WASHINGTON – Robbie Keane spent a week without a ball following the 2014 season, during which he appeared in 44 competitive games for club or country, captured the MLS MVP award and captained the LA Galaxy to its third championship in four years.
“Seven days after the MLS final I was playing five-a-side with my mates in Ireland. Seven days after,” he said.
How friendly was it?
“I wouldn’t say I was kicking people,” Keane told SI.com. “But I definitely wanted to win.”
Keane, who’s been a professional for 17 of his 34 years, wanted a break after a season that proved to be somewhat trying, at least by the Galaxy’s standards. It kicked off with a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal loss to Club Tijuana and a stuttering 2-3-3 start to the MLS campaign. The club endured tragedy in the form of the death of defender A.J. DeLaGarza’s infant son, which Keane said was “terrible for everybody.”
And it endured distraction, from Landon Donovan’s World Cup exclusion and subsequent farewell tour to the smaller subplots surrounding Omar Gonzalez and Robbie Rogers.
But Keane barely blinked, and his 21st goal of the season lifted L.A. over the visiting New England Revolution in the MLS Cup final. It was a dream ending for a player who’s as ruthless and focused as they come, even if it left him needing a bit of rest.
A couple of days after the final, he told reporters, “I definitely need to recharge the batteries and see what the next chapter is for me, whether it's here or it's somewhere else … I'm not saying I'm going to leave, but what I'm saying is I need to consider what I want to do, you know? Sometimes change is good for everybody.”
Cue the speculation. Had Keane had his fill of MLS?
Did he miss playing in England, where he remains the 12th-leading goal scorer in Premier League history? Had he accomplished all there was to accomplish during his three-plus years in Southern California?
“It was certainly a long season and you get reporters asking you questions about what you’re going to be doing and are you going to be here and stuff like that, and all I said was that I wanted to recharge the batteries and see, because I see myself playing for a long time,” Keane said Tuesday in the nation's capital. “I see myself playing longer than what I have left [on my current contract], which is one year. I see way longer than that – like four or five years – I can see myself playing.”
The “change” he referred to in December, it turns out, simply referred to the place he’d be kicking a ball over the ensuing few weeks.
“I was in Ireland the whole time,” he said. “Didn’t leave there. We played five-a-side twice a week with my friends from when I was a kid, my brother and stuff. I played football golf, which is basically golf with kicking a football, and I just spent time with the family.”
It’s that thirst for the game that drives Keane, who very well may be the best foreign signing in MLS history.
Marco Etcheverry, Carlos Valderrama and Jaime Moreno, as good as they were, played in an era of 10-12 teams, half-empty stadiums and bare-bones rosters. It was a different league back then. David Beckham brought unprecedented attention and cache, but won his two titles once Keane joined him in L.A. Thierry Henry reinvigorated the New York Red Bulls, which was no small feat, but won only a single Supporters' Shield during his five-season sojourn.
Keane, meanwhile, has torn through the league. He’s tallied 16, 16 and then 19 goals during his three full regular seasons, hasn’t had fewer than nine assists in a given year and has struck nine times in the playoffs. Perhaps most importantly, he’s added old-school grit and humility to a club that already had plenty of Hollywood.
“It’s very rare that an international player can step into this league, be adjusted instantly and not explain to us how you are supposed to do things and how it’s done elsewhere,” L.A. coach Bruce Arena said following the most recent MLS Cup triumph. “I’ve never heard one ‘This is how they do it at Liverpool or Tottenham.’ He’s bought into Major League Soccer from the start. He’s our greatest advocate. It’s been fabulous. Look of what we’ve done since we’ve acquired Robbie.”
It’s easy to wonder whether men who’ve performed at the highest level, those who’ve thrived amid the scrutiny and passion of the Premier League [or the Bundesliga, Serie A, etc.] crucible, really can be challenged and fulfilled by the pursuit of an MLS Cup. Globally, the 19-year-old title isn’t exactly threatening the top end of the football honors power ranking. It’s easy to imagine that after winning three in four years, Keane might train his eye toward a more renowned piece of silverware.
On Monday, Keane joined his Galaxy teammates, as well as the Los Angeles Kings, at the White House. President Barack Obama mentioned the Irishman twice during his short speech. That didn’t feel small time. The goal Keane scored in the 111th minute of December’s final – on a play that started with a perfect long ball from Marcelo Sarvas and ended with Keane cartwheeling toward the L.A. Riot Squad in the southeast corner of StubHub Center – felt like the one every striker dreams of scoring.
The opponent may play in the EPL, in MLS or on the other five-a-side team in the park. Keane simply yearns to beat him. He’s fueled by each individual triumph, each notch in his belt. Whether it's a trophy, a goal or merely a defender left flailing and hopeless, every notch is sweet. And the taste never gets old.
“I want four [MLS Cups] next year. And then after that I want five. And I’ll continue to try for that because, first and foremost, I love playing the game. It’s simple. And when you’re playing, you’re enjoying yourself, but you play to win games. You play to be champions,” Keane said. “To have moments like the one we had at the end of the season, in extra time, even though it was a tough game, to have that moment when you score the winning goal, to have that buzz again. They’re the feelings that don’t happen to many players and you don’t get that very often. I’ve had it for a few years now and I want that buzz again next year. I want to come back here again next year, to the White House. I want to see the president again.”
If winning is Keane’s passion, then it makes sense for him to stay in L.A. No MLS club has won more, and the Galaxy’s ambition to continue its run was evident when it made a commitment to Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, who will arrive this summer. Keane wouldn’t reveal his long-term plans – “I’m sure you’ll find out soon,” he said – but he expressed a deep desire to help keep the Galaxy’s Q rating intact.
“I want to make the Galaxy one of the biggest names there is. That’s about winning. People forget about the people who lose,” he said. “You go without a championship for two or three years and other teams start taking over. It flips. Look at Chelsea and Man City, now. Man United were tops for years and years, and now it’s gone. Liverpool as well. All the kids in Ireland when I was a kid, they were Liverpool fans. Man United. And now….”
A conversation with Keane is peppered with references to Ireland, his love for playing for the national team and his upbringing. He said his formative years in Dublin were exactly that. London and L.A. certainly have brought him fame and fortune, but they haven’t changed him.
“I come from a place where you have to, not say survive, almost, but I came from the streets of Dublin, where it’s tough. You have to look after yourself. You have to be mentally strong. You have to have a hunger about you, a toughness about you, because you’re living in tough situation,” he said. “I think that’s mentally made me a stronger person from an earlier age, and I think I’ve continued that streak from the streets of Dublin to where I am now.”
Which is why when asked about his accomplishments in L.A., he doesn’t talk in big, bold ways about rising tides and growing the game and leaving a legacy. He dispenses with the thematic or the grandiose. He keeps it quantitative.
“David’s completely different from me in terms of that because he’s a brand, you know? I’m completely different. I came here to win things. And David also, but David had other things going on also. But for me, it’s about winning. Leave a legacy here? I think I probably already have with what I’ve achieved since I’ve been here … but for me, that’s not good enough. I want to keep going and make a bigger legacy,” he said.
“I still want to be the best player on the training field every day. I want to be the best player on the field when it comes to it on Saturday. Doing that, that shows them more than anything, then just sitting a young lad down and speaking to him, which I’ll do anyway. But for me, it’s showing them what it’s like to continue to play at the top for long, long time.”