller. "He loves to tickle them and suck on their noses." Though Kristin says she drinks tea "once in a while," and Keller tends a rose garden at the family's English countryside home, both make it a point to remain Yankees. Keller has friends bring Starbucks coffee from the U.S., erected a basketball hoop at his home and is in the habit of wearing a baseball cap. "We're about as American as you can be in England," Keller says. "But we don't stick out too much."
Growing up on his parents' 15-acre spread, Keller impressed people with his drive. "He has given himself a tremendous work ethic," says his mother, Deter, 50, who is divorced from Keller's father, Bernie, 58, and remarried to Rob Walker, age 37, one of Kasey's former coaches. When he wasn't taking care of eggs, baling hay or mixing it up with sister Kandi, 31 and an X-ray technician, Keller was playing soccer. "He missed a lot of dances and social life in high school," says Deter. "But it's what he wanted to do."
It wasn't a choice that his father, a former draft pick of the New York Yankees, warmed to. "I was afraid he'd have a major setback or be disappointed and not be able to make ends meet," says Bernie. But after seeing his son play in England in 1994 and witnessing emphatic fan approval, Bernie's mind was put at ease. "When he made a great save," recalls Bernie, "they'd chant, 'U-S-A! U-S-A!' "
The American soccer faithful are hoping that will be the mantra at the World Cup, and they know Keller is one player who could spark a breakthrough. "Kasey plays his best soccer in the biggest games," says head coach Steve Sampson. Keller isn't worried. He notes that, when all is said and done, his job description is a simple one: "What I need to do, basically, is keep the ball from going into the back of the net."
Kurt Pitzer in San Diego