One for the Ages

Arriving jetlagged and greeted by some unlikely L.A. rainfall, Kasey Keller was actually very much in favor of postponing what would become the signature performance of his storied life between the sticks. As it turned out, he would have to keep his date with destiny.

On the morning of Feb. 10, 1998, came the all-clear call; the United States would indeed face Brazil in a Gold Cup semifinal that evening in the Coliseum, what some would later term the Miracle on Grass.

This weekend marks the 20th anniversary of that occasion, when everything aligned to create some magic that has yet to be replicated. Coincidentally, the two of the principals in pulling off that caper–Keller and Preki–have been reunited in the Puget Sound soccer community.

2015 National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee Kasey Keller’s signature performance came against Brazil. (Courtesy Sounders FC)

“I remember laughing to myself later, after the game,” recalls Keller, “that this could quite possibly be the game of my career, and I hadn’t wanted it to go forward. I wanted it delayed.”

Keller, then just 27 and the first-choice keeper for Leicester City, has flown all night after posting back-to-back Premiership shutouts of Man United and Leeds. It was a compromise between U.S. Soccer and Martin O’Neill, the Leicester manager; Keller would miss the two group games but arrive in time for the knockout round, the day before as it turned out.

Gold Cup officials were concerned about the rain’s effect upon the pitch and floated the possibility of moving back the match by a day. “And I would not have minded that because it would give me more time to assimilate to West Coast time,” says Keller. Instead, organizers asked that warm-ups be abbreviated and held outside the lines in order to minimize damage to the field. “It was a little outside of the normal routine,” he quips.

World’s Best

Brazil, back then, was on top of the world. The featured guests of CONCACAF were reigning World Cup champions, featuring Romário, the 1994 Gold Ball winner. They had brought their best.

Keller flew all night from England to arrive the day before the semifinal.

The U.S. had qualified rather easily for France ’98. They were without a few key players due to injuries but unbeaten in seven and playing on home soil. But still this was Brazil.

“When you play for the United States, and you’re playing one of the top teams in the world, you don’t expect to dictate play or have a lot of possession,” notes Keller. “You expect to be under pressure, more less, from start to finish.”

Although nothing prepares one for Brazil, playing for a scrapper such as Leicester against European superpowers is sufficient practice.

“I didn’t play for teams that were challenging for titles. I played for teams that were fighting to stay mid-table and not slip into a relegation fight,” offers Keller. “When you played against the Man U’s and Arsenals at that time, it was like playing against Brazil and Argentina.”

Under Siege

Right away, Brazil imposed its will. The U.S. was under siege. Barely past the half-hour Keller had already made four remarkable saves. Just before halftime, he stops Romário’s close-range header, smothering the rebound. A stunned Romário then offers his hand to the grounded Keller.

“I shouldn’t have held on to the ball, and he was there waiting for the rebound that never came,” Keller remembers.  “I think he was so frustrated, out of instinct he just reached down to shake my hand.”

The first of Keller’s 10 saves came early, and he had six by halftime.

There are countless clippings of first-half recaps where the minnow evades the shark, only to be devoured in the end. For instance, Keller says, look at Stefan Frei in December’s MLS Cup final. His saves kept it scoreless, but eventually Toronto broke through. That crossed Keller’s mind at the break in L.A.

“As a team, you have to fight for everything and hope for the odd counterattack or set piece to get yourselves into the game, and if your goalkeeper can make 5-6 saves and you take those chances, maybe you get a result,” he says.

Trouble was, by halftime Keller had already made six saves. “Most games, if a goalkeeper has to make 10 saves, he’s probably going to lose 3-nil.”

Just Need a Hero

Early in the second half coach Steve Sampson sent Chris Henderson and Preki to begin warming-up. “In fact, we were behind Kasey’s goal,” says Henderson. “He was just playing out of his mind, playing incredible to keep us in the game.”

Preki came on in the 60th minute and changed the game shortly thereafter.

As the clock continues to run and the stalemate holds, Henderson and Preki continue their stretching and sprints. Preki’s focused on the play. Three days earlier he came off the bench late to score the winning goal versus Costa Rica. Henderson remembers chatting up Preki, who was saying very little.

“I said, ‘This is the perfect game to sub into. You can go in and be the hero,’” shares Henderson. “I was looking and looking (toward the bench), and then his number got called to sub in.” On the hour mark, Preki replaced Roy Wegerle.

“I don’t remember any of that conversation, but I’m sure it happened,” admits Preki. “You always want to play against the best, and you just hope you can get in and help the team be successful, by making a play or two. But you don’t necessarily think of being a hero. A lot of things have to come your way.”

If it had been a league or group game, Sampson might have opted for inserting an extra defender. In a knockout situation, he chose to go for an attacker who could deliver something special.

Something from Nothing

“Preki always had the ability to create something out of nothing,” claims Keller, who said at that point the team on the field was probably more concerned with holding on defensively than getting forward. “Everybody knew he was going to cut back onto his left. You knew it, and he still did it.”

Élber and Brazil pressed for a late equalizer to no avail.

Wide on the left, Eric Wynalda spotted Preki trailing the play, about 30 yards out from the left post. Preki was quickly marked up but feinted right and, sure enough, cut back left to find a glimpse of daylight. He unleashed a drive toward the top left corner.

“In all honesty, it caught (Brazil keeper) Taffarel by surprise,” explains Keller, a spectator 80 yards away. “The shot had some definite funk on it; it was moving and dipping and swerving.” And it was in the back of the net.

“He went in and scored the bender,” says Henderson. “Maybe my contribution that day was giving him the pep talk to score that goal. You pray for those opportunities to come on, especially as an attacking sub. You have nothing to lose.”

While the rest of the team euphorically celebrated, Keller re-focused on the job at hand. Twenty-five minutes were remaining. “Now you’ve poked the bear a little bit,” he says. Brazil brings on Giovane Élber, a 20-goal scorer from Stuttgart that season.

“Still, after the goal, there was quite a bit of time for Brazil to equalize and win the game,” states Preki, “and we knew how good they were.”

Achieving Something Special

A less committed U.S. team might have succumbed. Keller came back with two more saves in the 79th and 87th minutes, the latter on Élber’s attempt from distance. In between, Romário rushed a chance wide. But the team around him was tirelessly hustling and supporting one another, getting enough pressure on shooters to make those saves possible.

Full time: A job well done.

“Nobody was giving up, everyone was fighting so that we could achieve something special,” he claims.

When full time was whistled, Preki and Keller were both mobbed by teammates and coaches, among them Keller’s college coach at Portland, Clive Charles, who doubled as Sampson’s assistant. They shared an embrace.

Keller finished with 10 saves, none of them routine. He would eventually be voted tournament MVP, despite a loss to Mexico in the final. Preki now owned the Americans’ first goal against Brazil in seven meetings, dating back to 1930 and, of course, it was the winner. “But I would never be in that position if Kasey doesn’t play the way he did, and the way the team fought.”

A Classic, Cool Tale

Twenty years on, Preki rates that strike as among the most memorable of a 23-year career. “Absolutely, for sure,” he confirms. “Goals against Brazil don’t come every day.”

Keller and Preki, forever linked through an historic achievement.

Inevitably, when Keller’s asked about his 22 years in goal, the ’98 Gold Cup comes to the fore. Recently Men in Blazers’ Roger Bennett quizzed him. Fans and former teammates, alike, will keep clicking on the YouTube highlights. Seeing, after all, is believing.

“It’s humbling to think that a game I played 20 years ago is still getting traction,” remarks Keller. I suppose one of the reasons is simply because the U.S. hasn’t done it again; we haven’t beaten Brazil.

“It’s nice that it has those legs, that lasting quality. Until we get a couple wins against them, people will continue to go back and have a look at it: A FIFA event, a semifinal with the current world champions, featuring some of the best strikers in the world,” he recounts. “They’ll see it and hopefully think, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool,’ and I’m glad to have been a part of it.”

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