Kasey Keller is preparing to play the game of his life, in every sense. Sunday's Coca-Cola Cup final between Leicester and Middlesbrough will not only be his debut at Wembley, but a chance to add one of the English game's top honours (albeit in a competition with a quintessentially American name) to his haul from collegiate football in the United States.
A perfectionist streak compels him to swoop around the practice pitch like some caped superhero long after his team-mates have showered, eaten and left. Gordon Banks and Peter Shilton, his last two predecessors in national finals for Leicester, were also renowned for their single-mindedness, but life is more complicated for Keller.
The keeper caught in two minds is normally about as welcome as the right- back with two left feet. Yet in a club-versus-country controversy with a twist, the 27-year-old from Washington State is proving an exception.
Keller began the season with a dual ambition. His immediate aim was to establish himself and his new club, Leicester, among the elite. The second, but by no means secondary, part was to become first-choice keeper for the US in time to play in the World Cup finals next year.
His success on both fronts means he has spent almost as many hours crossing the Atlantic as he has between the posts. In November, for example, he flew back from Port of Spain, having kept a clean sheet against Trinidad and Tobago. The following night, after convincing Martin O'Neill that he was not suffering from jet lag, he kept another against Manchester United.
In a fortnight's time, on the day after Leicester visit Chelsea and four days after a possible replay against Middlesbrough, Keller is due in New England for the sell-out meeting of the US and Mexico.
In between his absences, he has seized the opportunity offered by a pounds 900,000 move from Millwall with some brilliant displays, none better than in the second leg of the semi-final with Wimbledon. His Wembley place is assured, even though he missed four of Leicester's last seven matches while on duty against Jamaica, Canada and Costa Rica.
"The two things have come into more than slight conflict," Keller said. "At Millwall I made fairly rare appearances for the national team. It was frustrating but at least I could concentrate on getting myself ready to play for the US when the chance came.
"Unfortunately my first season in the Premiership has coincided with a ridiculous World Cup schedule. I'm a neutral in a sense, with no choice in the matter. Fifa [the governing body of world football] has made it mandatory that if the national team want you, that's where you have to be.''
The knowledge that Leicester's experienced back-up keepers, Kevin Poole and Ian Andrews, naturally covet his place has deepened Keller's interest in flight timetables. Competition to be national No 1 is also intense, with QPR's Jurgen Sommer, Luton's Ian Feuer, Galatasaray's Brad Friedel and Mark Dodd, of Dallas Burn, all vying for the jersey.
Keller proffers a simple explanation for this preponderance of accomplished custodians. "In most American sports you use your hands. Tony Meola [US keeper in the last two World Cups] was a baseball player before coming to soccer. My dad was too. I was a big fan of the Seattle Supersonics basketball team and the Seahawks in American football.
"I started playing soccer at the age of six or seven. We were driving by some fields and I saw some kids kicking a ball about. I asked my mom to find me a team and that was it.''
The first "proper" keeper he recalls seeing on television was Harald Schumacher during the 1982 World Cup. Perhaps the German's attempted decapitation of France's Patrick Battiston caught his imagination? "Exactly! As an American kid you kind of liked that. It reminded you of American football.''
At the University of Portland in Oregon he majored in soccer and sociology. In a city with no pro football or baseball, the college side attracted big crowds and media attention. Keller admits, however, that the 20-year- old student was "nowhere near ready" to play at Italia '90.
In the event, he stayed on the bench, but his sporting education continued when Bruce Rioch brought him to Millwall five days after his last college game. He spent 18 months at the old Den ("My wife found it a little surprising, kinda crazy''), staying after the Lions moved home. Relegation and the gathering financial storm prompted his sale last summer.
"I was a bit apprehensive when Leicester came in. After all, they'd gone straight back down barely a year earlier. But after meeting the manager I felt positive about the situation. What's happened since has confirmed that.
"I don't think anyone in Leicester would pretend they're not a little surprised by how well we've done. The management have done well in improving the squad, too. Getting into Europe by winning on Sunday and staying up would only bring more money and talent in. It's an avalanche effect - hard to stop once it starts rolling - though sadly it also works in the opposite direction, as Millwall are finding out.''
Keller has discovered two major differences at the higher level. While the players are not necessarily quicker, there are "sudden, explosive bursts of activity" and, crucially, they move the ball around faster.
The atmosphere, too, is "a great buzz", both in comparison with the First Division and the games he grew up with. "American sports tend to be very stop-start, so you get eruptions of sound and then everyone's sitting quietly again.''
Much as he appreciates the significance of Wembley in the lore of English football, the twin towers hold no terrors. "I've played at the Maracana in Brazil with 90,000 spectators, also at 7,000 feet and in the smog before 120,000 screaming Mexicans in the Azteca. So it won't be a problem for me."
He is delighted, none the less, by the thought of being the first "real American", as he puts it with his tongue almost poking through his cheek, to play in a major final at the famous stadium. John Harkes, his friend and colleague in the US team, figured in three (winning once), but although Keller describes him as "all-American", the former Sheffield Wednesday midfielder holds a British passport.
Banks and Shilton finished as losers. Keller, while respectfully wary of Boro's dynamic duo, Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli, is confident he will not suffer the same unholy fate. Judging by his contempt for gravity on the training ground, as well as a lifestyle that brings a new meaning to the cliche of the keeper flying through the air, it may take a bobble to beat him.Reuse content