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Blanchette: Sounders’ Keller turns back the clock

SEATTLE – Trailing the baseball team across the street in the local victory column pretty much defines the notion of needing a win in the worst way.

So what happened over the course of about eight minutes Saturday afternoon on the old soccer pitch at Qwest Field may have seemed an odd time for anything civically iconic, but we can only go on what we see.

Seattle Sounders FC appeared on the verge of sculpting another come-from-ahead draw, or worse, against the perfectly ordinary Chicago Fire when the old man with the C, goalkeeper Kasey Keller, singlehandedly rescued, well, maybe the season.

Sure, the Major League Soccer season stretches out longer than your tax extension will. But with just two ties in their first four matches and roadies at Philadelphia and Chicago dead ahead, the Sounders were staring at Marineresque misery before the calendar even struck May.

Instead, Keller put on the highlight loop for eight minutes, and 36,223 hitched their Sounders scarves into a fancy knot to celebrate the season’s first win, 2-1.

“You can’t go through a season without having to rely on the keeper at some point,” said Sounders forward Steve Zakuani, whose bold goal was the game-winner. “He kept us in the game, that’s for sure.”

Yeah. But you could say Keller got them in the game, too.

Seattle’s entrée into MLS two years ago was likely going to be a success in some form. It’s always been this city’s kind of game. In fact, Saturday happened to be the 35th anniversary of the Kingdome’s first sporting event, a friendly between the old NASL Sounders and the New York Cosmos where 58,128 watched Pele score twice.

But the MLS Sounders hedged their bet by signing the greatest of American goalkeepers, who just happened to have grown up on an egg farm down the freeway in Lacey, Wash.

It’s not often you can buy credibility, identity and sentimentality in one stop.

Just one problem: high mileage.

Not that Keller was out of game, but he was short on time. Last November, he turned 41 – and when he signed a one-year extension of his contract a month later, Keller announced that his time was up after 2011.

“I didn’t want to be that guy,” Keller said, “who everyone said, ‘You should have retired last year.’”

They weren’t saying any such thing Saturday.

When Chicago’s Marco Pappa squeezed a free kick through Seattle’s two-man wall and Diego Chaves had it teed up point blank, Keller dove and swept the ball away with his left hand. When Gaston Puerari scooted free through the middle, Keller came out to turn him away with his right foot. And when Pappa nearly deflected a poor Seattle clearance into the net Keller came up with a twisting dive on a bang-bang play.

“It was world class,” said Sounders coach Sigi Schmid. “That was Kasey Keller from his prime.”

The Northwest didn’t get to see much of that prime – maybe glimpses in the Olympics and the four World Cups he played in. Otherwise, he was gadding about the globe, playing for top clubs in England, Spain, Germany. He blanked Brazil 1-0 to become the Gold Cup MVP in 1996 and Romario called it “an honor to be on the field with him.”

He was the trailblazer in a European soccer culture predisposed to disdain Americans, and respect was always begrudged no matter how well he played.

But in another respect, this is Kasey Keller’s prime. Certainly the Sounders couldn’t rely on his leadership and experience any more than they already do.

“I came home to be part of this franchise and be that person for this new team,” Keller acknowledged, “and it’s going to be a very important step for some of our players next year to take that mantel and push it.”

In a city that has given itself over at various times to the athletic magic of a Griffey, a Largent, a Payton, an Emtman – among other icons – it may be a stretch to put Keller in that company based on a three-year gig at the end of a far-flung career. But he isn’t sticking around just for the sake of cementing a legacy.

“Last year I just let it ride to see how it went, and I felt good enough to come back for one more,” he said. “But I don’t want to push it. I don’t want to come back and break down – and, hey, there’s still a lot of this season left.

“I want to go out with everybody saying, ‘Kasey, give it one more year.’”

Now that you might have heard on Saturday, in aisles and exits – and maybe in the Sounders’ dressing room.

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