Keane's success strengthens image of MLS

[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 Dempsey shattered 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.

6 comments about "Keane's success strengthens image of MLS".
  1. Gak Foodsource, February 10, 2012 at noon

    Robbie Keane was with the Galaxy for a total of 4 months, during which he played 4 games. Before that, he was in the premier league for 14 years and played a total of 442 games. I honestly don't see how MLS comes into the discussion of whether Keane should be added to Villa's squad until they determined they wanted him and needed to know who to call. Should we be looking differently at the gym Paul Scholes was working out at, or the field he was kicking the ball around on, differently now that he is back playing with Man United?

  2. Gak Foodsource, February 10, 2012 at 12:14 p.m.

    Also, not to harp on this too much, but what does it say to EPL teams when a guy like Luke Rodgers can do well in MLS? Rodgers is only 2 years younger than Keane and could only manage 46 appearances for Notts County. (hardly the 442 games Keane got for the likes of Tottenham and Liverpool). For those that are convinced that Robbie Keane improves the profile of our league in England - What do people think when they see Luke Rodgers can start for an MLS team?

  3. James Froehlich, February 10, 2012 at 11:49 p.m.

    Obviously MLS has just renewed Ridge's "cheerleading" contract. While I certainly enjoy seeing some of the European stars of "yesteryear", let' s not kid ourselves that they are elevating MLS in anyone's eyes. The performances of Dempsey, Donovan, Howard, etc will do more for the prestige of MLS than 100 Keane's. Admittedly they will bring some publicity and a few more tickets sold, but credibility, give me a break!! By the way, Ridge, that was a nice cheap shot at the "second tier Central and South American players". I would much rather watch and pay to watch those players than someone whose current skill-level is more attuned to signing autographs.

  4. Mike in SoCal, February 11, 2012 at 12:58 a.m.

    Judging by the comments, ignorance is bliss. If one cannot understand how an MLS player going and flourishing in the Premier League boosts the image of the MLS, well some people just can't overcome their own cynical type attitudes.

    Keane has outplayed all Aston Villa forwards during this transfer, Landon has outshined all Everton midfielders - these players play in the MLS. Do you need it spelled out clearer than that? They aren't going to England and struggling, they are going there and essentially dominating, starring on Premier League teams! That reflects favorably on the caliber of play and the talent level of the MLS!

    When MLS players go to England and succeed it raises the prestige of the league - despite what a few comment writers might try and have you believe.

  5. Gak Foodsource, February 11, 2012 at 12:34 p.m.

    Mike - Here is the thing. Every MLS team has 60,000 fans in its own city that are DYING to watch quality soccer games in the United States and don't because the quality of play isn't good enough. We have spent 5 years pursuing Beckham's, Henry's, Keane's, Blanco's, Marquez's, and the only result has been a few more jerseys sold and an average league wide attendance increase by 1,100. Donovan, Dempsey, and Howard have done well in MLS for a few years now, so the real question is when is that "prestige" going to turn into something real - something that actually matters? I would much rather see MLS attempt to win those 60,000 fans by developing and signing quality, technical, talented players. (those players are 17-20, not 33+) There is no cynicism in suggesting that the exorbitant amount of money being spent on "marketing" designed to "improve the prestige of the league" could be better spent.

  6. James Froehlich, February 11, 2012 at 11:59 p.m.

    Mike-- it's great that you are such a passionate supporter of MLS but please don't let your passion blind you to a few facts: (1) Keane is hardly considered an "MLS player". He's an Irish icon who made his name in the EPL and now is making a few "dollars" as he winds down his career. Just like Beckham and Henry. Nobody in the world considers them as MLS players. (2) Donovan is indeed a different case but playing successfully in the brief stints he has played doesn't make a strong case for MLS -- and c'mon Mike, he's only one player!! I am an MLS fan, Chicago Fire, through and through. But MLS is not there yet and ignoring that fact does no one any good. When the top European teams come looking for our home-grown players on a regular basis we will know that we have arrived. For now, enjoy what we've got, watch the "big names" nearing retirement, and DEMAND that our teams continue to improve their level of play.

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