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Keller confused by his fate in England, happy to be playing in Gold Cup.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

PASADENA, Calif. (Friday, January 25, 2002) -- All things considered , United States goalkeeper Kasey Keller would rather be in England.

However, since his place with Tottenham Hotspur appears to be on the bench, he’s happy to be with his U.S. teammates at the CONCACAF Gold Cup here at the Rose Bowl, a feeling that is certainly shared by coach Bruce Arena, his teammates and American fans who have not seen much of their number one keeper in recent times.

The U.S. is preparing for a quarterfinal meeting with El Salvador Sunday after squeaking by South Korea 2-1 and Cuba 1-0 to win Group B. Sunday’s match will be available on television only by pay-per-view.

Keller has not been that busy, showing well with a couple great saves against South Korea in limited action and hardly touching the ball against Cuba. Against the Koreans, he was beaten by a bending 35-yard rocket by Song Chong-Guy , but he also stopped a penalty kick in the seventh minute to keep the match scoreless.

"That doesn’t really count," Keller said with a laugh. "The guy shot it right at me."

As enjoyable as it is to have the opportunity to play with his U.S. teammates and before the American fans while trying to earn the starting position for the 2002 World Cup, Keller is confounded by his fate at Tottenham and more and more by what he perceives as shoddy treatment there. He believes he earned the Hotspur starting job and doesn’t understand why it was yanked from him after three matches.

"I have no idea why I’m not playing for Spurs," Keller said. "You’ll have to ask (Tottenham manager) Glenn Hoddle. Maybe he’ll answer you. I’ve asked him three times and he never answers me."

When Keller signed with Tottenham, he knew he would have to beat out the popular Neil Sullivan for the starting job. He arrived in London just as the Premier League season was beginning, so it took him some time to get into match condition. Then, Keller was set back with bone spur problems in his left ankle, a situation that required surgery, sidelining him until early December when he started playing in reserve team matches.

"When I signed I was told very clearly that I had to be patient, to wait my turn, but when my turn came if I grabbed the opportunity, the job would be mine," Keller said. "I think I did exactly that."

When Sullivan suffered through a slump, Keller received his chance. In his first match against Aston Villa, Keller played well stopping Villa’s Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel twice from close range and had a shutout going into stoppage time. With Hoddle screaming that the final whistle should be blown, a Hotspur defender was called a hand ball in a harmless situation. Angel buried the penalty kick, costing Keller a shutout in the 1-1 draw.

"Keller had a fine match and did very well," Hoddle said afterward. "We should have come away with three points."

Four days later, Keller was extremely sharp again, recording the clean sheet and besting U.S. national-team counterpart Brad Friedel and Blackburn Rovers 1-0.

Next, in a Worthington Cup semifinal road match at Chelsea January 9, Keller conceded two goals, one a penalty kick, to Chelsea’s Dutch international striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in a 2-1 loss. In a brilliant performance, Hasselbaink might well have scored twice more except for fine saves by the American keeper.

"I think I played very well over those three matches," Keller said. "I think I did what was asked of me. At least I have not been told differently."

Still, it was back to bench and Keller seized the opportunity to show Arena how badly he wants to be the U.S. starter in the World Cup that begins in South Korea and Japan on May 31. Keller received Hoddle’s permission to call Arena and quick arrangements were made for the 1996 Summer Olympics and 1998 U.S. World Cup starter to join the Gold Cup squad.

Keller played last season for Rayo Vallecano in Spain, but despite his successful season, the club could not keep him because of severe financial problems.

Given the limitations on non-European Union players in many European leagues, and his rather hefty price tag, Keller and his agent had difficulty finding a new team. After a series of rumors, Keller was on a plane to Istanbul, reportedly to finalize and sign a deal with powerful Besiktas of Turkey’s first diivision.

Apparently, even as Keller was arriving in Turkey, his agent was on the phone with Hoddle, who was frustrated by Sullivan, a Scottish international who was loved by the fans by also wildly inconsistent. Hoddle was willing to meet Keller’s price to have insurance on the bench and perhaps to light a fire under Sullivan.

Keller states unequivocally his expectations in signing were not simply to avoid Istanbul and get back to London with a nice paycheck, but to earn the starting job.

Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be e-mailed at bobwagman@soccertimes.com..

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