[MLS CONFIDENTIAL] No doubt Landon Donovan's second -- and so far equally successful -- loan spell with Everton is improving the image of MLS, but watching Robbie Keane fire in goals and smash shots off the crossbar for Aston Villa has to be just as significant.
Villa manager Alex McLeish’s inquiry into extending the loan has been rejected by the Galaxy, and while it’s always possible terms could be worked out, just the fact he’s been so impressive – three goals and several near-misses in four games – is stark evidence that MLS is stocked with better foreign talent than some observers contend.
A steady flow of second-tier Central American and South American talent may be tailor-made to the requirements and restrictions of MLS, but said players don’t much elevate the league’s image in Europe. Despite helping the Galaxy to a No. 1 playoff seed and league title last November, David Beckham is regarded as a shameless piece of marketing and not much more, though that didn’t stop hordes of reporters and journalists from descending on Home Depot Center last November to cover MLS Cup 2011.
Playing with his usual fire, craft and commitment that night, Keane shone but didn’t dominate. The Galaxy, obviously superior, still needed a special moment from its three Designated Players, with Keane and Beckham playing the ball that Donovan put away for the only goal of the game. A few of the foreign journalists took note of a decent standard of play livened by some memorable moments, but the radiance of Beckham’s smile competing with that of the MLS trophy blinded the vast majority to the typically heroic effort put forth by Keane.
Brian McBride flourished in England, first on loan and then via a transfer to Fulham, and Clint Dempseyshattered McBride's record for goals by a U.S. player while wearing the same jersey, but they and Donovan are American products. Their success helps the cause of U.S. players abroad more than that of the league; Keane is a different case, that of an established, accomplished pro who in just six months has won an MLS league title and stepped right back into the Premier League pressure-cooker.
Keane broke into the English game at the age of 17 for Wolverhampton, scoring twice on his first-team debut. He’s one of only 15 players to score more than 100 competitive goals for Tottenham. The native of Dublin is Ireland’s all-time leading scorer (53 goals), and while his club career is dotted with high-priced transfers that didn’t last long, he’s so far refuted any suspicion that the Galaxy’s purchase of him – for a reported 4 million euros ($5.2 million) – is the boondoggle some believe it to be.
Contrast the case of Keane with that of Nicolas Anelka, who had also made contact with MLS but instead decided to sign up with the Chinese league. I didn’t hear of any Premier League clubs trying to get him on loan. The exodus of fading Europeans to the Middle East is rightly mocked for being all about the money; such might have been the case 30-odd years ago in the old North American Soccer League, but that’s not the case in MLS. Stragglers need not apply.
The cynics can argue that Keane hasn’t been in MLS long enough for his skills to erode alarmingly, and that playing for Ireland next June in the European Championships will be a stiffer test. Yet in November, he struggled through a torn adductor to score the goals that helped Ireland beat Estonia to qualify for the Euros, then flew back to rejoin the Galaxy and contribute to its triumph.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said it would be nice if Thierry Henry’s loan deal could be extended, but though he netted 15 goals for the Red Bulls last season, nagging injuries have limited his effectiveness for the Gunners. He’s not been able to enhance the league’s image much, though he did net a winning goal to down Leeds in the FA Cup and scored the final goal of a 7-1 thrashing of Blackburn. On the Premier League stage, he looks as if his best years are past him; not so for Keane.
Keane’s high-priced MLS move could still go sour. In the summer, he’ll be 32, the age at which the muscles and sinews show more strain, and recovery times increase. Yet despite his exorbitant cost, the Galaxy can’t afford to let him stay longer in England. The Concacaf Champions League quest starts March 7, the regular season three days after that. He may form a dream partnership with Edson Buddle, but they’ve yet to line up together for a team photo, much less a match.
The Galaxy took a gamble on Keane, whose expensive moves haven’t always paid off. But in the same sense that every American succeeding overseas makes it a bit easier for the next one, Keane’s prowess burnishes the image of MLS and gives more credence to claims that someone like Tim Ream can make the jump to the big time.