As previously discussed in this space, the Major League Soccer international transfer window was opened with several major moves. The window closed over the weekend with similar fanfare as Freddy Adu and Robbie Keane joined the league. The reasons for each of these players’ Stateside moves are completely different and are intended to have very different effects with their respective clubs.
Adu joined Philadelphia Union after a strange saga where it seemed he was destined to make his much ballyhooed MLS return at Chivas USA in Los Angeles. With the top allocation position, a ranking that allows for the return of USA internationals by a somewhat fair and ordered process, Chivas USA had both the space and the money to make a very noteworthy signing. Adu has struggled since leaving MLS in 2007, playing at Benfica and then on loan at Monaco, Belenenses, Aris and Rizespor in the Turkish second division. Yet his performances in midfield for the Americans in the Gold Cup reminded many of the skills and composure held by the only-recently turned 22-year old. So Chivas USA, who already passed on Benny Feilhaber in the allocation process, seemed ready to bring Adu back to MLS amid much fanfare, particularly as the Goats are actually fighting for a playoff position. Instead, club owner Jorge Vergara, who also owns the much more famous Mexican side Chivas de Guadalajara, decided not to invest the money in a non-Mexican player.
At the last moment, Philadelphia Union, the club second in the allocation order (who also passed on Feilhaber), were given the perfect opportunity to reunite Adu with the manager who brought him to MLS in 2004, albeit with DC United. Though their relationship was frosty at times, Piotr Nowak and Adu are familiar with each other, a fact that should allow for an easy transition into the side. Adu started for the Union in their weekend match against FC Dallas, a 2-2 draw that saw the new signing play just over an hour, before making way for Danny Mwanga.
While instant impact would be nice for Philadelphia as they try to catch Columbus Crew for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, Adu’s signing is about long term success. The Union were a new club in 2010 and have been creating a mixture of exciting, young players (like Mwanga, for example) and veterans (goalkeeper Faryd Mondragón is one of the top goalkeepers in MLS) to generate quick growth. After missing the playoffs in their debut season, the Union are in seventh place on the table but second in the Eastern Conference, guaranteeing a playoff position, were the season to conclude twelve weeks early. Adu’s signing will surely give Philadelphia more options and additional media exposure, but the point is to have him stay around long enough to win trophies.
MLS’s other major signing, Robbie Keane, is a different scenario all together. The 31-year old Republic of Ireland captain has signed what appears to be a £1.8 deal to make him the fourth Designated Player, no wait, the third, no wait…
Indeed, these are confusing times in MLS. Each club is supposed to have the ability to sign up to two so-called Designated Players with a third designation available given financial considerations to be shared with those clubs without the means to sign high profile players. Red Bull New York have three DPs in Thierry Henry, Rafael Márquez and Frank Rost, while the LA Galaxy joined the triumvirate ranks when they added Juan Pablo Ángel to David Beckham and Landon Donovan before this 2011 season. Four Designated Players with one club is not allowed, yet it seems the Galaxy have bent the rules a bit to pull off the Keane signing. Because Ángel’s DP status (and therefore payment) is guaranteed, even his retirement could not free the needed status for Keane.
Regardless of the semantics, the inclusion of Keane in LA Galaxy is intended to provide for the following three conditions: 1) retain the Supporters’ Shield, the trophy given the league’s top team in the regular season; 2) win the MLS Cup, something the Galaxy have not done since 2005, despite finishing as runner-up in 2009; and 3) win the CONCACAF Champions League. The Galaxy are five points clear atop the table, and apart from a hiccup at Portland Timbers in early August, have not lost in league play since May 1. Yet the Galaxy won the Supporters’ Shield in 2010, only to crash out of the playoffs at the semifinal round. Winning the Cup has been the club’s stated goal all season and the addition of a goal scorer of Keane’s quality is intended to finally have enough through the playoffs to win the Cup. Meanwhile, no MLS club has won the reconstituted Champions League, though Real Salt Lake did make the final last season. In 2010, the Galaxy were stunned by second division side Puerto Rico Islanders in qualifying, leaving a dissatisfying memory in need of correcting. Currently qualified for the group stage, the Galaxy have the quality to compete among the region’s top clubs. Keane only increases their chances of a never-before achieved treble.
Provided Ángel is indeed out of the picture, Keane will get to enjoy the benefits of playing in front of Donovan and receive the famous service from Beckham. Keane says it was conversations with Beckham when the latter trained at Tottenham Hotspur last season that convinced him to consider MLS as an option. At just 31, there are certainly several years worth of life, particularly at the MLS level, left for the well-traveled striker. Though his form may not have been tops back in England, Keane’s abilities should translate very well to MLS. His move is less about creating notoriety around the Galaxy, as it’s impossible to eclipse the impact of Beckham on a British audience or Donovan for Americans, and more about actually winning. A 35-year old Ángel was simply not providing the finishing manager Bruce Arena needs to have his side keep atop the league and challenge for three very different trophies. Keane seems to be the answer.