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Talk to someone from Chicago and ask them what they know about Seattle. You'll most likely hear the same answers — "Space Needle, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, coffee, lots and lots of rain."

The answers are the same in L.A., Dallas, Miami — the general perception of the Emerald City throughout the United States is that it's wet and cold, which we compensate for by drinking lots of nonfat, no-whip lattes.

Ask the same question in London, however, and you're likely to hear this: "Seattle? Isn't that where Kasey Keller is from?"

It's rare that a celebrity can become more famous in a foreign country than in his own hometown, but in the case of Keller — a native of Lacey, it should be noted, not exactly Seattle — it's almost certainly true.

"I was shocked at how many times I'd be walking down a crowded London street with my hat and glasses on and my head down and somebody would shout out, ‘Hey, Kase!'" he says. "And I'd think, ‘Wow, I wouldn't even have recognized my cousin if he had walked by looking like that.'"

Maybe they recognized Keller from the 10-story-tall billboards featuring his likeness that covered the sides of various London buildings. Or maybe it was from the weekly highlight packages on Sky Sports, where his acrobatic saves for Tottenham Hotspur, Fulham, Millwall and Leicester City made him a international superstar.

The former Washington Youth Soccer star and North Thurston High School alum played in Europe for 16 seasons from 1992-2008, including 12 years in England and two each in Germany and Spain. Name a "first" for American keepers, and Keller is likely the answer:

  • First American keeper to play in both the English Premier League and the German Bundesliga? Keller.
  • First American keeper to captain a top-flight German club? Keller.
  • First American keeper named to four World Cup rosters? Keller.
  • First male player ever to win three U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year awards? Keller.

Oh, and while official data doesn't exist, there's a good chance he's also the first American keeper to ever have an indie song written in his honor — the pop band Barcelona penned "Kasey Keller" after being floored by the Washington native's performance in the U.S.' stunning 1-0 victory over Brazil in 1998.

It's almost certain that no American soccer player has seen as much of the world's game — from Washington state, to the old USL, to the Premiership, Bundesliga, World Cup and beyond — as our very own hometown hero.

This year, Keller was able to return home to lead his "home" city into the forefront of the American soccer consciousness, helping Seattle Sounders FC dominate the league in attendance (Sounders' average attendance of 30,412 fans is more than 10,000 more than MLS' next-highest team) while capturing the prestigious U.S. Open Cup — an unheard-of accomplishment for a first-year expansion franchise. The team's success has come largely on the strength of its backline and the performance of its stellar netminder, who have combined to allow the second-fewest goals in the league.

So does that mean that he can't walk anonymously through the streets of Pioneer Square? We discussed the question during a recent exclusive, extended interview in which the Emerald City icon shared stories from his legendary career, and gave some candid insights to today's game in Washington, the U.S. and abroad.

E-PlayOn!: How different is your celebrity status in the U.S. versus what you experience abroad?

Keller: "I don't know — there's always somebody bigger floating around. I had what I would call the perfect amount of celebrity. Dinner reservations weren't a problem. You'd have to sign a few autographs, but not like any kind of issues. Germany was a little funny at certain times. Monchengladbach was such a big club, and I had a pretty big cult status. There were a few strange things, definitely a little bit weird."

Like what?

"Monchengladbach was crazy — I had a super-cult status. Oliver Newville told me a story one time about how he was in a bar and a Monchengladbach fan stops him and says, ‘Ollie, I want to show you something.' He rolls up his sleeve, and he has my signature tattooed on his arm. That was pretty funny — just some 45-year-old truck driver I've never met."

How much of that do you get here in Seattle, as opposed to other places you've played?

"Actually, right now, it's right up there. I don't think it's all me. I mean, I think the team's popularity right now plays a big part in that. Sure, I'm obviously a bit different than most of the other guys on the team because I was pretty well known before. But, to truly be recognized — and I'm mostly with my glasses and a hat on — someone truly has to know and follow the game."

Have you been surprised at all by the enthusiastic response of the public and media to the Sounders?

"Truthfully, that's probably made this transition that much easier. I had a pretty good feeling when KING-5 and a lot of the big media players started getting involved. The key to truly having the game be successful is being seen all the time. What I've been impressed with is that there are still 5-10 reporters out at practice every day. It's like anything – you have to have the energy and involvement in the city and in the stadium. Then when people see that, that just draws the interest from everywhere else, because they see that obviously people care."

What do you think are some of the reasons for that enthusiasm?

"Well, one thing is that I think people are realizing that it's 90 minutes long. If you're used to going to baseball games or football games, you realize that, ‘Hey, I can actually go do something during the day, go to the game, and still come home and go to bed at a decent hour.' You also know when it's going to be over – you don't have to worry about going to overtime, or lots of breaks for timeouts, or anything like that. I took my kids to the first Seahawks game, and when the halftime whistle blew, they were like, ‘Well, that was a fun game.' They thought the game was over, and that when the quarter had switched, that THAT had been halftime. It's just a different mindset."

Talk about the sequence of events that led to you signing with Seattle. Was it something you knew you wanted to do right away?

"I was here in the off-season [summer of 2007] and actually contemplating retiring. I was doing some stuff around here and Adrian [Hanauer] called me and asked me to come meet with him. He said that they were going to get a team and wanted to talk to me about the possibility of playing. At that point, I had to think about what I was going to do. Remember, that was still a year and a half ago, so I had to decide, ‘Am I really going to retire for a year and a half and then come back?' So, I didn't really know what I was going to do."

"I was back in Germany and my wife and I were packing up the house and planning to go back to our house in Idaho and have what we called, ‘A year's vacation with school,' and just kind of see what happened and how we liked it. The on a Saturday in, I think, the second game of the Premier League season, Brian McBride hurt his knee. I called him on Sunday just to see how he was doing and we talked for a half an hour or so. At one point, I mentioned how Fulham had just been giving up some bad goals, and he said, ‘So, would you be interested in coming?' It was totally out of the blue. I said, ‘Boy, I don't know.' He said he'd talk to some people and see what he could find out. The first guys he runs into after hanging up the phone is the goalkeeping coach, who mentions how guys are injured, the goalkeeping has been terrible, and so forth. Brian says, ‘Funny you should mention that …' Maybe an hour later the goalkeeping coach calls me, an hour after that the manager calls me and maybe two hours after that I have an offer from the Chief Executive. I flew over and had a medical two days later and played two days later after that."

"Unfortunately I was injured and spent half of my time rehabbing, then came back for the end of the season. At that point it was the same thing again, looking at a bunch of different offers – stay at Fulham, maybe go back to Tottenham or go to Germany. At the same time I was still talking to Seattle and finally we just sat down and got the deal done. I was still a little bit nervous because it was a situation where I was signing in August but then waiting until January to start training. But in the end, it was probably the best thing that ever happened. It really gave me the chance to recharge the batteries and want to do something. I had never had time off before – the biggest time that I had ever had before that was the four months during the previous season when I hurt my shoulder – but even that wasn't like I was just doing my own thing. This was different because while I was doing some marketing things for the club, I was really just able to rest and get ready."

What was that first game with the Sounders like?

"Well, that's interesting because one of the questions I considered during the summer of 2008, when I was looking at those other offers, was, ‘Should I stay in Europe one more season and then join the Sounders in July?' But that didn't feel right, because then I'd be coming in fatigued and tired, and in the middle of the season. And of course Joe [Roth, Sounders' majority owner] and Adrian, especially Joe, really felt that it was important that I be there from the first day of training. I didn't know quite what to expect. My wife and I were at home afterwards, though, and the kids had gone to bed, and she said, ‘You definitely made the right choice.' To have missed that first game just wouldn't have felt right. And then the best part about it is that nothing has dropped since. We've never been playing a game and only had half a crowd there or whatever. Instead, it's been a sweet buzz. It's been cool. It's been fun."

How has the reality of MLS compared to your expectations?

"The reality is skewed because we're here half the time. Our reality is totally different from somebody in Kansas City's reality, or someone in New York's. I was talking to Juan Pablo Angel after our game in New York earlier this year and he said that the field in New York has taken at least 2-3 years off of his career. His production is down this year because he's so beat up from having to play there the last few years. I mean, I played there one day and trained there one day, and I never could have come home and played on that. First of all, I would not have enjoyed it, and second of all, that would have definitely affected my body."

"The other hard part is that what happens is that some of these teams have soccer-specific stadiums, but they've built them out in the middle of nowhere and no one comes. Imagine if they had built a nice, little 20,000-seat stadium for the Sounders out in, say, Puyallup. It's just not the same, and unfortunately that's what some of these cities have done. Sure, they're nice stadiums, but you've put your product well out of the spotlight, and you're going to have a harder time getting people to drive out there. I think they were thinking about cheap land, about doing things under a certain budget, but if you lose five-, six-, seven thousand fans because you put your product out in the middle of nowhere? It just doesn't make sense."

How much of a difference has the Sounders' relationship with the Seahawks made?

"The biggest benefit that this team has is the Seahawks. I know they understand that, but having seen the way soccer has been marketed in this country for a long time, it's miles apart from what the NFL does. Granted, I don't think an MLS team could necessarily afford to have the kind of staff that has sort of fallen into place for the Sounders. I mean, Gary Wright is a tremendous individual and another huge reason that this team is so successful on and off the field."

If you were the U.S. Soccer boss for a day, what would you do to get the National Team program where it needs to be?

"Oh, it would take me a lot longer than one day. There are so many issues. The first thing I would do is dismantle Bradenton. Then I would start to get a lot more people involved who have actually played the game. I mean, I'm all for having coaches, but there are a lot of things a player needs to learn to be a pro that only someone who has played at that level can convey. We have so many guys over in Europe who do well enough to get a contract, but have no idea what to do when they get over there. Nobody's kissing [up to them], nobody's letting them play one game out of every five, go through the motions … it doesn't work that way, guys. That's been the biggest problem we've had, is developing players past that 18-, 20-year age, because we just don't have enough experienced pros who can show them exactly what it takes to be successful at that level. If you never played, you don't really know."

So who taught you those things?

"The smartest decision I ever made was going to the University of Portland to be with Clive Charles. Clive didn't teach me one thing about being a goalkeeper, but he taught me everything about being a pro. So when I went to Europe, I was ready to be a pro."

So how do you fix that in terms of the U.S. Soccer program?

"A majority of our players right now are not playing for their teams in Europe. Take Freddy Adu — at some stage, he's got to play more pro games than caps. I told Bob [Bradley, U.S. Soccer Men's National Team head coach], "He never plays anywhere, but you keep calling him in.' At some point you just have to say to the kid, ‘Get somewhere and play.' Jozy [Altidore] is another good one. He signs a big contract in Spain last year and then goes there and he doesn't play, so he goes out on loan, and he doesn't play. What I've tried to say to these guys is that sometimes, the best chance you have of playing is to work harder than everybody else. They don't understand that. They just don't understand what that means. It's like, ‘What do you mean? I was at Bradenton, everybody told me how great I was.' They just don't get it."

But doesn't the market dictate where these guys end up going to play?

"Well, the problem with these [European] teams are, they're buying a guy at 19 because they see something for four or five million where if they had bought him at 15, he'd be worth 15 million. The hard part is that what we're going to find is that if we're not careful, the more guys they're buying who turn out to not be worth anything, they're going to stop buying any more. That's what I'm really worried about. Then you'll have some MLS guys who should go over, but won't have the opportunity."

How does a kid from Lacey, Wash., in the 1970s wind up playing soccer?

"It wasn't my first choice – it was just what I did along with everything else, football, basketball, baseball and so forth. I stopped playing baseball probably in eighth grade. After my freshman year I stopped playing football because I broke a few fingers and a few things and missed some big soccer tryouts that almost hurt me. Then, my sophomore year, I was on the Youth National Team and left for a few weeks in the middle of the year to go to a tournament in Russia and the basketball coach got all ticked off at that. So, the following year I had to leave for a weekend to go to St. Louis for a National Team camp, and he basically told me that if I went, I couldn't be on the basketball team. Let's see, Youth National Team or high school basketball? And I mean, John Stockton had already cornered the market for 6-foot-1 white guys in the pros, so my options were pretty slim. I enjoyed playing basketball, but that's it. My senior year, I missed 87 days out of 180 traveling with the Youth National Team. I was there three days the first quarter, so that would have been tough in football season."

Where did your love for the game and your obviously elite goalkeeping skills develop from? I mean, in the 1970s there weren't a ton of "A"-licensed coaches in the U.S. that there are today.

"The love for the game had to come from playing. Back then, it wasn't like you grew up watching anything. I just enjoyed playing a lot. A couple of people – Rob Walker, my goalkeeping coach. He was a big reason why I had the success that I did at that age. He was probably one of the top technical goalkeeping coaches around, which makes a big difference. Pete Cornell had part of that as well. Pete wasn't necessarily a great coach, but Pete was a great manager. The way he ran things and tried to do things, even at a youth level … he was ahead of his time in the way he did things. And then obviously Clive Charles, once I got to UP. The reason I am still playing today is because of Clive."

Were there any other local coaches or individuals who made a big difference in your development?

"There were a few people. When I was getting ready to go over [to Europe], there were people making phone calls on my behalf. And the first person to sign me, at Millwall, was Bruce Rioch, who played for the old Sounders and coached the Seattle Storm in the WSL. Now, I was too young at the time, but when Stuart Lee or Tony Waiters or someone calls over to Europe and says, ‘Look there's this kid here,' and Bruce Rioch says, ‘Well, I coached over there and I know that there's decent players,' it makes an impression. So, beyond Clive, it was Stuart, it was Bobby Howe, it was Tony Waiters who kind of made those inquiries that opened up those doors with Clive."

When you look back on your career up to this point, is there anything you'd change?

"You know, I've had the chance to see the game in three countries, which really adds a lot of perspective. The only hard part for me – and it's not hard, really – was that I never got a chance to play for one of the really elite teams. [Brad] Friedel got a chance to play for Liverpool, and Tim [Howard] got a chance to go to Man U. I always felt like I was close many, many times, and it just never quite worked out. That was the one thing that I was always a little disappointed at, was that I never got that chance with that size of team."

Why do you think that is?

"Oh, I don't know. There are probably a few different things. At different times, it was age. There was also some element to being the first American. I never was probably as good with my feet as I should have been, which with some of the bigger teams who play the ball back a bit more, maybe that had something to do with it. Not having a European passport definitely was part of it."

"And I messed up — I could have gotten my European passport before I went to Spain. But being the first [American], nobody knew exactly how the rules worked out. I had my permanent residency in England, which you could get at four years. What I was told was that I could get my British passport after five more years. What it turned out was that I could get my British passport after five years, not five MORE years. So if I had stayed just one more year, I could have gotten my passport. But once you leave, you have to start all over again. You keep your permanent residency for two years, though, so that's why when I left Spain and left Germany, I kept going back to England, because I was able to play off of my permanent residency visa and not count as a foreigner. So I could be on equal footing."

Did you feel a bit like a pioneer at the time, being one of the first Americans to wade through the European waters, figuring out all of this stuff as you went along?

"Not necessarily when I first got over there; I didn't really realize it. My first year, everything was, ‘What's an American doing over here?' and second, ‘What's an American doing over here playing so well?" That basically preceded every interview I had for a year. It was nice when that went away. I remember I had a conversation with a guy one time, around the time a lot of foreign players were coming into the league. He asked me if I thought it was going to be a problem with all the foreign players coming into England and I was like, ‘Well, I AM one of those foreigners.' He said, ‘Ah, you don't count.' I took that to mean that I had earned a level of acceptance, and that was nice. It was good to get past being ‘The American,' and instead to just be Kasey Keller."

"It's like anything – if you play well, you're liked. I try to explain that to guys all the time when they complain that the guys, or the coaches or fans or whatever don't like them. I say, ‘First of all, show up to training every day. Go 100-percent in training every day, and take your time. Then, when your time comes, take advantage of it. But if you can't do that, then don't start blaming other things for the reason that you're not liked."

Thanks, Kasey, we really appreciate your time.

"No problem – thank you guys. I know we all really appreciate the support that we've gotten from the whole community."

Don't forget, there's just one more chance to see Kasey Keller and Sounders FC at home before the end of the regular season! Buy tickets today or read more about the Sounders at www.soundersfc.com.

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