During the summer, when it became apparent that his nine-year stay in the English League was ending, U.S. national team goalkeeper Kasey Keller expressed a desire to play in Germany, Spain or Italy. He got his wish, landing in one of soccer's most passionate cities, Madrid.

But he did not join world-renowned Real Madrid or crosstown power Atletico. It was Rayo Vallecano, a humble club from a gritty neighborhood on the city's edge that plays in a 19,500-seat stadium and constantly is bouncing between the first and second divisions.

It's not the most glamorous place to be, but a month into the season, Vallecano is the surprise of the top division with a 3-0 record, including an opening-day upset at Atletico (0-3), to tie defending champion FC Barcelona for first place. Vallecano plays at Celta Vigo (2-1) Sunday.

"We have surpassed all expectations," Keller, who has yielded two goals, told Spanish news agency Efe. "I believe this was the best moment to move, and Madrid the place to move to."

In England, Keller, 29, played six seasons for Millwall and three for Leicester City. With his contract expired, he nearly joined Wimbledon in June, but that deal fell through.

Keller's play with Vallecano has helped him maintain his status as the U.S. national team's No. 1 goalkeeper; his main competitor, Brad Friedel, is sitting on the bench at English power Liverpool. Keller, who played well for the United States at the Confederations Cup in Mexico during the summer, probably won't rejoin the national team until January when Coach Bruce Arena's squad begins an ambitious 2000 schedule.

Keeping Up Abroad

While Keller stars in Spain, two Americans got a taste of the prestigious European Champions League this week and a third watched his club squander a two-goal lead on the road in Champions League play.

Glasgow Rangers midfielder Claudio Reyna, a former University of Virginia star who was the Scottish League's player of the month in August, played all 90 minutes in a 2-0 road loss to Valencia of Spain on Wednesday in the Champions League opener for both clubs.

Frankie Hejduk, formerly with Major League Soccer's Tampa Bay Mutiny, started at right back for Germany's Bayer Leverkusen in a 1-1 tie with visiting Lazio of Rome on Tuesday. Former D.C. United midfielder Tony Sanneh traveled with Hertha Berlin for Wednesday's 2-2 tie with Galatasaray of Istanbul, but did not play.

Rhinos' Charge

After the minor league Rochester (N.Y.) Raging Rhinos' victory over MLS's Colorado Rapids in the U.S. Open Cup final Wednesday, talk has resurfaced about adding them as an MLS expansion team in the next few years. The Rhinos beat four MLS clubs to win the title in the 86-year-old tournament, which is open to all U.S. pro and amateur teams.

"The league has always had an interest in bringing them in, but the issue really is their stadium situation, which they have to resolve," said United President and General Manager Kevin Payne, a member of MLS's board of governors. "I hope that them winning this will assist them in getting some stronger commitments from local government" to build a new stadium.

Rochester averages about 11,000 fans per game -- better than MLS's Miami and Kansas City franchises -- but borrows Frontier Field from minor league baseball's Rochester Red Wings. Also, the team's ownership probably would need to raise about $20 million to meet MLS's financial demands. MLS hopes to add two teams in 2001 and two more soon thereafter. Houston, Philadelphia, Atlanta and Portland, Ore., are among the other candidates. . . .

Eliminated from playoff contention for the third straight year, the San Jose Clash fired coach Brian Quinn yesterday and replaced him with former U.S. national team and Olympic coach Lothar Osiander.