Sounders FC goalkeeper Kasey Keller will retire after this season, his 20th as a pro.

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All it took was one game. After playing in front of a Sounders FC crowd for the first time in 2009, experiencing the uninhibited passion and enthusiasm that brings CenturyLink Field to life, Kasey Keller knew he had made the right choice in coming home to finish his celebrated career.

A year earlier, the veteran goalkeeper had mulled over coming to Major League Soccer. At times he considered staying in England for another Premier League season and joining Seattle’s expansion franchise in the summer.

He knew the Sounders would be big by league standards, perhaps even with the potential to be special, but still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

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“No one could have anticipated before we started that this is what it would become,” said Keller, an Olympia native, whose team has established new levels of success on and off the field.

“You could always hope and dream, but to see it become reality is something I’m so proud that I’ve been able to be a part of from the beginning.”

Full of pride and lasting memories, the time has come to begin saying goodbye. Keller, the face of the franchise, will retire after this, his 20th season as a pro. Still at the top of his game, he’s going out on his time and on his terms.

“He’s going out the way I think players want to go out,” said coach Sigi Schmid. “There’s no having to second-guess.”

To send off the Sounders captain, a crowd of more than 60,000 will attend Saturday’s regular-season home finale. It will be one of the last remaining chances to see the 41-year-old American soccer legend, who has led Seattle’s ascension from ambitious startup to trophy-winning MLS powerhouse.

Said MLS commissioner Don Garber: “His return home to the Pacific Northwest helped establish Sounders FC as one of the most successful teams in American soccer history.”

“Resilient. Professional. An amazing leader.”

The questions were much the same all season.

Are you really retiring?

Are you sure you’re not coming back?

The prodding, whether sincere or playful, never got bothersome; it was just a consequence of success.

“That’s exactly what I was trying to achieve,” said Keller, who joked that any thoughts of reconsidering retirement ended with a 10-day, 9,000-mile Sounders trip earlier this month.

“I was trying to achieve that level of play where people are saying, ‘He’s not going to stop.’ It’s great. I’d much rather have them say that as opposed to, ‘Wow, he can’t quit soon enough.’ “

So how good has he been?

General manager Adrian Hanauer, while admittedly biased, thinks Keller is deserving of MLS goalkeeper of the year this season. Partiality aside, there are plenty of statistics to support the case.

Keller has played every minute of every league game and ranks first in MLS with 16 wins. His 75.6 save percentage is tops among regular starters and his 1.09 goals-against-average is tied for second. Not to mention, 102 saves are the most of any goalkeeper on a playoff-contending team.

Figures, though, only go so far to measure his impact.

“I think Kasey’s been so important to our team, as much as any goalkeeper’s been to their team,” said goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra. “The reason we’re having so much success is because of him.”

Added Hanauer: “There’s no doubting the fact that Kasey has been tremendous all season long. Resilient. Professional. An amazing leader.”

Beyond the physical abilities is a confidence Keller instills in teammates. With him in net, James Riley said he and other defenders know they don’t have to be perfect.

“It’s just a calming presence that he provides back there and knowing when the whistle blows, you have him behind you,” said Riley.

Playing for a winner

Highlight-reel saves aside, Keller gave Sounders FC an unexpected assist three months before the 2011 season started. When he signed a one-year contract extension in December, he accepted a $50,000 pay cut from a previous salary of $300,000.

No one was clamoring that Keller was overpaid. Conversely, his popularity could be at an all-time high, with dozens of No. 18 jerseys in the stands and even a five-acre corn maze in Olympia designed in his honor.

So why agree to a pay cut?

“It was a case of: can the team be better?” Keller explained. “I didn’t want to get into a situation where we just weren’t competitive. And who’s to say? If I don’t take a little bit of a pay cut, do we have the space to get Mauro Rosales this year?”

Part of the reasoning was to help a Sounders team struggling with a constraining MLS salary cap, a structure Keller thinks needs serious updating. More importantly, individual success would mean little without a strong team — and Seattle has become exactly that.

Three seasons have produced just as many U.S. Open Cup titles and MLS playoff appearances.

Now it’s time for an MLS Cup run.

Fixed atop the standings for most of the year, Keller’s last chance at a league championship — a feat that has eluded him throughout journeys from England to Spain to Germany and back — might also be his best.

But he’s thinking beyond his own pursuits.

“I’m really proud that we as a team have been able to give back to the fans by being successful,” said Keller. “It wasn’t just a case of, ‘OK, we’ve got this great fan support, and that’s great, but you have to accept that we’re an expansion team and it’s going to take some time.’

“No. We have been able to make the playoffs every year, have good home records, have good away records for the fans who travel, have good cup competitions, have great, intimate games at Starfire, have been able to break records for (U.S. Open Cup) finals — it’s just been really, really cool.”

“We’ve known this day was coming.”

So what’s next?

Well, for starters, Keller hasn’t completely ruled out a return.

Much like his status has been with the U.S. men’s national team, Keller would take the Sounders’ call if needed in an emergency. Measures, however, would have to be drastic.

“If it was a case where there was a crazy flu epidemic and everybody was on their sickbed and they needed me for one big game, maybe I would consider it if I felt I was in the shape to be able to do it,” he said.

The prospect of being 100 percent game fit months into retirement, however, is a longshot.

In terms of a more steady gig, there is still much to be discussed after the season.

Keller, who turns 42 next month, said he would be surprised if he’s not with the Sounders in some capacity.

“There is no doubt that Kasey has been a major contributor to the credibility and growth of soccer in our country through his accomplishments with the English Premier League and the U.S. National Team,” said Garber.

Schmid agreed.

“What you don’t want to do in U.S. soccer is take that experience and not have it be involved in the game,” the coach said.

Replacing Keller on the field also is a concern, but Sounders FC is scouting replacements.

“We’ve known this day was coming,” said Hanauer. “We’ve done a lot of work on it. We feel comfortable with where we are in the process. As always, we’ll make an announcement — if there is an announcement — at the appropriate time.”

And until then, what would be an appropriate send-off for Keller?

“We’d like to put him out obviously by winning (the MLS Cup),” said Schmid. “I think he deserves that.

“I think that’s the greatest present we could give him.”

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