Friday May 30th, 2008

Three weeks after helping rescue Fulham FC from the relegation abyss to stay up in the English Premier League, Kasey Keller has a decision to make. Should the 38-year-old American goalkeeper stay with Fulham, even if it means serving as a backup behind new signing Mark Schwarzer? Should Keller follow Brian McBride out the door and finish up his career in Major League Soccer -- specifically his hometown Seattle Sounders FC, which debuts in MLS next season?

Or is this the end of the road for the best shot-stopper in U.S. history?

"I'm basically sitting on an offer from Fulham, and I'm weighing my options," Keller told me from his home in London. "Do I want to go back into a fight with another goalkeeper and try to get some playing time? Am I happy just being a backup? Is coming home to MLS finally an option? Or is it time just to hang up the boots? Everything's being laid on the table."

Keller may be nearing 40, but if he decides to keep playing he can certainly contribute somewhere. He was in the nets as Fulham won four of its last five games in a miraculous run to stave off relegation to England's second tier next season. (Keller kept clean sheets in three of the four victories.)

Fulham's survival ranks near the top of his club-career achievements, Keller says, "right up there with the Cup finals with Leicester, just the drama of it and coming back from the grave. The team hadn't won in 34 [straight] away games. Then to win three in a row to keep the team up was pretty special. If I do decide to call it a day in Europe, it's a pretty fun way to go out."

The hard part for Keller has been explaining to American sports fans why anyone at Fulham should have been smiling after finishing 17th in the 20-team Premier League. (We'll take a quick moment for the non-soccer folks to explain: The Premiership, like most leagues outside the U.S., has promotion and relegation. The bottom three teams at the end of the season are relegated -- i.e., demoted -- to the league below, while three of the top teams from the second tier are promoted to the Premier League.)

Hundreds of millions of dollars in sponsorship and television money was at stake for the teams involved.

"From an American standpoint, if you said the Miami Dolphins are no longer in the NFL, they got relegated to -- I don't know, the Canadian league? Arena football? -- it just doesn't translate," Keller says. "Danielle Reyna [Claudio's wife] said something to my wife about how exciting the whole relegation thing makes it, and my wife said, 'Yeah, it's really exciting when you're not in it. When you're in it, it's the worst thing you could possibly be a part of.'"

In the end, Fulham squeaked out 17th place due to its slightly better goal differential (-22) than 18th-place Reading (-25), which also finished the season with 36 points. The only bummer for Keller was that Fulham's survival meant his pal Marcus Hahnemann, Reading's American keeper, will be playing in the English second tier next season.

"I would have preferred it to be Bolton," Keller says. "No offense to Bolton, but I don't have any good friends on Bolton's team."

Both Keller and Hahnemann hail from Washington State, the Cradle of Keepers in the U.S. (see also: Hope Solo), and Keller has known Seattle Sounders FC minority owners Adrian Hanauer and Drew Carey for years. The Sounders have gotten out of the gate well from a business standpoint, already attracting more than 16,000 season-ticket holders and a reported five-year, $20 million jersey sponsorship from Microsoft.

"There's definitely an interest [in Seattle]," says Keller, who grew up near Olympia. "The tricky part is it's May now, and Seattle doesn't start until January or February. If I re-sign here [at Fulham], then I'm unavailable for MLS until July 15 or whatever that transfer window is."

There are also financial considerations. With the U.S. dollar tanking against the British pound, even a modest contract offer in England (or elsewhere in Europe) would probably pay more than Keller could earn in MLS, where the salary cap encourages teams to sign cost-effective goalies. The highest-paid keeper in MLS right now is San Jose's Joe Cannon ($213,000), and it's unlikely that Seattle would use a Designated Player slot on a goalkeeper.

Whenever he does decide to retire, though, the straight-shooting Keller (who appears regularly on Sky Sports to talk soccer) would make a dynamite analyst on the tube. "I'd love to," he says. "It would be fun to give a little different perspective on things."

Before we get to this week's soccer Mailbag, let's make use of my new favorite toy, the SI Vault, and provide some soccer-reading goodness from the magazine's archives:

• In the days of optimism before the 1998 World Cup, Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen wrote a nice feature on Keller detailing the, uh, local color that came with starting his English career at notorious Millwall.

• We can't tell you how jazzed we are for the start of Euro 2008 -- for my money, the best soccer tournament in the world -- on June 7. But Austria and Switzerland will have a big challenge living up to the hosting job done by Portugal in '04. (Yes, Nelly Furtado's Força still gets regular play in the Wahl household.) Here's the story I wrote from Lisbon on Greece's stunning title.

• SI decided to cover the final week of Euro 2000 only a few days before the final, dispatching me from my vacation in France to Rotterdam, where the only available hotel was a cute old place that had been swallowed by the red-light district.

"Are you here for the sex and drugs and causing problems?" the aging hotel-keeper asked with a withering glare.

"No, man," came my reply. "I'm here to cover the soccer."

To which he suddenly admitted having a vacancy.

It was a good week: I was able to get Thierry Henry on the phone just before the final (even though he'd stopped talking to the French media) and, despite lacking a credential, snagged a ticket to France's remarkable comeback victory in the final. The trip remains the only time this Eagle Scout has ever expensed a bill from a hash bar.

Onward to this week's 'Bag (and please feel free to send in a thoughtful question for our next column) ...

After watching the U.S.-England game here in the U.K., I don't understand why Bob Bradley is the manager of the national team. Against England, the U.S. lost its shape, passed poorly, gave away the ball easily, played too many poor long balls, was lucky not to give up five more goals and created a single decent chance against a tired England team. I know there were good results against the Swiss and Polish but the U.S. isn't going to improve with this kind if coaching mentality. If we were a soccer nation we would be deeply ashamed of that display. I was, and it gives me little to defend against people here who believe the U.S. is a third-rate football team. -- Steve, Madison, Wis.

It was a pretty awful game all the way around, Steve, but in the grand scheme of things it didn't mean very much. The most discouraging thing for a U.S. fan had to be the general inability to possess the ball under pressure (and sometimes without much pressure at all) and make precise connections on passes. Rico Clark and Michael Bradley are young, but they had a brutal game in the central midfield, and the U.S. is still struggling to find an offensive-minded central midfielder who can put a defense on its heels. (I thought Benny Feilhaber might be that guy, but his last year has been a train wreck.)

The best thing that can be said about the England game it will be quickly forgotten if the Americans can rebound against Spain and Argentina next week. But that's a tall order: Both sides possess the ball better than England does.

As for Bradley, let's have some perspective here. The U.S. won games at South Africa, Switzerland and Poland -- certainly nothing to get too excited about, but an encouraging sign given that they came with a (mostly) young team. The England loss was a step backward, not just for the way the U.S. was outclassed but also for the older look of the lineup (Eddie Lewis, Josh Wolff and Frankie Hejduk?).

We'll see what happens against Spain and Argentina before rendering any further judgments. Bradley and U.S. Soccer deserve some credit, at least, for scheduling tough games instead of the patsies that dominated the friendly slate a few years ago. At least we know Bradley isn't just trying to build a sparkling won-loss record against cupcakes.

Do you see Carlos Bocanegra coming back to MLS after being cut by Fulham, or do you think he might try to sign with a lower-division team in England or Scotland? What about the other Americans on the Fulham squad like Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey and Keller? Do you think they will be back at Craven Cottage? -- Steve Adams, New Hope, Minn.

My guess is Bocanegra will try to stay in the U.K. if possible. The money is better than it is in MLS (especially with the exchange rate), it's easier to be seen by prospective Premier League suitors if you play in Scotland or the Championship, and it takes away the nettlesome challenge of having to meet the standard for a U.K. work permit again down the road. As for Dempsey and Eddie Johnson, Dempsey just re-signed with Fulham toward the end of the season, and Johnson is still on contract.

We already know that McBride is returning to America, and the word for weeks has been that it would be to the Chicago Fire. McBride is from the Chicago area, and while I don't have any info from the horse's mouth, MLS chatterers say that McBride may be willing to play for below-market value if that's what it takes to fit him into Chicago's roster and keep the Fire below the salary cap.

A lot needs to happen, though. For starters, the Fire would have to work out a deal with Toronto FC, which is first in line for an allocation. I have a hard time thinking McBride would be a Designated Player, simply because that would also require Chicago to acquire a second DP slot. (That's a lot to ask for in mid-season.)

Keep in mind, though, McBride couldn't join the Fire until the transfer window in July, and he has also expressed interest in playing for the U.S. in the Olympics in August. If that were to happen, I don't see the Fire wanting to have him for only the last few weeks of the season.

I'll tell you what, though: If the already-hot Fire got McBride, they'd be awfully hard to beat.

Does Columbus have a good enough team to win the Supporters Shield or do you think they will fade after this hot start? -- Matt, Columbus, Ohio

I don't think the Crew will fade -- we've seen too much substance from Sigi Schmid's bunch already -- but I'd argue that Chicago and a healthy New England have more attacking firepower and would be more likely in my mind to win the Supporters Shield. Guillermo Barros Schelotto has been the game-changer for Columbus, a great addition to the league, and Robbie Rogers may be turning into a star before our eyes. Can Rogers keep it up? That's the big question moving forward for the Crew, which doesn't play the most entertaining soccer but is clearly getting results.

What is Bradley leaving Jozy Altidore off of the England and Spain squads? Does Jozy have an injury I'm not aware of? -- Zach, Orlando, Fla.

No, Altidore isn't injured. But there has been a clear desire not to overwork him since he'll be needed for the Olympics in August. It might also be a bit of a favor to the Red Bulls by letting Altidore stay with the team. Keep in mind, too, that Altidore hasn't exactly been lighting it up lately for New York. All that said, it would have been nice to see him get a crack against England and Spain.

Have a good week!

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