For Sounders FC captain Kasey Keller, the match against the Portland Timbers at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland will perhaps be more meaningful than any other regular season road game.
It was in Portland that Keller’s journey to the U.S. National Team and eventually to a successful professional career in Europe really began. Now that he has announced he plans to retire at the end of the season, Keller gets one opportunity to play in the renovated Jeld-Wen .
This stadium is a place until recently evoked fond memories, Keller said. He played for the University of Portland, some local semi-pro teams and played in the then-PGE Park when he suited up for the national team. That was in the 1980s and ’90s when soccer in America hardly caused a stir, except in local hotbeds such as Portland and Seattle.
“I had some history there. I had a lot of good memories there,” Keller said Friday, a day before the Sounders left on a bus for Portland. “And I hope to have one more.”
That, of course, will bring smiles to the faces of Sounders faithful and frowns to thousands of Timbers supporters, who under any other color, would embrace Keller as one of their own.
But not on this Sunday when the Sounders and Timbers clash at 1 p.m. in the rematch of the most intense rivalry in Major League Soccer. The rivalry dates back to the 1970s, when the lights were being turned off in Seattle, and Portland didn’t have lights.
Keller doesn’t expect Timbers supporters to show him any love when he walks onto the Jeld-Wen pitch for perhaps the last time. And he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“They’ll be rooting against me instead of with me,” said the 41-old goalkeeper. “It’s going to be a fun atmosphere and we’re all looking forward to it. There’s not going to be a whole lot of love.”
As Keller winds down his storied career (16 seasons in Europe) and the Seattle-Portland rivalry winds up this season, the man who has witnessed intense European rivalries firsthand — including hooligans inciting violence — is hoping the Sounders-Timbers “darby” leaves out the latter.
“My wish is the rivalry continues to be good natured,” Keller said. “There could be a little bit of hatred there, but as long as it doesn’t spill into violence, I think we’ll all be happy. I saw too much of that in Europe. It’s not a lot of fun.”
Keller recounted some tales at Milwall, a third-division London club that was his first European team, where its supporters were known for violence.
He described episodes where police horses were charging fans behind the goal during the game. Or fans chasing players around the field. “That’s not the kind of stuff we need,” he said.
Interestingly enough, Portland helped Keller land at Milwall. It was at the University of Portland where Keller fell under the guidance of legendary coach and mentor Clive Charles, one of the many former English soccer stars who came to the States during the heyday of the North American Soccer League. Charles played for the Timbers and made Portland his home when the league crumbled.
Charles then devoted himself to developing young American talent through FC Portland, the youth club he founded, and the University of Portland, which is a power in college soccer. Keller was one of his early talents. Charles, who died eight years ago to cancer, eventually helped get him to Milwall — the scrubby club in a tough part of London.
“I was going there to play for Clive Charles,” Keller said. “I needed to be with someone who knew something about Europe. I wanted to go to Europe. When you said that in the mid-80s …people kind of looked at you.
“I had a lot of respect for Clive. I had a great time at University of Portland. It set me up great for my life in Europe. It was one of the best decisions of my life.”
Now, Seattle and Portland bring a sense of the European rivalry to the MLS. As with any classic “darby,” Keller says it won’t be pretty. Emotions run high. Whatever the form of either team, it really doesn’t matter. Rivalries take on their own force and players want to win it for their fans.
And that means the games are often tense and tight. No one wants to make a mistake. Keller has played in his fair share, from England to Germany to Spain, and now here in America.
Now the Sounders-Timber rivalry is on par with some of the best darbies in Europe. That’s not to say the soccer will be scintillating. Though, there plenty of darbies where the soccer has been superb. Mostly, though the opposite occurs.
“These kind of games, form goes out the window,” Keller said. “This is a game where both teams have to roll up their sleeves, who capitalizes on somebody’s mistake or who does something special to change things.
“These are tough games for players. It’s not going to be the prettiest game to watch. It’s about who has the biggest heart and who’s got the most commitment.”