(Saturday, March 22, 2008) -- Four-time United States World Cup goalkeeper Kasey Keller has the distinction of being the oldest player in the English Premier League. He'd prefer to be remembered as the player who led Fulham to escape the relegation zone.
The Lacy, Wash., native who turned 38 on November 29, is still near the top of his form, regaining the starting job soon after a three-month lay-off for surgery to repair a torn biceps. He still was unable to prevent the Cottagers from suffering a 2-0 setback at the hands of host Newcastle United before 52,293 at St. James' Park this afternoon. The match, which began in snow and rain, ended in sunshine.
Fulham (4-16-11, 23 points), with a record five Americans on its roster, is mired in 19th place, four points below the safety of 17th place. With only seven games remaining, the Cottagers are running out of time. Fulham has an excellent opportunity to start a final push out of the drop zone with a visit Saturday to last-place Derby County, followed by a home match with 16th-place Sunderland and a road game with Reading, tied for 14th.
Today's defeat blunted the progress of the past the past two weeks -- a 1-1- draw at Blackburn Rovers March 8 and 1-0 triumph over visiting Everton last Sunday. Without Keller's efforts in net, today's losing margin would have been at least twice as bad to struggling United, which raised its record to 8-15-8 with 32 points. At 0-9-6, Fulham remains one of two teams -- last-place Derby County is the other -- to not have won on the road this season.
The Cottagers got of to a bad start against Newcastle when Fulham defender Brede Hangeland inexplicably gave Mark Viduka room to operate at the top of the penalty area in the sixth minute. Viduka took his time and sent a sharp left-footer just beyond the reach of Keller into the left corner of the net.
Keller repeatedly denied United after that, making a diving save on a sharp drive from Obafemi Martins in the 23rd minute, stopping Michael Owen's 25-yard drive in the 29th minute and close-range header in 36th minute, making a quick reaction save to prevent an own goal from former U.S. teammate Brian McBride after a defensive scramble in the goalmouth and denying Viduka's attempt in the 66th minute.
There was little Keller could do in the 83rd minute when an unmarked Owen deftly drilled a header off Geremi's free kick into the net.
McBride was starting for the second straight match after missing most of the season following surgery for the left kneecap in dislocated in the season opener. He was paired up top with U.S. striker Eddie Johnson, making his third straight start since signing with the Cottagers.
In his three starts, Johnson has not contributed much, giving Fulham more pace up front, but he has played timidly and not taken advantage of a number of chances he has been given. The fact that he continues in a starting role shows how poorly Fulham's offense has performed.
In the 67th minute against Newcastle, American Clint Dempsey replaced McBride, who had seen little service and as Fulham went to a more short-passing attack. Dempsey is still the team's leading scorer with six goals, but he has not scored since December 26, so he now finds himself used mainly as a second-half substitute.
U.S. defender Carlos Bocanegra has lost his starting job to the newly-arrived, 6-foot-5 Hangeland because Fulham has had trouble winning headers. Bocanegra, who did not play against Newcastle, is five inches shorter.
If Fulham avoids relegation, it might well be because of McBride, who beat one-time U.S. teammate Tim Howard to down Everton at Craven Cottage. Keller's posted a clean sheet to prevail in the meeting of American keepers.
In the 67th minute, McBride cleanly beat Howard with a sharp header off a cross from Simon Davies. Keller, who was credited with eight saves, was at his best when he denied striker Aiyegbeni Yakubu three minutes before intermission.
In that match, McBride, Johnson and Keller started, while both Dempsey and Bocanegra came on in the second half. With Howard in the Everton goal, that meant that six Americans played in the match, the first time that has ever happened in the Premier League.
Fulham also faced an American keeper a week earlier when Keller and Brad Friedel, both who have played in the World Cup, each was beaten once in the draw in the wind and rain at Ewood Park.
The match was critical to both teams for very different reasons. While Fulham is trying to avoid assignment to the second-tier League Championship, Rovers (13-8-10) are in a three-way tie for seventh place and were hoping to stay in the race for fifth (now eight points away) and its berth in the Europe's second-level UEFA Cup.
Blackburn went ahead on a controversial goal, before Fulham earned the draw with a late free kick.
In the 59th minute, Blackburn reserve Jason Roberts went down the right side. His fellow forward Morten Gamst Pedersen threw Fulham defender Paul Stalteri to the ground without a call on the obvious foul. Now unmarked, Pedersen powered Roberts' cross past Keller for a 1-0 lead.
In the 89th minute, Johnson was fouled just outside the Blackburn box and Jimmy Bullard put a perfect free kick past a diving Friedel.
Johnson started and went 90 minute as the lone Fulham striker. McBride stayed on the bench, perhaps to protect his reconstructed knee from the field conditions, given the cold and driving rain.
In the first half, Johnson seemed hesitant and did not take any advantage of several near breaks he got. He did better in the second 45 minutes, at one point beating Friedel but hitting the goalpost. McBride replaced Dempsey in the 66th minute, but really had no impact in the match.