This time last year, Stephen Keel was picking up the pieces and trying to sort together what his future in soccer might hold.
He had just been let go by the Portland Timbers as they prepared to transition from the second division to Major League Soccer, and he wasn’t a part of the vision for the future of their backline.
Keel eventually ended up in New Jersey that winter and went on trial with the New York Red Bulls via a recommendation from assistant coach Mike Petke, who knew Keel from when they both played together in Colorado. Slowly but surely, Keel worked his way onto the team and was offered a contract several weeks before the season started.
“I think looking back on it, I loved my time in Portland and am thankful for all that,” Keel told MLSsoccer.com in a phone interview. “I enjoyed my two years there, but the way things turned out this year, was a bit of a blessing in disguise. [New York’s] a great organization from top to bottom and being able to play in that arena, in front of those fans, it was great. I can’t say enough about those guys in that locker room, either. I’m excited to be coming back for another year.”
Keel eventually established himself as a viable starter in central defense with Tim Ream, and he started a career-high 13 games before the regular season was through.
New York rose through the standings with Keel as the linchpin of the backline and the team clinched a playoff berth.
“My job is to work as hard as possible now and into next year to make sure there are a lot more ups than downs,” Keel said. “Coming in, I have to get better to keep my spot in the team and keep my place amongst the guys. It is about elevating my game in every aspect, in every way possible.”
His option for 2012 was picked up by the club and New York could well be his home for the foreseeable future as the club’s fans and management alike seem to have fallen for the gritty defender.
“For me, throughout the year, the only thing I could control was how well I play, how hard I train,” he said. “Right now, I’m doing a lot in preseason to come in in the best shape I can be and top form so that in camp, I can come in running.”
The offseason has been spent working on fitness, speed, power and quickness at an Athletic Republic facility in Denver, where Keel grew up. His aim is to be stronger and more powerful when he returns in 2012, as well as improve on his decision making and distribution with his left foot.
One thing that won’t change, however, is Keel’s calling card — his blonde ambition is absolutely impossible to miss, and the coif that he sported in 2011 was perhaps the most recognizable ‘do in the league.
“Lots of conditioner here in Denver, it’s a bit more dry here,” Keel quipped. “But no matter what I do, it’s a mess. It has a mind of its own.”