Kasey Keller returns to his roots

As his 20th and final professional season winds down, Sounders FC goalkeeper Kasey Keller will mark off a steady stream of experiences for the last time.

He admits the one coming up this weekend will be special.

On Sunday, Keller returns to Portland for a 1 p.m. match with the Timbers that is expected to be his final game in a city he considers crucial to the professional and international career he eventually achieved.

“I went to school there, I have a lot of friends there, I played on a semipro version of the Timbers many, many years ago,” Keller said Friday after training at Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila. “I have some history there and enjoyed every minute of my time in Portland. And now I’m just enjoying every minute of this rivalry.”

Keller grew up in Olympia and attended North Thurston High School in Lacey. The University of Portland came next.

“My recruitment was very simple: I was going to play for Clive Charles,” Keller said. “That’s as simple as it was. I needed to be with someone who I felt was going to (help me) go to Europe. I had a lot of respect for Clive, and it was probably one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made. As I said, great time at the University of Portland. It set me up great for my life in Europe.”

Under the famed Portland coach, Keller helped the Pilots to the NCAA semifinals as a freshman in 1988. He went on to become a three-time All-American, and as a senior in 1991 Keller was named goalkeeper of the year.

“That’s someone you associate (the Portland soccer program) with,” said Sounders forward Nate Jaqua, who also attended the university. “They’ve got his picture around there, and I think he really helped get that program going, obviously with Clive and (director of soccer) Bill Irwin. He’s definitely a legacy down there, and I think it’s great for him to get to go back down there and play.”

Keller went on to play 16 years in three of the top leagues of Europe: the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga. He made 102 appearances for the U.S. national team, and was named U.S. Soccer athlete of the year an unprecedented three times: 1997, 1999 and 2005.

He returned to the Northwest in August 2008, signing with the expansion Sounders. He made the All-Star team in 2009, won MLS save of the year in 2010, and Sunday will mark his league-high 75th consecutive MLS start.

Two of Keller’s national team appearances came in Portland’s Civic Stadium, an earlier name for the current Jeld-Wen Field, where the Sounders and Timbers will play this weekend.

“I’ve had a lot of good times there, from national team games, to times playing club ball to university to now Sounders in MLS,” he said. “I had a lot of good memories in that stadium, and now I hope to have one more on Sunday.”

However, he understands that any pride Portland takes in his accomplishments won’t outweigh fan loyalties to their Timbers.

He got a taste of that in January when he attended a Portland Trail Blazers game at the Rose Garden – and was booed.

“It didn’t take them long – we didn’t even get through the first quarter,” Keller said. “But that’s cool. That just shows you the state of the rivalry and the state of the game here in the Northwest. Hopefully that just continues to grow and grow and grow and grow. My wish is that it just continues to be good-natured. There can be a little bit of hatred there, but that it doesn’t spill over into violence, I think we’ll all be happy.”

Don Ruiz, 253-597-8808