“Not our best night,” said Sounders coach Sigi Schmid.
But not a mess-up. Two goals in the final 10 minutes took care of that, keeping the Keller farewell ceremony from being double-damn awkward.
The late wake-up allowed a 2-1 win over the chippy San Jose Earthquakes to segue into a more proper, golden-scarf salute to Keller, the Olympia-area kid who became America’s first big contribution to world soccer.
Despite his long experience with high-pressure international sports moments, Keller admitted afterward his pre-game drawers were in a bit of a bunch.
“This was the most nervous I’ve been for a game since the World Cup,” he said. “I didn’t want to disappoint.”
He was hardly a disappointment. The goalie can’t score. His teammates are in charge of that. But for more than 80 minutes, the highest-scoring team in Major League Soccer didn’t, dithering in a disorderly fashion.
Not only that, but there are things that a 41-year-old shouldn’t be asked to do at his exit party. Like work his butt off while making seven saves in a high-tension game. But in the end, the largest crowd, 64,140, to see an MLS regular-season soccer match in Seattle were treated to a triumph and post-match celebration that fit his status as an American sports legend.
Relative to the clank surrounding the departure of Ken Griffey Jr. one stadium south, this was definitely a resolved, melodious chord.
“I’m so proud of these guys to not quit,” Keller said. “We’ve (persevered) so many times this year. You definitely don’t want to leave this stadium early because we’re going to make something happen at some stage.”
Quitting seemed unlikely, for no other reason than it would have invited more screaming from the amped Keller, who offered hefty exhortations from goal throughout the evening to his fellow defenders, who were curiously negligent. Particularly so in the 24th minute, when a complete collapse in front of him left Keller alone to get beat by Chris Wondolowski, who came into the match as MLS’s leading goal scorer (14).
It nearly got worse in the 65th minute. San Jose drew Keller out from the goal, and four times in less than 10 seconds peppered him with shots. Keller repulsed all with diving saves, drawing roars of approval from the Clink crowd — a career signature moment that ignited chants of “Ka-sey Kel-ler! Ka-sey Kel-ler!”
After the Sounders whiffed on several quality opportunities, the tension was cut in the 82nd minute when newly acquired reserve Sammy Ochoa tied the game at 1 with an angled, soft shot that grazed just enough of the inside of the far post to slither into the near-corner net — his first Sounders goal.
Five minutes later, Sounders leading scorer Fredy Montero slipped behind the defense at the top of the area and took a perfect pass from Lamar Neagle to drive home the game-winner. The exhalation fluttered stadium flags, knowing the attempt for the embarrassing upset by a meatball opponent (San Jose is 7-12-14 and ninth in the 10-team Western Conference) was all but done.
Then came the party. As most in the crowd stood and cheered, a stage was assembled post-game at midfield that held the team, coaches, staff and owners, who joined in hailing Keller’s 20-year professional career. The ceremony included a highlight video — a youthful Keller was shown with long, flowing, dark hair — speeches and gifts of of a motorcycle and an all-terrain vehicle, the latter driven onto the field by part-owner and Hollywood entertainer Drew Carey.
When the microphone finally got around to a beaming Keller, he concluded by saying, “Finishing my career with the Sounders is the best highlight of my career.”
As a four-time member of the U.S. national team and a three-time participant in the World Cup, that might be stretching things a bit. But no one was nit-picking, and there’s no denying his three final years in Seattle have been a screaming success — with a little more to come.
While Saturday was the final MLS regular-season home game, the Sounders have a CONCACAF tourney match Tuesday at the Clink against Mexico’s Monterrey, and Saturday, an MLS regular-season finale in Los Angeles against Chivas.
Then the MLS playoffs begin. The win clinched for Seattle (25-9-10 in all competitions) the No. 2 seed in the West behind the Los Angeles Galaxy.
So the idea that Keller was done playing Saturday was a stretch too. But to fly in friends, family and former teammates, such as retired U.S. soccer star Claudio Reyna, to join the celebration, a date needed to be fixed. And it happened to coincide with a big day of American football, with the University of Washington (5-1) clobbering Colorado 52-24 earlier in the day.
Schmid proudly brought that up, because the Sounders outdrew the 62,147 at Husky Stadium.
All in all, a swell day for Seattle sports. But neither was a climax, only foreplay.
“We still want (six) more games this season,” Keller said, referring to a possible MLS championship. “So we’ve got a lot left.”
So, apparently, does he. There is much to be said for going out by choice, rather than circumstance.