SEATTLE -- The best club rivalry in American soccer comes to MLS for the first time here on Saturday when the Seattle Sounders meet the Portland Timbers (11 p.m. ET, ESPN2), and the man in goal for Seattle will be Kasey Keller, who grew up in Olympia, Wash., and played his college ball at the University of Portland.
I'll be writing more about the rivalry later on, but suffice it to say that not long ago Keller attended a Portland Trail Blazers game, only to be booed heartily by the Rose City faithful. "That was pretty cool," Keller says. "Later guys would stop me and say, 'Aw, Kase, that was cold. We know you went to UP,' and they were probably the same ones who were booing me. And that's what sports is all about."
There's a distinct note of pride in Keller's voice as he tells the story, and why not? Now in his third season with Seattle, the 41-year-old Keller came home to finish his career and help build the sport in America and the Pacific Northwest. Saturday's game may well be the high point in the revolution that has turned this area into a soccer-mad region. Seattle is averaging more than 36,000 fans a game to lead the league, while Portland is the darling expansion team whose rabid supporters have helped the Timbers go 4-0 at home in MLS.
After losing its first two games to Los Angeles and New York, Seattle is now 3-3-4 and rounding into form. "You look back and you go, 'How did we lose those [first] two games 1-0?'' Keller says. "So you think, O.K., it's a long season, just be patient and we'll make things happen. We've lost one game in eight, and that's how you work your way up the table. We've conceded a goal a game. There's nothing wrong with that. If you do that throughout the season, you're going to do well."
Keller has been excellent in recent games, but he maintains that he won't be changing his mind on his decision for this to be his last season as a player. "I've always wanted to be able to finish my career with people saying, 'You really should play another year,'" he says. "I think Brett Favre would love to have done that. I just don't want to go too far. I feel good, I'm playing well and it would be a fun way to finish in that kind of form."
Keller has already been in talks with Seattle general manager/minority owner Adrian Hanauer about his future after this season, and that may include coaching, TV work and/or team administration. Unlike many other U.S. soccer stars, Keller has also expressed an interest in someday being commissioner of MLS or president of U.S. Soccer.
When asked to lay out some major changes he'd make to the game, Keller is quick to provide some answers. "One thing I would do is open up a review panel on multiple things where you can sanction a player for something he's done that the referee didn't spot and vice-versa-- a player can appeal a decision a referee has made that later TV has shown to be untrue. That's only fair," he says.
"Second, I would have a huge fine and suspension for players who are blatantly diving. Say a player absolutely dives 100 percent, you can totally see it. Nobody touches him, he dives in the box, a penalty is rewarded and his team wins the game on that. No problem. Ten-game penalty and two months wages. I guarantee you there's not going to be too much diving going on after that. It'll be gone from the game in a heartbeat. But right now there's nothing, so you continue to see it. Then after that, who's going to be the first league to put a camera on the goal line? Really? Is it that difficult?"
One other aspect of Keller's impending retirement is this: Is there a chance that he and Brad Friedel might go into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame at the same time down the road? That would make for an intriguing scene. The two men set new standards for U.S. goalkeepers, but they also had some notorious battles for playing time on the national team, and they're certainly not close. Keller says the last time they talked was after a Fulham-Blackburn game in March 2008.
"The difficult part about being a goalkeeper is that only one of you is going to play," says Keller. "I was pretty fortunate through the majority of the time that the two of us competed with each other, I was the one that won that battle most of the time and played the most games. But Brad obviously is always going to have the 2002 World Cup where the team was successful."
If they do go into the Hall together, that's something a lot of U.S. fans would pay to see.
• For an upcoming special issue of SI, I recently asked Franz Beckenbauer to name his all-time Best XI in world soccer. Keep an eye out for that, but due to an initial miscommunication he also gave me his current world Best XI, which I'll now share with you:
Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer
Right Back: Daniel Alves
Center Backs: Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué
Left Back: Philipp Lahm
Midfielders: Arjen Robben, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta
Forwards: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney
• This week's U.K. parliamentary inquiry into England's recent World Cup bid brought new allegations from former bid head Lord Triesman and the Sunday Times of improper or unethical behavior by members of FIFA's executive committee. Eight of the ExCo's 24 members have now either been found guilty or alleged to have been guilty of improper behavior. I have written plenty on FIFA's reputation as an unclean organization during my run for FIFA president, but for now I'll say this: Whether you're U.S. Soccer or England's FA or any other right-thinking FA in the world, you should abstain from voting in the FIFA presidential election on June 1 and be public in explaining your decision. Time to take the moral high ground, guys.
• On Thursday, the MLS Disciplinary Committee announced that it was suspending Chivas USA's Marcos Mondaini a total of four games and fining him $1,500 for his reckless tackle from behind that broke the ankle of Salt Lake's Javier Morales. That seems like a slap on the wrist compared to the 10-game suspension that Colorado's Brian Mullan got for breaking the leg of Seattle's Steve Zakuani. MLS's conflicting messages are bad enough, but the decision makes me wonder why commissioner Don Garber isn't on the MLS Disciplinary Committee. We've seen NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell make some strong decisions when it comes to discipline, but Garber doesn't have that chance, which is strange.
• Lastly, you should take a look at the fundraising campaign by the makers of Rise and Shine, an excellent documentary film on the remarkable story of U.S. defender Jay DeMerit. I have seen the movie, and it's well worth your time. The filmmakers are trying to raise $215,000 by July 18 so that they can cover the rights fees and show the movie publicly.
See you next week!