Keller returns to Portland for showdown vs Timbers

Kasey Keller knew exactly when all the good will from spending

his college career in Portland was gone.

When Keller attended a Portland Trail Blazers game last January

he was able to get courtside tickets. As the video board at the

Rose Garden panned the arena showing those in attendance, the

camera stopped on Keller.

In the past, his picture might have elicited cheers or at least

a polite ovation for the former University of Portland star and

U.S. national team goalkeeper.

This time, with Keller playing for the Seattle Sounders and the

Portland Timbers just months from joining Major League Soccer, the

reaction was a little more unfriendly: a tidal wave of boos.

“That was pretty cool. I got a good laugh out of it,” Keller

said. “… That just shows you the state of the rivalry and the

state of the game here in the Northwest and hopefully that just

continues to grow and grow and grow.”

Keller and the Sounders will enter the hornet’s nest of JELD-WEN

Field on Sunday afternoon when they face the rival Timbers in the

first MLS match between the two sides played in Portland. And for

Keller, it’s likely the last time he’ll play professionally in the

city where he first made his mark as a college star playing for

Clive Charles at Portland before becoming the first American

goalkeeper to play successfully in Europe.

Just don’t expect any fawning by the Timbers’ Army, even if

Portland coach John Spencer called the 41-year-old Keller “an

American goalkeeping legend” on Friday.

“Although I do hope he has a stinker this weekend,” Spencer

joked.

While there is a healthy respect between the two organizations

running the Timbers and Sounders, there’s still plenty of acrimony.

Seattle became the darling of the MLS during its successful first

two seasons, becoming the benchmark by which all future MLS

expansion franchises would be judged.

But as Seattle got the attention, Portland made sure everyone

remembered it was the first city to gain the moniker “Soccer City

USA” with a strategically placed billboard just a couple of miles

south of the Sounders home field. It was just the start for the

Timbers, who have sold out every game at their renovated stadium in

downtown Portland and seem to have matched the fervor Seattle

created in its debut season.

Not much got settled on a washed out Saturday night in Seattle

in May when the Sounders and Timbers played to a 1-1 tie before

36,000 rain-drenched fans, other than the supporters groups from

both teams successfully getting in and out of the stadium without

problems developing between the two sides. There were also some

words tossed back and forth between Spencer and Seattle coach Sigi

Schmid. Both said this week that the verbal jabs were not meant to

be personal in any way.

Now comes the return meeting.

“I have a lot of respect for John (Spencer) as a coach. I know

we said a lot of things back and forth but I think he is a really

good coach,” Schmid said. “I thought he was a really good player

and I’ve always liked him and I enjoy the banter as well.”

Keller has returned to play in Portland twice since coming back

to the U.S. and joining the Sounders, but both of those matches

were in U.S. Open Cup play. Seattle beat the then-USL Timbers 2-1

in 2009 and knocked off the Timbers on penalty kicks a year ago

after the two sides played to a 1-1 draw in regulation.

But that was before the Timbers joined MLS and Keller says the

atmosphere for those Open Cup matches won’t compare with what he’ll

experience on Sunday.

“I’m excited to see the improvements to the stadium. What it’s

going to feel like, it’s going to feel like it did for Costa Rica

when we played there with the national team where it was a great,

loud, raucous crowd,” Keller said in reference to the 1997 World

Cup qualifier played in Portland. “Unfortunately they’ll be rooting

against me instead of with me.”

Seattle enters the rivalry showdown on a roll, having gone seven

straight matches without a loss. Their 32 points is the

third-highest total in the league, behind only Los Angeles and FC

Dallas.

Meanwhile, the Timbers are slogging through the struggles most

expansion franchises face. Portland is just 0-5-1 over its last six

matches since beating Columbus on May 21.

“These kind of games, form goes out the window. It doesn’t

matter that we’ve been on the run we’re on and they’ve been

struggling. It doesn’t mean a thing,” Keller said. “This is a game

where both teams are going to have to roll up their sleeves and a

game where somebody is going to have to capitalize on somebody’s

mistake or who does something special to change things. These are

tough games for players.”