What's the deal with Robbie Keane? A point-counter point

How many celebratory fist-pumps are ahead once Robbie Keane (seen here for the Republic of Ireland) pulls on the Galaxy shirt?

I’m feeling conflicted today about Robbie Keane. Well, also about retro fashion, fat-laden Caesar salads and the true merits of asset allocation – but those are conflicts I’ll tackle another day.

So, about “Kean-o,” the Irish international set to pitch his tent down in Bruce Arena Valley, a.k.a. the Home Depot Center.

On the one hand, he’s a guy who can probably help the Galaxy quest, the hell-bent drive to grab an MLS Cup when it’s all so sweetly arranged, the 2011 league championship to be played in sunny So-Cal and all. At the very least, Keane will be an upgrade over Juan Pablo Angel, who scored just three more goals than I did for the Galaxy over the first three-quarters of L.A.’s 2011 campaign.

On the other hand, this is no slam dunk for success for a number of reasons. And it could be counter-productive in the long run for MLS. Every time we up the ante on the DP chase, as the Galaxy’s aggressive owners surely did here, I fear the genie is out of the bottle for good on the MLS arms race.  

I mean, here’s a guy whose career has died out and then been reignited more than Zippo lighter, and yet the Galaxy spent somewhere north of $3 million to acquire his rights. That, of course, would represent an amount that greatly exceeds every MLS club’s theoretical payroll. (“Theoretical” because the $2.675 million salary cap doesn’t include money paid beyond the designated cap figures for those wealthy DPs. Still, you get the point.)

So, I think I’ll have a little point-counter point with myself – the same, I suppose, I see “troubled” folks having as they walk down city streets arguing with themselves.

On the one hand, the guy can score. He’s the 10th-leading goal-scorer in Premier League history with 123 goals, and that’s a number that speaks for itself. On the other hand, he hasn’t been a consistent goal-getter since 2008. No, I don’t count those 12 hits for Celtic in 2010 as wholly representative of a striker on top of things. The Scottish Premier League is a two-tiered odd duck of an operation; Celtic and Rangers are generally so far above the field that those goals need an asterisk. I have watched every one and they fell largely into one of two categories: penalty kicks or strikes where the defending was somewhere between sluggish and inept. That doesn’t mean Keane can’t be a wiz-bang scorer these days, it just means he hasn’t proven so in my mind since his last favorable campaign at White Hart Lane back in the 2007-08 season.

On the one hand, Keane is no Joey Barton. That is, he’s no renowned trouble maker. On the other hand, Keane is one of these types where the story always seems to be about him, rather than his team. So, we’ll see on that one.

On the one hand, he’s a guy who seems to have passion in his pursuits, and that speaks well of him. On the other hand, we won’t know for certain if the fire still burns brightly until he proves that it does. And that’s a critical element, because success in MLS for international transfers really is about commitment. The league’s physical ways and the taxing travel demand that players care for themselves properly and maintain a high level of motivation.  Just look at the Red Bulls, the other MLS side with three DPs. Thierry Henry is doing his part for New York, leading the league with 12 goals. But he always seemed to have the fire and desire; Henry said all the right things immediately upon MLS arrival and then backed it up, those early injury nicks notwithstanding. But then you look at Rafa Marquez, whose body language and words never seemed to indicate the same premium level of commitment. Now, sure enough, Marquez looks sluggish and disinterested, and his play for the struggling Red Bulls leaves much to be desired. Success for DPs in MLS, in so many ways, comes down to one thing: did the guy bring his “give-a-damn?”   

On the one hand, he’s surely a special talent. Here’s what I wrote about Keane in yesterday’s Tactics column that appears weekly at MLSSoccer.com.

Keane is a classic striker who needs to be near positioned near goal, blessed with immense quality near the top of the 18. If you look at Keane’s goals for Liverpool, Celtic and Tottenham, so many came off short little runs launched from just outside the penalty area, where a quick burst for separation and then one sweet little touch gets him in alone on suddenly scrambling goalkeepers.

So he’s generally not someone looking to set up shots from 20-25 yards the way, say, Thierry Henry does at Red Bull Arena. (See Henry’s goal over the weekend, No. 12 on the year, for the perfect example.) Rather, Keane uses those striker’s instincts to drift away from his marker at the precise moment.

Similarly, he’s also quite adept at slipping behind defenses from 35-40 yards out, again playing just off the defender’s shoulder pending the moment of truth. In this case, “the truth” will frequently be coming off David Beckham’s right foot. Beckham’s ability to supply Keane with those well-weighted projectiles through gaps in the back line could be a beautiful thing, assuming everyone gets quickly connected.

On the other hand, something has gone wrong with the man. I understand that he got stuck behind some talented strikers at Tottenham, specifically Roman Pavyluchenko and Jermain Defoe. Still, this guy’s future has been in doubt for 18 months, as teams across Great Britain have engaged in a long-running game of “Who’s Got Next?” with Keane. I mean, he was set to play for Leicester this year in England’s second tier. Nobody wanted him. I know some of that had to do with Keane’s wages, but still …

The L.A. Galaxy paid handsomely for someone they consider a Premiership striker. But I’m just not sure that’s a description that fits Keane anymore.

Keane is 31 years old. On the one hand, Juan Pablo Angel was about the same age when he arrived in New York. Angel was more than worth the money, striking 19 times over 24 games in 2007. He was, in fact, an EPL quality striker. On the other hand, Freddie Ljungberg was about the same age when he showed up at Quest Field for Seattle. Ljungberg was never awful, and was even somewhat productive with four goals and 19 assists in 54 games. But it’s safe to say he wasn’t “all that” for the Sounders, who clearly (and understandably) wanted more than “somewhat productive” from their pricey DP.

Two more quick points: attackers new to MLS do usually require an adjustment period. Henry did. So will Keane, presumably. But the MLS playoffs are just around the corner; so he doesn’t have a great deal of luxury here.

And finally, this: I’ve seen it written that Keane has become someone who cares more about his international career for Ireland than he does about his own personal club success. So, uh, does that mean the Galaxy just took on someone who prioritizes things going on “over there” rather than matters at hand “over here?”  Did the Galaxy just add a player who will always be on the lookout for his next chance to hop over the Atlantic and to hook up with his true love, never mind how it might affect his employers? Because, as I think we all know, the Galaxy already has one of those.

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