Kasey Keller on Tottenham, USMNT and the World Cup
The former USMNT and Premier League goalkeeper discusses the season so far and looks ahead to the 2022 World Cup.
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Tottenham go into a key Marseille clash on Tuesday followed by Liverpool at home on Sunday. After a strong fight back against Bournemouth, what are you predicting?
The Marseille game is interesting because the group is a coin toss for all four. And obviously there was the disappointment at the VAR decision, which would have been a massive three points. I think Tottenham should see it out and get through. Every team in the Champions League is complaining about the fixture congestion and having to be able to transition from games into the league, and maybe that was a part of what you saw against Bournemouth, a slow start, going 2-0 down, players thinking ‘okay this team is struggling, we should cruise this’, but you have to understand you can’t take anything for granted.
Whereas Liverpool at the weekend fought back from 1-0 down, really should have extended their lead but didn’t, and that’s a reason why Liverpool are languishing in the middle of the table and Spurs are right at the top. Maybe the form hasn’t been as clean as you would like. As a pro you know you won’t play your best every time, but you need to find ways to pick up points when you’re not playing well. But at some stage you have to consistently play well to qualify for the Champions League.
Looking at Conte’s future, I think there will be a lot of interesting things happening during the World Cup break. To see what direction clubs want to go in when they come out of that.
Tottenham are only three points behind Manchester City. Can they realistically bridge the gap to win the Premier League?
Personally I don’t think Tottenham can catch up with Manchester City because of the squad depth. It is the envy of most managers in the world when you’re talking about fixture congestion so early in the year. Even Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid says the majority of his team are expected to go deep in the World Cup and then come back after a really hard congestion before that. The quick succession is going to test squads. As we’ve seen with City’s squad, when you start pushing at the end of the season with injuries, it definitely is a huge advantage.
Are there particular areas Tottenham need more depth in?
I think Tottenham need more overall squad depth, but I feel they are a little unbalanced in the way their pay structure works. Look at how some of the squads are able to build. I still think Daniel Levy pushes a lot of money to two or three players, and then makes up the difference in other areas. I think when you look at the successful squads, Bayern for instance, you say this is our pay structure and if Lewandowski is demanding half a million a week, you say you can get that somewhere else.
But when you have that structure it makes it difficult to build a squad that can compete against the top 10 to 12 teams. The number one outlier in pro sports, who pays the most money. Spurs have always been a six to eight in their payroll with the expectation of being in the top four, usually it’s much easier if you pay top four and make the top four. Now that the stadium has been built and revenue is growing, I’d love to see Daniel start to spend the levels of other teams consistently in the Champions League.
Despite sitting third, Antonio Conte has been accused of playing negative football. Should that matter to Spurs fans if they are getting results?
Conte’s style of play depends on what Spurs fans want. If you’re playing a 3-5-2, you’re putting a lot of pressure on your wing-backs. But when you look at them, do you have world-class wing-backs who can do that to a level where you can be offensive but not leak at the other end? I think what Conte is realising is what his squad’s strengths and weaknesses are, and knowing in Son and Kane that he can get the odd goal. He’s got to make sure they keep it tight at the back. They can’t afford to go ultra cavalier and go heads up against certain teams, they have to be a bit reserved.
I know it goes against the DNA of so many Spurs teams throughout the decades, so really what it needs to come down to is do Spurs fans want to watch Champions League football, or do they maybe want to miss out on Champions League football but have a more offensive, exciting team? It’s a tough question, and there is no right or wrong answer. When I was at Leicester, we knew what we were, we weren’t going to play teams off the park. We had some good players, we were really big, we knew with Heskey up front you could run in behind, absorb some pressure, maybe get teams in advanced positions. We also knew with the likes of Walsh, Elliot, Prior, Heskey, Marshall, you try to mark these guys on set pieces, you’re running out of big guys to mark them.
But maybe we don’t have the pace, ability to play the big sides and we have to play a different way. Spurs are obviously at a higher level than that, but there are still some limitations. When playing the big boys, competing to stay at the top, we can’t claim heads up yet.
Should Gareth Southgate consider Ryan Sessegnon?
I think what’s difficult is players don’t have time with the national team so soon before a World Cup. It’s hard for Southgate to say, he’s in good form, let’s throw him in now. Team spirit is so important in those environments. Someone who was instrumental in the qualifying process, and is friends with a bunch of guys in the team, the manager doesn't go for a guy that hasn’t been around a lot. It’s tricky.
I think it’s really important for managers to understand team dynamic, where you put together your best players available for you. But then at the same time, someone’s form can just come too late in the day and I wonder if Sessengon is one of those guys.
Son Heung-min, who hasn’t looked himself this season, has been linked with a move away from Tottenham. At 30, does he need to move on?
I think you can draw a lot of comparisons with the Harry Kane drama with Manchester City and his form at the time. So maybe some of the drama around Son this season is linked to his form not being where it was. I think there are a lot of things that are difficult when you look at a player and there is an expectation. The tricky thing for Son is that last season was a step above for him, so now that has become the norm.
Look at Salah, he had that one year competing with Ronaldo and Messi and he never replicated those numbers again. They’ve still been good and solid, but when you look at what Messi, Ronaldo and Lewandowski have done, and you stay at that level of consistency for that many years, it’s insane. It’s tough when everything clicks for one year, and to have that expectation that this is the new norm now.
Is Son good enough for Real Madrid, Manchester City or Liverpool?
I think Son is good enough for Real Madrid, Manchester City and Liverpool - I think we’ve seen that. You’re playing with even better players with more of the ball, sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes that’s a bad thing. When Christian Pulisic went to Chelsea, a lot of American fans were saying that now he’s in the team, where the competition to start is so difficult.
Son got himself into a situation at Spurs where he’s first or second on the teamsheet, but if you go to City or Real Madrid, it’s much harder to get in. I loved betting on myself, the challenge of winning over new teammates, coaches and fans, but it also comes with risk. When you know you’re at a club starting every game, it comes with a risk when you make that change.
What’s going wrong for Christian Pulisic? Does he need to move on from Chelsea?
I think part of the issue initially was injuries, two steps forward, two back. He’d really establish himself, and then he’d get injured. I never have a problem with a player looking for more playing time, I understand there is potentially less salary than Chelsea, but there’s also a part of you that says you have a finite amount of time.
I was lucky, I had a 20-year career, if you’re an outfield player and you’ve had 14 years you’ve had a brilliant career. But do you want to look back on it and say I had 200 starts, on and off the bench, or I had 500 starts and 300 off the bench? Okay maybe I left money on the table, but only the individual can answer that.
What I’d love to see Pulisic do is win a starting spot at Chelsea, honestly that’s what I’d love more than anything but there is a point where he needs to decide what’s more important.
Jesse Marsch recently said he didn’t feel the TV show Ted Lasso had helped the perception of Americans in football. Do you agree with that?
Ted Lasso is a TV show, it’s a parody. Personally, I think it comes down to how if you’re successful, nobody cares. I remember my first year when I broke in at Millwall, how many interviews started with ‘what’s an American doing here?’ and ‘what is an American doing here playing so well?’ I remember the little jokes but nothing was malicious because I was successful, I didn’t see it as negative.
Yes, we share a language but there are a lot of differences in that shared language. I remember after five years, a reporter asked me ‘do you think it’s good for the game to have all these foreign players coming into England?’ And I said, I am one of those foreign players and he said, ‘you don’t count, you’re one of us now’. And that was a transition, if you’re there long enough and have enough respect from the press, fans and your opponents, nobody cares.
What was it like moving from the US to Millwall? Was there a culture shock?
It was all I knew, it was my first club. You hear things, but I try to talk to young players and I say, read nothing if you can. The good and the bad, because both of them can have detriment to going forward. Just do your job, do it well and everything will fall into place. The Millwall fans were great to me. I know they can be tough, they can be hard on their own teams but I guess I grew up being taught to treat people how they treat you, and I have nothing but praise for the way I was treated there.
I saw things that I thought were normal until I left Millwall. I remember at Leicester, being asked if I was ever involved in a pitch invasion. I was like, 'three a season!' I thought it was normal but I was never involved in another pitch invasion in my entire career. Millwall has a reputation, and there are a hardcore group of Millwall fans who will never let that reputation dissipate. It is going to be a piece of Millwall for the extent of their existence.
Arsenal have been linked with Orlando City star Facundo Torres. What does it say about the MLS that he’s being linked with a move there?
As the level of the MLS continues to improve, and the prices of buying players in other leagues around the world is getting more expensive, there is a thought process that you can get a young player out of the MLS, maybe loan them out and see if we can grab someone for a price that makes sense. In the MLS, there was a thing where the money was divided up almost like a pyramid scheme. That’s coming to an end because the league is getting full.
So what was a league that resisted selling players, is now a league that understands that to build revenue they need to get into the world transfer market. Because you’re still building your stature. Maybe you sell for less than the other leagues, but teams are paying attention.
When you have a player like Miguel Almiron at Newcastle really starting to come good, you start to understand that maybe MLS is a more viable option to buy players. Success builds success, if more players are at that level then more teams will look at that to see if it makes sense.
Graeme Souness said on Monday he still thinks Lisandro Martinez is too short to be a top centre back. As an ex-goalkeeper, would it have concerned you having a player of that size in front of you?
I think the days of a 4-4-2 with two big strikers bashing the two centre-backs is in the past. You need to partner that player with someone who can handle an aerial threat. Cannavaro wasn’t that big and he won things. I understand what Souness is saying, but you partner him with the right person. How many teams now play with one striker? With others moving around him? I don’t think it’s as important now. Judge the player on his play, not on his size or ethnicity or whatever. Just ask, can he do it or not? If he’s not getting beaten in the air, if his partner is handling the big body next to him, then it’s okay.
USA have a strong range of young players coming through including Giovanni Reyna, Sergino Dest and Yunus Musah. How good are they? Could they play for top-six Premier League sides?
When Xavi came in, I thought Dest was in trouble but now he’s made the move to Italy. Careers are a marathon, you’re going to have highs and lows, and it’s about how quickly can you find the right environment, just like Pulisic, to turn you into a world-class player. It will be interesting to see how Dest recovers from the Barcelona setback.
Musah, I love his situation at Valencia. He’s at a big club that isn’t any longer a really, really big club. So he has that little safety net, you know in the next transfer window there won’t be the money to go out and buy instant success. I think that gives him a great platform. Like anything, do you chase the money or the right situation? Is it to the club where you’re a squad player or where the club is really invested?
I think Gio is in the same boat, the difference is with a footballing dad, he’s been down that road before. You’re at a club like Dortmund. No one seems to sell young players for more money than Dortmund, particularly when you think of Jude Bellingham leaving Birmingham. When was the last time an English player chose to go to Germany? And it’s starting to show you that development side.
I think Gio would be in the Bellingham category if it wasn’t for the injury setback. So what I want to see from Gio is, re-establish yourself as a player that managers trust will be fit. It’s one thing being a great player, it’s another knowing if you’re going to be fit or not. Like anything when you break in at 17, you’re still growing. So get that side right and keep developing.
But if you play your whole career at Dortmund, is that really the end of the world? You’re playing Champions League and challenging for titles. You’re at a massive club, and if a move to one of the giants comes when the time is right, brilliant.
Reyna has been linked with moves to England. Is he good enough to play for the big six in the Premier League?
Reyna is absolutely good enough to play for the big six in the Premier League. His talent level is off the charts, the question mark will be to prove to everyone you’re up for the physical challenge, you can stay fit.
He’s a different player to Jude Bellingham, but talent-wise he’s in the same bracket. He comes into a squad against a team challenging for the league and is in the Champions League. And he’s able to, with two guys closing him down, find a cute little touch in between two of them and then hit a pass for Haaland to score.
You can’t develop that, they have it or they don’t. But the question mark with any young player is, are they able to make that next step? I think that’s what we’re waiting to see. Unfortunately that didn’t happen because of injuries, but can he get through that? Size, speed, ability, he’s the total package.
Freddy Adu was once hailed as being the next Pele. Why didn’t he live up to his promise?
When people asked me if Freddy Adu would be the next big thing, I would say let him be something first. Let’s wait, yes we’ve seen some ability, we’ve seen something there but we can’t really judge until they are playing against men. I think the American press and some coaches made some assumptions before Freddy really played against men.
You’re calling him to the national team, and he’s never really established himself as a starter for any club he’s ever been at including MLS teams. Things got flipped wrong. I said, tell Freddy to play 15 games in a row for your club and then we’ll have a conversation about the national team, go and prove to me that you can be that team player. The guy a club can count on. Let that talent show.
Who wins the World Cup for you, and how far can the US go?
I think Brazil are most likely to win the World Cup. France’s squad is stacked as well. I’m not convinced Argentina are as strong as Brazil.
For the US, I think everyone in that group is looking at England as one of the teams that are going to go through. America are looking at Wales and Iran as winnable, and vice versa. So it’s going to be a situation where it depends whose squads and individuals rise to the occasion.
If you look at a team like the US, you need your stars to perform. So Pulisic has to have a good tournament, Musah has to, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams has to have a good tournament. Aaronson too. Then you need other guys to show up. Is it going to be Matt Turner, is it going to be Zack Steffen?
I think the US will be happy with the draw, though. They are looking at it and saying yeah, we can do this. And the last time we played England at a World Cup it was 1-1.
Who do you think is currently the best goalkeeper in the world?
There’s no such thing as the best goalkeeper in the world. What there is is a group of keepers who, at a given time, are on form. You’re looking at Manuel Neuer, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Kevin Trapp has stepped up, Gregor Kobel is someone you will see more of. The two Brazilians, Alisson Becker and Ederson. David De Gea showed against West Ham he’s still in that conversation. Thibaut Courtois in the Champions League showed you he is there, Jan Oblak too.
You’re looking at a group. There could be times where Neuer plays three games without making a save, but Trapp has to make seven a game. So it gets different.
Who is the best finisher you’ve faced in football?
I played against some brilliant finishers. I’m looking at guys like Raul, he scored a couple against me. Dennis Bergkamp scored a really good hat-trick against me the day after my kids were born! Alan Shearer scored a few against me. Romario wasn’t a bad finisher. Ronaldo, Messi of course. Miroslav Klose, of course, when you’re the all-time goalscorer at a World Cup you can probably finish. Jurgen Klinsmann, he wasn’t a bad finisher. When you’ve played 700 games, you come up against some top finishers. It’s great to be a part of different generations. Shearer was so complete, he could beat you with the head or feet.
But if you’re looking at the numbers Messi and Ronaldo have registered, it’s absolutely insane. Klinsmann said something interesting to me. He said the way defenders used to just be able to boot you and now how you’re able to move without getting broken in half. It definitely helps the strikers. It’s a good thing. Some of the stuff you used to see was crazy, particularly if you look at Diego Maradona’s treatment.