By Ridge Mahoney
Assistant coach Dave Sarachan didn't need the Castrol Index ratings to tell him how valuable striker Robbie Keane has been to the Galaxy this season.
When the Galaxy plays the Quakes Wednesday night in their second Western Conference semifinal (11 pm ET, ESPN2), the player to watch is Keane. He’s not as nimble nor as fast as Landon Donovan, and he can’t bend the ball like you-know-who, but he’s what the Galaxy, trailing 1-0 from the first leg, need: a relentless battler and goalgetter.
The final regular-season Castrol figures released Tuesday placed Keane at the top with 854 points per 90 minutes. He edged out the runner-up, San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski, who registered 836 points per 90. Keane finished fourth in MLS with 16 goals and also logged nine assists as Wondo rolled to the scoring title by tying Roy Lassiter’s league record of 27 goals.
“The thing I never realized with Robbie was how good his feet are, how technically clean he is,” says Sarachan, who has coached in MLS and for U.S. Soccer since 1997. “You can crush a ball into his feet and he’s going to kill it dead. He’s got the ability to not only receive balls but turn quickly.
“For my money and I’ve been in this league a long time, if he stays healthy he’s going to go down as one of the greatest forwards this league has ever seen given all the attributes he brings.”
Since joining the Galaxy in August of last year, Keane – who receives a salary of $3.1 million, second on the team only to David Beckham – has scored 19 goals and registered 11 assists in 38 games, including playoffs. He’s on pace to become one of the best Designated Player signings in league history, and unlike many DPs signed by MLS teams, sweats through his shoes every time he steps on the field while utilizing the vision and guile honed by more than a decade with European clubs.
Keane’s contribution is critical since Edson Buddle has labored through a frustrating season, scoring just three goals in 20 regular-season and playoff games. In the conference semifinal, first leg against the Quakes, Keane narrowly missed the far post with a flicked backward header from a Beckham free kick and in the final minutes lashed a shot from outside the penalty area off the crossbar.
Competitive fires burn hot within the Irish international, the top scorer in his nation’s history with 54 goals. If a teammate chooses not to pass to an open Keane and instead fluffs the opportunity, Keane lets loose. He berated keeper Josh Saunders after the keeper’s gaffe let a deflected free kick slip under his arms for the only goal of the first leg.
When the teams tied 2-2 at Buck Shaw Stadium, Oct. 21, Keane dropped into central midfield during a first-half highlighted by three clean breakthroughs that the Galaxy couldn’t put away. San Jose adjusted tactically to close off that space, but couldn’t subdue Keane, who scored – along with Buddle – after halftime to give the Galaxy their first point against the Quakes after losing, 4-3 and 3-2, earlier in the season.
Keane scored after initiating a one-two with Buddle, whose low cross deflected off two opponents before he steered it into the net. Like Wondolowksi and other goal poachers, his uncanny sense of where the ball might bounce yields good shots on half-chances.
One of the few drawbacks to fielding a player like Keane in MLS is his teammates don’t anticipate and read situations as alertly as he does. He and Beckham and Donovan combine often – as evidenced in the first leg by the drag-back pass from Donovan that Keane smacked first-time off the crossbar – but misfires with other Galaxy players occur regularly.
“The one partnership that’s been really effective is Landon and he,” says Sarachan. “They both are at a IQ level as forwards that they read each other. That didn’t take long. Other forwards and other partnerships, you know sometimes Robbie sees a play or two ahead and they’re still behind.
“Now that the team has been around Robbie and seen him in training and been involved with him day-to-day, like the Mikey Magees, they get it. Hopefully with Edson getting more minutes with Robbie they’ll form a good partnership.”
Buddle, who had started in the 2-2 tie, didn’t do much in the first leg after replacing Beckham in the 78th minute. Among the decisions faced by Coach Bruce Arena is whether to stick with Keane and Donovan up top or tweak his formation and personnel yet again in the hope Buddle and Keane can flourish together. Yet Keane is also adept at harassing opponents into giveaways and pouncing on half-chances.
“Listen, it’s all to play for on Wednesday,” said Keane after the first leg. “We obviously know what we’re in for, but we know it’s certainly going to be a tough game when you go a goal behind anybody.”
Because of national team commitments and a bothersome adductor injury, Keane played only eight games in last year’s run to the title. This season, as a member of the squad since the start of training camp, much greater influence has been exerted, and it will be needed as the defending champion faces elimination in the home of its fiercest rival.
Says Sarachan, “Robbie has been just superb and as a good Irish personality, he’s terrific in the locker room and on a game day, he’s a true leader. He really is.”