The 2011 MLS season has been something of negative image for the Seattle Sounders and the San Jose Earthquakes. The Sounders got off to a slow start and injuries to very important players led to Seattle feeling their way through a good portion of the early season, improving their results but not really hitting a stride until early summer before finally kicking things into overdrive around late-June. The Earthquakes garnered some good results out of the gate and for a time looked every bit a legitimate playoff contender but their summer was far crueler and they fell into a slump that quickly put them out of postseason contention and ultimately ended with them towards the bottom of the Western Conference standings. The Quakes have a fair bit of talent and don't often get blown out but they're not a particularly good team and are at this point playing solely for pride. The Sounders have all but clinched the second spot in the west with Real Salt Lake needing to make up an eight-goal difference in just two games. Seattle will be looking to get back onto a winning track and pick up some momentum heading into the playoffs and will hope that they can get some indication as to where Mauro Rosales is at in his injury recovery, ultimately this result matter very, very little; it's more about playing well, keeping momentum rolling and staying healthy. It's probably an overstatement to say that few people care about the outcome of this game, but it's really not all that far from the truth.
So, there's that out of the way. As you might have heard, over 60,000 people will be at CenturyLink Field tomorrow afternoon. All of them will be there to watch soccer. The majority of them will be there to cheer on the Sounders, a far smaller number to cheer on the Earthquakes, and at least a few curious souls who bought a ticket as part of the package deal with the Sounders July friendly against Manchester United. But the real explanation for the size of the crowd is simple: Kasey Keller. This won't be the Sounders captain's last home game; Seattle will have at least one playoff game at CenturyLink and there's a good chance Keller will get the start against Monterrey in the Sounders' final CONCACAF Champions League group stage match. But Saturday is, undeniably, Kasey Keller's day. Few (if any) can be pleased that Seattle has been eliminated from the Supporters Shield race and ostensibly have little of tangible nature to play for, but there's this silver lining; while the playoff and CCL games have something riding on them, but this game does not. And so the celebration of Keller's career and what he's meant to this team and this city can well and truly be the sole focus of the day.
From an outsiders perspective, the importance of Kasey Keller might seem a bit confusing. After all, the Sounders have only existed for three years in this incarnation; how can such fanfare be justified? But there's far more to it than that. From day one, the sense that Keller was not only happy to be here but truly, desperately wanted to be here was palpable. One need look no further than his reaction after the Sounders claimed the 2010 US Open Cup in front of their home crowd; Keller flipped over the net and yelled like a man possessed, the expression of joy on his face giving him the look of a man half his age. Seattle was clearly ready to embrace soccer when the Sounders came along, but Keller helped to serve as a bridge; as a US Men's National Team legend and veteran of numerous famous and successful European sides such as Millwall; Leicester City; Tottenham Hotspur; Borussia Monchengladbach and Fulham, Keller helped to lend an air of credibility to the team (to a far greater extent, it must be said with the benefit of hindsight, than Fredy Ljunberg.) As a native of the Pacific Northwest (my hometown of Olympia, Washington to be precise) his presence gave the fans an immediate connection and figure behind which they could rally, something that was beneficial to a fanbase rabid for soccer but unfamiliar with the majority of players wearing the colors of their club.
Keller's importance to soccer fans in Seattle didn't begin with the 2009 season; I first remember hearing about him on what my friends and I then referred to as "the weird sports show" on Prime Sports Northwest when I was nine years old. That Keller-a local boy!-had just signed with Millwall was pretty big news (at least as big as news about English soccer could be at that time) and though I'd enjoyed watching soccer on what few opportunities I'd had up to that point it was the first time I'd ever really felt a connection with the game on something beyond an exceedingly casual level. I followed Keller's career as best I could from there on out, but in the days before the internet and growing up in a household firmly fixated on an entirely different type of football that made it difficult. I was perplexed when I heard he'd been left out of the USMNT squad for the 1994 World Cup; I was thrilled upon hearing he'd helped Leicester City to a League Cup a few years later. His clean sheet against Brazil in 1998 was one of those bizarre and unexplainable but undeniably real moments of pride that we all experience as fans. I haven't always been able to follow his career as closely as I would have liked but I'm convinced that Kasey Keller is the person that piqued my interest in the sport, that paved the way for the rising-at-7 AM-on-weekends, shouting-myself-hoarse-in-the-Brougham-End soccer fanatic that I am today. (And some Saturdays I'm not sure whether to be thankful for that or not, but I'm usually over it by half time.) When it was announced that Keller was going to be coming to Seattle to finish his career I was sold.
Kasey Keller is important to me as a Sounders fan, a northwest native, a European soccer nut and a fan of the USMNT. I've been a Kasey Keller fan longer than I've been able to drive, since before anyone in this city had ever heard of Ichiro or Felix Hernandez. I've been a Kasey Keller fan for almost as long as Miguel Montaño has been alive. And I really don't think that's unique to me, at least in a nuts-and-bolts sense. If you're a soccer fan in Seattle, it's almost certain you're a Kasey Keller fan and if you were a soccer fan before 2009 the odds are good you were a fan of his before he put on a Sounders shirt. Assuming you're not a West Ham or Arsenal supporter, of course.
On Saturday, we'll have the opportunity to let Kasey Keller know what he's meant to us. The Sounders are still an absurdly young franchise, but his retirement is very much the end of an era. This team will go on, they'll win trophies, and if Adrian Hanauer and his colleagues in the front office are correct they'll establish themselves as the first true international brand in American soccer since the New York Cosmos. And they'll do all of those things without Kasey Keller. But it's hard to shake the feeling that, whether he's in uniform or not, they couldn't have accomplished any of it without him being here in the first place. That's absurdly sentimental and probably more than a little bit irrational, but that's the kind of thing that happens when you're a legend. And if Kasey Keller meant anything to you, if you want to show your appreciation to the first (of many to come) icon of soccer in Seattle, you'll be at CenturyLink Field on Saturday. The game may not mean a whole lot, but the day is as special as they can get.