Robbie Keane's renaissance is key for L.A.

Posted by Jeff Carlisle

As much as Saturday's MLS Cup final is being hailed as the swan song of David Beckham -- and perhaps Landon Donovan, as well -- these MLS playoffs have largely been the domain of the Los Angeles Galaxy's other designated player, Robbie Keane.

After tallying 16 goals in the regular season, the Irishman has shredded opposition defenses in the postseason and has scored five times, including three in the 4-2 aggregate triumph over the Seattle Sounders in the Western Conference finals. He's been lethal in transition as well as during the Galaxy's more deliberate attacking forays. And as impressive as his finishing has been, his link play also has been outstanding.

All of which stands in stark contrast to what took place at the Home Depot Center seven months ago. On April 28, L.A. was hosting FC Dallas and Keane was staring at his fourth consecutive game without a goal. So when Donovan won a penalty in the 49th minute, he deferred the spot kick to the Irishman in a bid to get his teammate going. At which point, Keane failed to even hit the target. The L.A. forward then failed to find the net in the next two games before joining up with Ireland at Euro 2012.

After the second leg against Seattle, Keane was asked to explain the difference between now and his early-season struggles, at which point he revealed that his memory is as selective as his finishing against Seattle was sharp.

"It's the same as I always do; score goals and help the team do well," he said. "I've been doing it all my career. Nothing has changed on my behalf."

To be fair, there are plenty of factors to explain Keane's early struggles. The Galaxy, as a team, were misfiring on a multitude of levels early in the season, with Omar Gonzalez’s knee injury contributing mightily to a leaky defense. The prospect of captaining Ireland in Euro 2012, its first major tournament in a decade, proved to be a significant distraction, as well.

"We see this all the time with players that are involved with national teams and significant competitions, that their focus sometimes is a little bit more on those championships with the national team," Galaxy manager Bruce Arena said during Tuesday's conference call with reporters. "And perhaps they hold back a little bit so that they're not injured and miss out on those competitions. I think with Robbie, once he came back in late June, he was 100 percent committed to the Galaxy."

But just as there was more than one reason for Keane's funk, there are multiple explanations for the renaissance that saw him score 13 regular-season goals after the Euros. The return of goalkeeper Josh Saunders from a stint in the league's behavioral health program, coupled with Gonzalez's recovery, saw L.A.'s defense tighten up considerably. Holding midfielder Juninho regained his fitness and served as a more effective barrier in front of the back line. This allowed other elements of L.A.'s offense, including outside backs Sean Franklin and Todd Dunivant, the confidence to contribute more to the attack and create more chances for the entire team.

"If you're an attacking player, subliminally you're thinking, 'I can start to take these risks because we'll be fine in the back,'" said L.A. assistant coach Dave Sarachan via telephone. "It takes a little burden off the chasing and running. It's not that you allow everyone else to do it for you, but it does sort of ripple through the team."

Yet perhaps the biggest reason for Keane's resurgence was the decision to pair him up top with Donovan, a move that seems counterintuitive. Throughout Keane's career, his best moments have come when paired with a bigger strike partner, be it a classic target man such as Irish international Niall Quinn or a more canny forward such as Dimitar Berbatov when the two were at Tottenham Hotspur. And, in his time with the Galaxy, Keane often has been deployed alongside bigger forwards such as Edson Buddle or Chad Barrett. Yet the combination of Keane and Donovan has clearly worked, with Keane tallying 11 goals in the 15 regular-season games the two started together up front.

"What Keane and Donovan have been able to establish as a partnership is a deep level of understanding of how to play, how to combine and use one another, see things ahead of time," Sarachan said. "And do it at such a speed that, for two forwards that aren't necessarily back-to-goal target guys, it's really difficult to defend."

And without question, Keane's ability is still considerable even in the later stages of his career. Sarachan remarked that the forward doesn't necessarily tick all the boxes in terms of athleticism but more than makes up for it in terms of guile and movement, the core of Keane's success. He's especially adept at dropping into midfield and allowing players such as Mike Magee and Christian Wilhelmsson to make late runs into the space Keane has vacated.

"There are a lot of times over the course of the season where, as a staff, we say to ourselves, 'We really wish Robbie would stay higher because we really don’t want him in the midfield,'" Sarachan said. “But there’s a method to his madness because, when he does withdraw deep, it really puts a burden on the opponent to now recognize it."

Vancouver assistant coach Carl Robinson, who as a 19-year-old with English side Wolverhampton Wanderers, saw a 16-year-old Keane break into the side, is well aware of the problems his old teammate poses. When he suggested that the best way to stop Keane is to "kick him," it's clear that he's joking. Mostly. But Robinson added that the choice is to either have a center back follow Keane into midfield and hope the holding midfielder covers the space behind, or to pass Keane on to one of the midfielders in front of them. Executing such a plan is another matter entirely.

"It becomes difficult because the timing needs to be correct, the information needs to be correct," Robinson said. "If that's not correct, Keane is clever enough to play in between and stand still. Then he's not playing up front and he's not playing in midfield. He's playing in that little hole, and the majority of the time he gets the ball in that hole and turns, they end up with a cross or an effort on goal. That's a huge danger."

And that's the challenge facing the Houston Dynamo on Saturday as they attempt to reverse last year's 1-0 MLS Cup final defeat to the Galaxy. Houston has loads of experience, with veteran Bobby Boswell anchoring the defense alongside Jermaine Taylor. Holding midfielder Adam Moffat can expect to help out in containing Keane, as well, and Ricardo Clark will need to harass the likes of Beckham farther upfield in a bid to cut off the supply line to the Galaxy forwards.

That likely won’t be enough to contain Keane completely. He simply will try to do what he always does -- or at least what he remembers doing -- just as long as it results in another L.A. victory.

ESPN Conversations