Kasey Keller signs autographs before a Millwall game. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com)
Twenty-five years ago this week, FrontRowSoccer.com editor Michael Lewis journeyed to London to pursue ambitious project: write about English soccer, sometimes with local flavor, other times with a U.S. twist. He wound up attending seven matches over 12 days in all four professional leagues. He wrote the stories for Soccer New York, a print publication, in January 1996.
As it turned out, this series comes at a time when crowds in London have been forbidden due to the discovery of a mutated strain of COVID-19. FrontRowSoccer.com already had planned to re-post this series as it comes on the 25th anniversary of this trip.
By Michael Lewis
LONDON – One day you’re in first place, the next you’re in seventh.
Such is life in the English first division.
For six weeks, Millwall found itself atop the 25-team league. Then the bottom literally fell out.
A nine-game winless streak (0-5-4) will do that to you. By the time Millwall Stopped falling, the south London club had plummeted to 10th place with no end in sight.
The way things were going, a pair of 1-1 draw against the Wolverhampton Wanderers and Leicester City were considered good signs.
“We’ve got to get back to the point where we were at the beginning of the season,” American goalkeeper Kasey Keller said after the draw with Leicester on an extremely misty afternoon at the New Den on New Year’s Day. “We need a convincing win to put an exclamation point on it.”
The last time Keller and Millwall (9-7-9, 36 points) put an exclamation point on anything came way back on Nov. 11, a 2-1 home victory over Ipswich Town. On the way to falling out of the promotion race to the Premier League, the team suffering an embarrassing 6-0 loss to Sunderland Dec. 9. Millwall had entered the day in first place and finished in seventh, the race was so close at the time.
“No way was it the low point for me,” Keller said. “I gave up a bad goal the game before [in a 2-0 loss to Charlton Athletic]. It was one of those game [Sunderland] where there was nothing I could do. Very rarely you’re going to get a game like that, when they score more than four goals. I’ve had games before, losing 4-0 or 4-1, and the goals weren’t my fault.
“Juergen Sommer made a great save the other day against Manchester United, but [Andy] Cole put in the rebound. No one is going to remember that save.”
Keller said the Sunderland defeat “was almost a turning point for me. It got me back on focus, like I was at the beginning of the season.”
He hasn’t been part of the problem. Keller is viewed as part of the solution.
In five seasons at Millwall, the 6-2, 180-lb. Keller has gored a reputation as one of the leading keepers in England. in 159 league appearances, the Bellevue, Wash. native has registered a 61-43-55 mark, recording a 1.17 goals-against average and keeping 51 clean sheets. This season he has a 1.20 GAA and seven shutouts.
“He was the best [n the first division] a long time ago,” Millwall captain Tony Witter said. “There’s no doubt about it. He is one of the top five in the country.”
Keller’s strength, Witter said, is “his ability to make saves in one-on-one situations. He pulls off some great saves.”
His weakness? He can’t score goals, but then again neither can his teammates.
Millwall’s problem this season has been its inability to score. Its 29 goals ranked net to last in the English first division. During its skid, Millwall has tallied but five times, being blanked as many times. So Keller, has been forced to play under pressure every game.
“You look at Manchester United. Peter Schmeichel makes a mistake and there’s no big deal,” he said. “If you make a mistake or concede a goal [at Millwall], are we going to get a tie or a win?
In some respects, Keller has found himself trapped between a rock and a hard place at Millwall, which has asked for a $3 million transfer fee for the 26-year-old goalkeeper.
“It’s a difficult situation,” Keller said. “Millwall has outpriced 95 percent of the teams in the world.”
In contract, fellow U.S. keeper Juergen Sommer went from Luton Town in the first division to Queens Park Rangers in the Premier League for a $924,000 transfer fee earlier this season.
“It’s a tough situation,” Keller said. “I would like to play at the highest level. Juergen rolled the dice and rolled a seven. I’m very happy for him.”
Perhaps someday Keller deservedly will join Sommer in the Premier League.
If anything, Keller will be remembered for starting the trend of American goalkeepers around the greater London area. Besides Sommer, Mike Ammann toils for Charlton Athletic and Ian Feuer for Luton Town, both in the first division.
“I would like to think I was part of that,” he said. “It also helps that John Harkes came. I was the first goalkeeper to be pursued in England. What they saw in me, they saw in other goalkeepers.
“It’s a tough situation to be in being first. I had a lot of stick when I first came over here being called a Yankee bastard. You to have break down barriers wherever you go.”
For now, Keller would like to break a nine-game winless streak.