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Originally published Monday, June 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Nothing less than full speed ahead for ageless Sounders FC goalkeeper Kasey Keller

Wind down in his final seasons as a soccer player? No way. Keller has been dynamic playing for Major League Soccer's newest team.

Seattle Times staff columnist

The dangerous Emmanuel Ekpo had created space and was about to give the depleted Columbus Crew a commanding 2-0 lead. From inside the box, he sent a low rocket toward the far post, a shot that demanded something miraculous from FC Sounders keeper Kasey Keller.

"Ekpo normally scores that goal," Fox Soccer Channel analyst Christopher Sullivan said. "Eighty percent of the keepers wouldn't get that."

But Keller reacted even before the ball left Ekpo's boot, lunging low to his right and getting enough of his glove on the shot to deflect it away. It was another in what is becoming an expanding highlight reel of MLS saves from Keller.

In case you thought the Sounders' 39-year-old keeper was coming home just to wind down a remarkable career, just coming home to earn some more cash before he disappeared into retirement, Keller has spent the first couple of months of his first MLS season setting you straight.

"The people who thought that definitely don't know me," Keller said after Saturday's frustrating 1-1 tie.

And anybody who thought that, at his age, Keller had lost the quick-twitch capability to make these acrobatic saves misread the gauge on his competitive tank.

Keller is saving the Sounders. Two weeks in a row, he magically has turned losses into ties.

A week ago in the Sounders' 2-2 tie at Colorado, Keller made two saves that were as good as any in the world this year.

"When I first played with him, he was kind of like a panther," said Sullivan, who was a teammate of Keller's on the 1990 U.S. World Cup team. "He had that long stretching ability. He was built to play this sport. He was built to play football."

Rookie forward Steve Zakuani grew up in England and was a Tottenham fan when Keller was a Spur from 2001 to 2004.

"I think, with him, the main thing that surprised me was that, before coming here, I probably thought he was coming to end his career. It's his hometown club in a way," Zakuani said. "But if you watch him in training, his work rate, he's probably the hardest worker there.

"He holds himself to such a high standard. And it shows on the field. He's unbelievable in training. He's very definitely a leader. He's Kasey Keller and having Kasey Keller here, for me, is incredible. He's just top class."

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Some athletes never lose their fire. They're always looking for a higher gear. After playing in Europe for 18 seasons, after a goalkeeper-record 102 caps with the U.S. national team, Keller could have lowered his work rate and enjoyed his last professional seasons in this still-growing league.

He could have settled for being good. But Keller has been great. He hasn't missed a training session. If it hadn't been for the red card he got against Kansas City, for touching the ball outside the box, he would have played every minute of every game.

"If this league is anything, it's extremely physical," Keller said. "Big guys who are athletic and can run. And you have to come in here and put in the work rate and, if you don't, you're going to get embarrassed. And there's no way in hell that's going to happen to me. I think you have to have an intrinsic will to win every time you perform, in any kind of game. I get frustrated when my son kicks my ass in video games.

"But I also have a huge pride in the standard I've set for myself over the years. I don't want to come out here and have people talking about me around the city. I'm not anonymous in this city, and I want people coming up to me and saying, "Man, you had a great game on Saturday.' It's an internal pride that you have to have."

This is the sweet summer of homecomings in Seattle. After a nine-year absence Ken Griffey, who like Keller is 39, returned to the Mariners. And Keller is spending his final seasons in his game, just an hour's drive north of his hometown of Lacey.

"I think it was cool for both franchises," said Keller, who signed a two-year deal. "It's been fun for me to come home and be part of something that has become so big. I couldn't ask for the timing of this to have come along at a better time in my career.

"Now I've been thinking about how cool it's going to be when Portland and Vancouver come into the league in 2011. But if the body stays together and the club still wants me, I could see sneaking out one more year in 2011."

The way Keller is playing now, why not 10 more years?

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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