Keller, Koller key to U.S. vs. Czechs


NUREMBERG, Germany -- Today's the day, and if it were a prizefight, they'd be billing it as Keller vs. Koller, the Battle of Gelsenkirchen.

In one corner, Kasey Keller, 36, a solid 6 feet 2 and 190 pounds, the most successful goalkeeper in American soccer history, winner of 51 international games out of 93, with 45 shutouts and a goals-against average of 0.74.

Oh, yes, and this is his fourth World Cup.

"Making the big save - that's what Kasey is all about," says U.S. coach Bruce Arena.

In the other corner, Jan Koller, 33, an intimidating 6-7 and an estimated 200 pounds, the most successful goal scorer in the history of the Czech Republic, with 40 goals in 66 international games, or an average of 0.6 per game, better than one every other match.

Czech coach Karel Bruckner calls him "a formidable attacking force."

Something's got to give.

When the United States opens its 2006 World Cup schedule today against the Czechs in Gelsenkirchen, it will be more than the tale of one striker against one goalkeeper, of course, but the individual matchup is intriguing nonetheless.

"For the most part, you really try to deny him," Keller said of Koller. "He has a great way of just muscling himself into great position. He's a big, strong, talented footballer with a lot of experience.

"He's not just this big guy. ... He hasn't scored the 40 goals he has because he's just some donkey standing out there. He's a great player."

And Keller? Just listen to teammate Landon Donovan: "He's crazy," the midfielder said.

And the evidence for this is? "The head-banger music he listens to," Donovan replied. "He's psycho-man. I wouldn't want to get him mad, that's for sure."

The Czechs have a wily coach in Bruckner, who is not above spicing the encounter with a little misinformation casually sprinkled about beforehand.

Stories coming out of the Czech camp over the past couple of weeks have consistently spoken about injuries or ailments to this star player or that.

Even yesterday, it was rumored that forward Milan Baros would be sidelined today.

Arena is buying none of it.

"If you go by press reports, three or four of their top players are out," he said. "But I would guess on Monday we're going to see them all on the field. We're planning to play who we believe are their best 11 players."

Koller poses the biggest concern. If he gets past whoever is supposed to mark him, then Keller has to make the save. He has done it before.

"How I kind of judge myself is: 'Can you come up with the save that helps the team at the right time?' " Keller said.

"If you make a penalty [kick] save, big deal. But can you do it when you're winning 1-0, or drawing 0-0 in the 90th minute to help your team pick up a point? So that's how I judge it."

Grahame Jones writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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