By Brian Beaky
Every soccer fan in the world is excited for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which kicks off this month in Brazil. Few fans, however, have as intimate a knowledge of the world's biggest stage as our own Kasey Keller, who appeared in three World Cups for the United States following an illustrious youth career in Washington Youth Soccer.
Recently, we caught up with Kasey to talk about his World Cup experience, Team USA, his work as a color commentator for ESPN, and of course, the Washington Youth Soccer star following in Kasey's footsteps with the U.S. Men's National Team, the Sounders' DeAndre Yedlin.
First time behind the mike at World Cup. Excited? What's your first game?
“Yeah. I have eight games in the first round, so I'm a busy boy. My first game is Chile-Australia. I have Italy, I have Spain and some other top teams, but I think my toughest game is going to be Russia-South Korea. Players that you never ever see play, it's hard to quickly recognize who's the right back, who's the left mid, without having to check the numbers. I have a lot more time than the play-by-play guy, but you want to be as accurate as you can, and do as good a job as possible. And especially when you're doing back-to-back games, it's not like you have time to study one team for any length of time, because you might have six different teams in the next three days.”
Don't miss any of the U.S. games this month!
June 16: U.S. vs Ghana, 3 p.m.
June 22: U.S. vs. Portugal, 3 p.m.
June 26: U.S. vs. Germany, 9 a.m.
All games on ESPN family of networks
Do you feel more or less confident than if you were going to the World Cup as a player?
“It's a completely different level. If I mess up a name, big deal. Maybe someone on Twitter calls me out. That's a lot better than letting the ball go through your legs.”
Have you had a chance to talk to DeAndre Yedlin since he was named to the 23-man roster for the United States? If so, what advice did you give him?
“It was obviously a big surprise for him to make the World Cup squad despite having never started a game for the U.S. It'll be interesting to see what [USMNT coach] Jurgen [Klinsmann]'s expectations are for DeAndre. I think most of us feel that DeAndre will probably be fortunate to see playing time. And that's probably including DeAndre. On every World Cup team, there are four to six players that don't see the field, two of which are usually goaltenders. For DeAndre, it's a huge honor to be named considering his experience level and National Team minutes. Everything from this point on is a huge bonus for him.”
What kinds of things do you think DeAndre needs to do to prepare himself mentally for that role?
“He can't, in all honesty. You're going at it so blind, with such a limited amount of experience. It's almost better right now just to be so naïve going in. Because you can't really explain to him exactly what he's going to see. He has zero experience against that level of competition, and on that world stage. For him, it's about soaking up as much experience as he can, and going out there with fearlessness, but also with the understanding to take zero risks if he does get in the game. Don't make a silly square pass and get it picked off. If you have any doubt whatsoever, just smash it up the field. Particularly for the first ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, just feel your way through. The last thing you want this early in your career is to be the guy that gave the ball away that cost the U.S. a spot in the second round. I'd much rather you be the guy that smashed the first three balls into the tenth row.”
Even if he doesn't play, are there elements of the experience that can help him when he comes back to the Sounders?
“Absolutely. But then there also has to be an element of humility, and understanding that, 'OK, I'm 20 years old and got this opportunity, but I'm nowhere near the finished product. I need to continue the learning curve, to push myself, to learn from the experience and hopefully understand how much more there is to learn and how much further I can progress.'”
What characteristics do you think Jurgen Klinsmann sees in DeAndre?
“The same thing that Seattle saw early on. They saw a great sense of ability, with the hope that he could learn quickly through a baptism by fire. And what you've seen so much of DeAndre is, yes, sometimes a young player making young player mistakes, and that's little things like when to get forward and when not to get forward. But his physical ability allows him to recover from those mistakes so often. I think the hope is that through these experiences, and learning through play, that there will be fewer and fewer positional mistakes, and more being in the right place at the right time, and better one-on-one defending. I mean, even in the game against Turkey (on May 31), you're winning two-nil, and Taylor Twellman had to criticize him for making an overlap at a time when it wasn't necessary. You don't need a third goal at that time; you needed to keep things tight. And you saw Mix Diskerud give him a pretty good talking-to afterward. As long as he is willing to listen to his teammates and soak up that knowledge, he can be successful.”
Do you remember when you were notified of your first World Cup team?
“Sure. It was a situation kind of the way the goaltenders are this year, that it was pretty clear early on that it was going to be Tony [Meola] and I for 1990. It was also similar when I wasn't part of the '94 squad. But that was more last-minute. I've seen both sides, and if you play long enough, that will happen. Obviously, it's a huge honor to be part of it.”
What was going through your mind when you stepped on the field in that moment?
“I remember being pretty nervous for the first 20 minutes, and then at one point I kind of looked around and thought, 'You know, this is pretty much what I do for every game.' It's really not until later, when you look back at different results, and you realize how big those games were. When people come back and talk to you about their memories of those games, and how amazing they were, that's when you reflect back and realize, 'Wow, that was pretty cool.'”
What's your favorite World Cup memory?
“For myself personally, probably the game against Italy in 2006. That was something. Playing a man down, and then two men down, and then only one man down … it was memorable. And it was the only result any team got against the future champions. And having to come up big late in the game, and make several saves. Then being named Man of the Match by the press. And, after the frustrating game against the Czech Republic, that draw kept us in the tournament, and meant that if we beat Ghana, we had a chance of going through. And that really meant something. It was a special night.”
Much has been made of the travel the U.S. team will endure in Brazil, more than any of the other 31 teams. Is that as big a deal as people make it out to be?
“It can be. The games come quick, and if you're spending four, five, six hours on a plane, that's tough. If you take a six-hour flight, you're going to feel fatigued, and you don't have to get up and play a game in a day or two. And then you have to do that each way. It's frustrating, because the way the World Cup works, you have to plan where you are going to train long before the actual World Cup draw. Then you have to hope that the draw is kind to you, and you get games close to where you're training. In other countries like Germany, or even South Africa, you don't have the kind of travel that you do in a country the size of Brazil. And the U.S. just got very unlucky.”
Which of the three U.S. Games are you most excited to watch?
“It has to start with Ghana. To get a result against Ghana will give them an opportunity. If you lose to Ghana, then you have to pick up four to six points in the next two games against Portugal and Germany, and that's a big task.”
What are three things the U.S. Team needs to focus on to be successful in Brazil?
“They need to keep it tight defensively. And then like anything, they need to have the ability to score goals. And that's always a difficult task, finding a balance between the two. That was a criticism of the Turkey game, that they looked good going forward, but in going forward, they left themselves extremely exposed at the back. And then third, they're going to need that little bit of luck. In 2002, we were one minute from being eliminated, and then Korea scored and put us through. And then in 2006, when we needed a little luck down 1-0 against Ghana, we got a bad call from a referee that put us in a 2-0 hole right before halftime. Then again, in South Africa, late in the game, the team comes from behind to get a late goal that makes the difference. You need that little bit of luck to get you through. We had in '02, we had it in '10, we didn't have it in '98 — we absolutely hammered Iran, but kept hitting the post, and then got caught on the counterattack. You just need the ball to bounce your way.”
Is there a player or two who you think the USMNT's fortunes are most tied to?
“Tim Howard is going to have to have a good tournament, that's always a starting point. Then, you're going to need someone to score goals. Is that Clint [Dempsey], is that Jozy [Altidore], or is that somebody we don't expect? Somebody is going to need to do something special. And then I think the last thing, which has been highlighted a ton, is that you have a complete back four of inexperienced defenders. So, you need those guys to step their game up, not be overawed by the situation, and to actually take a step forward in their ability.”
Who do you like to win the Cup?
“I don't know how you bet against Brazil right now. Sure, you can look at Argentina if Messi gets hot. Can an aging Spain get the job done? But after Confederation Cup last summer, I just don't see how you can bet against Brazil.”