NEW YORK (AP) – Kasey Keller has outlasted his generation.

Tony Meola hasn’t played a game for the United States in three years, and Brad Friedel retired from international soccer last winter.

Keller remains in top form, and the 35-year-old goalkeeper is on track to start for the Americans in next year’s World Cup.

“I’m not really worried too much about age,” Keller said this week as the U.S. team prepared for Thursday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal against Honduras. “I haven’t felt at all that I’ve lost a step.”

Keller’s play this summer has been a key factor for the U.S. team, which improved to an all-time high No. 6 in the FIFA world rankings released Wednesday, trailing only World Cup champion Brazil, Argentina, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Mexico. He made acrobatic saves at key points in World Cup qualifiers last month against Costa Rica and Panama.

“He’s probably one of the top three goalies in the world, if not the top goalie in the world,” teammate Landon Donovan said.

Not that the balding, 6-foot-2 Keller appreciates how well he’s played. For him, the games are the worst part of soccer.

“The stress level is too high as a goalkeeper to truly, I think, enjoy the game because you’re always on edge and you’re always wondering Is this the time? Am I going to be called on now?”‘ he said. “The fun time is in training, when you can enjoy yourself and there’s not the stress that if you make a mistake, it’s a SportsCenter highlight for the next week.”

He was a sophomore at the University of Portland when he played his first game for the national team in 1990. He went to Europe later that year, one of the American soccer pioneers, signing with Millwall in England. He went on to play for England’s Leicester City (1996-99), Spain’s Rayo Vallecano (1999-2001) and England’s Tottenham Hotspur.

But he started at Spurs as a backup, picked up some minor elbow and knee injuries in early 2002 and wound up as the backup to Friedel, who starred at the 2002 World Cup. After being the No. 1 keeper for the United States at the 1998 tournament, it was disappointing.

“In this sort of situation, you have to think of the team first,” he said then. “You wish you were involved. You wish you were treated a different way. You wish people were honest with you. But the first thing first is to support your teammates.”

He returned to the national team in 2003 and played well in the Gold Cup, the championship of soccer’s North and Central American and Caribbean region. He’s established himself as the U.S. coach Bruce Arena’s No. 1 goalkeeper, playing in 12 of the 13 qualifiers for 2006.

“I had a long conversation with Bruce after the World Cup,” Keller said. “Bruce showed some faith in me at the beginning of last season when I wasn’t playing and I was able to still play well in the qualifying games when needed.”

After losing the starting job at Spurs at the start of the 2004-5 season, he was loaned to Southampton for a month late last year, then transferred in January to the team with one of the tougher names to pronounce in pro sports, Germany’s Borussia Moenchengladbach.

Less than a month later, he had to play a Sunday night game in Germany, fly Monday to Miami to join the national team, then played Wednesday at Trinidad and Tobago before getting back for a weekend game in Europe.

Playing for club and country can wear players down, one of the reasons U.S. captain Claudio Reyna asked out of the June qualifiers.

“There’s always times when you think do I want to go back down to a situation where you’re playing in a hostile environment and field conditions aren’t great and locker-room conditions are terrible?” Keller said. “And then, you just kind of think about it. I’ve always been taught you play until they don’t ask you to play any more.”

He keeps getting asked.

“He’s still every bit as quick as he was five years ago,” Arena said. “His fitness is better now than it’s probably ever been and I’m just happy that he has the opportunity to be our No. 1 keeper. I know his aspirations are to play in a World Cup so, hopefully, we can make that happen.”

Keller knows how far the U.S. program has come from the days he joined it, when the national team was a collection of players still in college and just out. He measures progress by head count.

“Qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, you were happy to have a game at St. Louis Soccer Park and have it sold out with 5,000, 6,000 people,” he said. “And then now, we’ll play a game somewhere and if we only have 30,000, we’re a little disappointed. So that’s a big measure.”

AP-ES-07-20-05 1749EDT


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