Most affiliated with Major League Soccer expected a successful beginning for an expansion team with this kind of powerful ownership structure (many thanks, Seattle Seahawks) playing in the Emerald City. But few could have guessed the avalanche of noisy crowds the Sounders are getting in what has turned into perhaps the greatest homefield advantage in MLS history.
Count iconic goalkeeper Kasey Keller among the shocked -- and that's saying a lot. During a hugely successful 17-year career in England, Spain and Germany, Keller played in front of some of the loudest, most feverish crowds in the game. He always wanted to end his storied career -- which includes four World Cup appearances with the U.S. national team -- back in his home state of Washington. But never in his wildest dreams did he think Seattle conceivably could be the best market in MLS.
The Sounders are a surprising 4-2-0 just six weeks into the season and are in second place in the Western Conference. Perhaps even more impressively, they've only allowed three goals, and zero with their captain tending net.
SI.com caught up with the 39-year-old legend shortly after the Sounders' 2-0 victory over San Jose here this past Saturday, a game in which, by the way, Keller set a record by playing 389 consecutive minutes without conceding a goal to start a season. One of the best-spoken and most intelligent athletes you'll ever come across, he discussed his expectations for Seattle and had some strong words on what he believes U.S. national-team players deserve from MLS.
SI.com: Did you ever expect the support to be like this?
Keller: No. I knew that Seattle should have had an MLS team years ago. I knew there was a fan base here. But at no time did I ever think we're going to have 28,000 sold out or that we'd win our first three games without conceding a goal. It's our dream start. To be able to come home and finish my career in this atmosphere has been huge. Nothing would have been worse after experiencing the things I've experienced all over Europe and then to come home and hear crickets at games. This has been phenomenal. It very much reminds me of that European environment.
SI.com: After seeing this, are you sort of wondering what took MLS this long to get here?
Keller: Totally. At the same time, there's no good in hurrying something up just because you want to stick it in there. Timing could not have been better for this franchise. With the Sonics leaving, it left some openings in talk radio and in local TV sports coverage. Once they were able to see it was going to be done the right way, you had radio franchises bidding for the rights. In other cities, you couldn't give it away. When I got red-carded earlier this month, it was the talk of the town on sports-talk radio. That's cool. That's the way it should be.
SI.com: We talked in spring of 2007 right after Germany's Borussia Mönchengladbach cut you loose and you said you were too old to sit out a season to wait for an expansion team in Seattle. Yet that's what you ended up doing after one season back in England.
Keller: That was an interesting situation because 'Gladbach asked me to sign early on. And I just didn't think I could be motivated if the team got relegated. I can't just do something because of a check. I had a bunch of offers and I was being very picky. At the last minute, Fulham came along with the chance to move back to London. I had a tremendous run at the end of the year to keep the team up and have that experience. And then I had to make another decision: Do I stay there and maybe not play, maybe be a backup, maybe go back to Tottenham, drop down a division or two, go back to Europe? It was hard.
My kids are 11 years old and now they're in their fifth school in their fourth country. If I'm going to drag them around a bit more, it's got to be the right situation. Then it was even tougher when I committed to this team because it was, OK, do I take that little time off and be here from Day 1? Or do I come back in the middle of July? After that first game [a nationally televised 3-0 win over New York in front of 32,523], my wife said to me, "You know, it would have been a huge shame to have missed that experience." I fully agree that the choices have fallen into place.
SI.com: Would you have signed on no matter who the owners were?
Keller: No. I could tell from early on this group had it. Having the Vulcan organization, which owns the Seahawks -- let's be honest, what are we striving to be in this sport? We're striving to be on par with the NFL. We know we have to accept what our place is. But at the same time you have to have an ownership group that's forward-thinking, that's saying, we want to be in a stadium that holds 30,000 people. Hopefully at some stage it becomes 40,000 and 50,000. My experience in this sport is on that NFL level in Europe. Knowing that was what the aspiration was in what they were trying to achieve made it that much simpler.
SI.com: Over the past two years, you, Brian McBride, Eddie Lewis, BobbyConvey and Gregg Berhalter all have come home to MLS. That's five members of the '06 World Cup team. How big is that for the league?
Keller: That's key because we still are not quite as respected as much as I think we should be in our own league. Before I went to Fulham, I had an offer to come home and I had an offer to go to Romania that was three times what MLS was offering. At the same time, MLS has no problem paying a Mexican $2 million. That's the thing that still frustrates me. The better the Americans can do when they come home from Europe, hopefully the more respect they'll have from the ownership group and the fans to pay them what they deserve.
I had a conversation with a prominent coach here when I was on-again, off-again to coming home and he basically told me that I "owed it to the sport" to come home and play. I had to fight for everything I possibly could in Europe and now I have to fight twice as hard to come home and get a contract? That's not right. Look at the way the Dutch do it -- they understand. Ajax and PSV Eindhoven know they can't keep a hold of their homegrown stars. Someone like Phillip Cocu, who leaves PSV for Barcelona, wins everything under the sun, and what does PSV do when he's done there? They open their arms and say, "We might not be able to pay you what Barcelona can, but we're not going to pay you a fifth of what we're going to pay this Brazilian guy." It just doesn't work that way because the respect is there for him and what he has done. There are little things that need to change here.
SI.com: Six weeks into your first season, what do you think of the quality of MLS?
Keller: There's no question that it's in a great position. What we need now is to try to bump up that salary cap a little bit more, first of all, to reward those guys who do well. Too many times have I heard, "Hey, great season, but we don't think you have any options so we're actually going to lower your salary." That can't happen. At the same time, understand your place. No, you're not going to go compete with Chelsea. But the little bit more money you can pay, the little bit more quality player you're going to get.
SI.com: How close are we to catching up with Europe?
Keller: Twenty to 50 years. The NFL in 2009 is not what it was in 1959. You can't think after 14 years you're going to go compete with 120 years of history. It just doesn't work that way. But what you can do is steadily grow. And sometimes you have to take that little risk. When I first got to England in the early '90s, the Premier League was not what it is today for one major reason. That's because Rupert Murdoch paid a whole lot of money and started a TV company called Sky, bought the Premier League and gambled a big fortune. With that, the TV contracts shot through the roof and the clubs were able to pay more money to get the best players in the world away from Italy and Spain. Sometimes you have to make a commitment and hope that the more franchises we have like Seattle, the better it's going to be. It's a better game to watch on TV when it's a better game to watch in person.
SI.com: Do you see yourself staying here long enough to experience the Pacific Northwest rivalry with expansion teams in Vancouver and Portland in 2011?
Keller: That's why I've been hinting at maybe playing that one more year after my contract expires, to be a part of that. And to get as much stick as I'll get in Portland, having played in college and one year professionally down there. It'll be a lot of fun. We'll see how the body feels, we'll see how I'm playing. I could see myself squeezing another year out.
SI.com: Do you hope to be part of this organization after you hang 'em up?
Keller: That was a big part of the conversation I had in coming back. I said at my introductory press conference, I would love to be to this franchise what Franz Beckenbauer is at Bayern Munich, to go into coaching and into the back room and then still be here 30 years later.