[MLS SPOTLIGHT] His arrival in mid-August and some minor injuries limited Irish international Robbie Keane to just four regular-season games, but he capped off a punishing run of six games in 18 days by setting up the only goal of MLS Cup 2011.
Amid the delirious celebrations that ensued at Home Depot Center Sunday night when referee Ricardo Salazar’s whistle signaled the end of the game, one Galaxy player struggled just to stand up.
“He almost dropped to the ground after the game, he was so tired,” said teammate Todd Dunivant after a match decided when Landon Donovan polished off a great through ball from Keane. “But he pushed through it and he was a difference-maker.
“In finals you have to make plays, and Robbie was making plays all night.”
The pain of utter exhaustion etched Keane’s face, but still he forced a joyful smile through his grimace. While perhaps he didn’t bounce around the field to salute the fans as did many of his teammates, he forged enough stamina to gut it out, just as he’d done to endure a brutally draining November.
“It’s been a crazy week, to be honest with you,” said Keane of a frantic final phase that took him from L.A. to Tallin to Dublin – the city of his birth -- and back to L.A. “To have played six games in 2 ½ weeks, back to Estonia to play and then back here four days later, I’m a little tired.”
Starting with the first leg of the conference semifinals against New York Nov. 2, Keane started and played the vast majority of minutes in all four Galaxy postseason games. Wedged between the conference final and MLS Cup were Euro 2012 qualifiers four days apart, during which Ireland thumped Estonia, 4-0, with Keane scoring twice, before Ireland closed out the playoff by tying in Dublin, the city of his birth, 1-1.
He returned to Los Angeles last Wednesday and sat out Thursday’s training session before getting in some work Friday and Saturday. On Sunday, his sharp dribbles, slick combinations, and relentless energy terrorized the Houston back line, but as missed opportunities piled up, frustration exacerbated his increasing fatigue.
“You always get frustrated if you’re not winning the game,” said Keane of long periods of Galaxy domination that failed to produce a goal. “You try to win as comfortable as possible. When you get to those stages of 70 minutes, you know anything can happen in football.”
Before that 70-minute mark, Adam Cristman had squandered three chances. Early in the second half, Keane shot narrowly wide from a good spot, and midway through the second half, he raced clear to fire home a goal disallowed by a painfully tight offside decision.
A few seconds of celebration melted into exhausted disbelief when he heard the whistle and realized the flag was up. “It makes it a lot easier when you go a goal up,” said Keane of his feast-then-famine reaction. “When it’s nil-nil, everybody’s a bit tense.”
In the 72nd minute, the Galaxy’s three Designated Players blew the lid off that tension. A pass from AJ DeLaGarza was headed on by David Beckham to Keane and isolated the Irishman against defender Bobby Boswell, and Keane lured the American out of space he used to play a ball that Donovan steered just inside the post.
“The ball came over to me, Landon made a good run, and I managed to get him in, and he scored it,” Keane said in his typically direct and earnest manner. “When strikers go through, you’re always hoping that they’re going to score and it was a great finish by him.
“We deserved to win, we dominated the game.”
Houston right back Andre Hainault was stationed on that side of the field and could only observe. His time in Europe doesn’t come close to the nearly 400 club games Keane has played in England, Scotland, Italy and MLS, but the Canadian international knows class when he sees it.
“Look at the experience he has, the teams he’s played for Tottenham, Celtic, Liverpool, etc., his resume, the defenders he’s played against and the players he’s played with,” says Hainault. “You’ve got be sharp. All the little things, you have to be doing them against players like that, especially with the form he’s had.”
Before the final, Dunivant had joked that Keane, like most foreign players who come to MLS, didn’t immediately grasp the concept of playoffs following a league season. “The regular season ended and Robbie had no idea what was going on,” laughed Dunivant. “He was like, ‘Wait, we’re doing what?’ But he understands. I think he’s one of the guys who wants to win more than anything.”
Twenty minutes after Donovan’s goal, the biggest crowd – 30,281 officially – for a soccer game at HDC blew out a huge roar of elation and relief, and Dunivant noticed what very few others did: One of the fittest, toughest 31-year-old professional athletes in the world could barely remain vertical.
“Going to Ireland and Estonia, with that travel at that kind of intensity and level, and come back, has absolutely destroyed his legs,” said the nine-year veteran of Keane’s remarkable run of more than five hours of competitive play and dozens of hours in the air
“He’s the most tired guy in there, by far. No human should have to go through that, and I don’t know how he did, and he played 90 minutes tonight. You wouldn’t have known it.”