Robbie Keane and Galaxy target third MLS Cup in four seasons

The Ireland captain has embraced Major League Soccer in a way few imports have

To understand exactly why the Los Angeles Galaxy fans are so smitten by Robbie Keane we must turn the clock back to last year's World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan at the Aviva Stadium.

After scoring a penalty in Ireland's 3-1 victory, Keane flew to London to catch a transatlantic flight back to California.

The plane was delayed at Heathrow and didn't touch down at LAX until 4pm the next day. Before he even left the airport, Keane phoned the Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, declaring himself available for that night's game.

At that point in the 2013 Major League Soccer season, the Galaxy still needed wins to punch their ticket to the play-offs and Keane was anxious to do his bit.


Arena was taken aback by the offer and somewhat reluctant to risk a player who’d played 90 minutes in Dublin then travelled 6,000 miles across umpteen time zones while sitting in a confined space.

But Keane was persuasive, insisting he was fit and raring to go. With half an hour remaining in a scoreless contest against Montreal Impact, he was finally sprung from the bench.

If his involvement in the move that led to Kofi Opare’s winner vindicated Keane’s decision to back himself over jet lag, perhaps even more significant in the eyes of supporters was the mere fact he wanted so badly to be involved in such a crucial game.

Commitment level

Although they may pretend otherwise, MLS fans are always ultra-sensitive to the commitment level of high-profile imports. And with good reason too. They have been burned many times before.

Youri Djorkaeff once told the New York Red Bulls he was going home to France to tend to his ailing mother, then turned up in Frankfurt watching his former team-mates play a World Cup quarter-final against Brazil.

The one-time Barcelona defender Rafa Marquez appeared largely disinterested during his spell with the same club, denouncing his colleagues as inferior and quarrelling with everybody.

David Beckham missed a Galaxy game to attend Gary Neville's testimonial in Manchester and always seemed a little reluctant to return on schedule from his more glamorous winter loan spells in Europe.

Since arriving in Los Angeles in the summer of 2011, Keane has never been distracted by potential suitors, never spoken condescendingly about his peers, and, at all times appeared wholly dedicated to the club and the league.

This may explain why when the Galaxy try to win their third MLS Cup in his four seasons against New England Revolution on Sunday, the Dubliner will wear the captain's armband and carry the freshly-minted title of the league's Most Valuable Player. An award largely gained through scoring 19 goals (many of them YouTube spectaculars) and creating 14 more, he has contributed hugely in other ways too.

“Keane’s been the captain for the last two years, and in that role he’s shepherded the younger players,” says Josie Becker who covers the Galaxy for SB Nation. “We’ve seen him hone young Gyasi Zardes’ skills and make him into a goal scoring threat of his own.”


A late bloomer who didn’t turn pro until 21, the 6ft 2ins Zardes was taken aside by Keane last season and warned to cut down on step-overs and eye-catching tricks and make sharper runs in behind defenders.

In just his second MLS campaign Zardes has scored 16 goals and there is talk of him receiving an international call-up.

At the other end of the career trajectory, Landon Donovan has been equally strong in his praise of Keane. For very different reasons.

In Donovan’s first game back with the club after being sensationally dropped from the United States’ World Cup squad in May, Keane presented him with two gift-wrapped chances inside the box.

Instead of padding his own record against Philadelphia Union that day, he recognised the American icon might benefit more from scoring twice at the lowest point of his professional life. Then, before the final home game of the regular season, a fixture where the soon-to-be-retired Donovan was being honoured, Keane took off the captain’s armband and gave it to him.

“He has made a number of really nice gestures that have meant a lot to me,” said Donovan.

As a designated player, Keane's guaranteed salary is $4.5 million (€3.67m) whereas Dan Gargan, the side's starting right-back earns just over $900 per week. Even a rising star like Zardes is currently on the relatively paltry $173,000 a year.

That sort of gaping chasm in wages can seriously hinder team chemistry. Indeed, Beckham was pilloried for failing to pick up the tab when out for dinner with financially embarrassed Galaxy team-mates at Morton’s Steakhouse during his early days in Los Angeles.

Keane’s effervescent personality and childish love of locker-room pranks has ensured there is no gulf between him and his less well-off peers. Indeed, a few weeks ago, Gargan used an online Q and A with fans to delightedly mock his captain’s love of hair products and mirrors.

While some players were initially a little shocked when Keane shouted at them so much on the field, they have come to appreciate that the oldest and most experienced man on the team has wisdom to impart.

“There’s no question that Robbie should be the MVP,” said Arena. “He’s a great player. He’s well respected. People in the league believe in his quality. He’s fully accepted what this is about. And he’s bought into it. He doesn’t say ‘at Liverpool we do this’ or ‘at Tottenham we do that’.”

Keane’s success in America is sometimes downplayed as kind of inevitable, especially by those who don’t know MLS well. The thinking is a player of his talent should always shine in a league where the standard most often probably resembles the lower half of the Championship.

Yet, long is the list of overpaid imports who have failed to acclimatise on and off the field and struggled to compete. Even allowing for injuries truncating his campaign, his former Spurs’ team-mate Jermain Defoe’s disastrous debut campaign in Toronto is a case in point.

Having had both his Achilles tendons operated on last winter, Keane never once this season looked like a man who made his professional debut for Wolves alongside the likes of Steve Bull and Keith Curle more than 17 years ago. With a contract extension taking him up to the end of 2016, and his family very content with the sunshine and the Hollywood lifestyle, it’s little wonder he waxed lyrical the other day about his desire to keep playing.

“I wake up every morning looking forward to practice (American for training),” said Keane. “I wake up every Saturday and Sunday and can’t wait to play the game.”

A couple of years ago, Keane, Beckham and Russell Brand posed for a picture at a Los Angeles Lakers' basketball match. Famously, Reuters named the two Englishmen when they put the shot on the wires but captioned Keane as an unidentified fan. He may never share Brand's notoriety or enjoy Beckham's global recognition but his impact on the game in America may yet be far more enduring than that of his former team-mate.

Dave Hannigan

Dave Hannigan

Dave Hannigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in New York