Saturday afternoon was David Beckham’s last game for the LA Galaxy. Of course that’s what we all thought at MLS Cup 2011. But this time it seems real as manager Bruce Arena substituted his star man out in the dying moments, drawing a massive ovation from the partisan crowd at the Home Depot Center.
Most of the 30,510 were at the second successive MLS Cup to be played in Los Angeles in order to send Beckham off with a second straight league title. Meanwhile, the never-ending saga of will or won’t Landon Donovan retire/leave the Galaxy/go on loan to Everton ramped back up in recent weeks as the now five-time MLS champion spoke vaguely in public about his future. In fact, when asked about it in a press conference the day before the final, Donovan said simply, and quite rudely, “We can talk about all that at a different time. We are excited for tomorrow.” He even refused to answer such questions in Spanish.
After the Galaxy’s 3-1 victory over Houston Dynamo (whom they defeated in MLS Cup 2011 by a 1-0 score), Donovan admitted a reluctance to think about the soccer for a while, choosing to take a vacation and spend time with him family, most notably his new nephew, before making a decision on how to proceed.
Lost in all of these discussions, at least stateside, is Robbie Keane. Yes, he still commands a press conference rather than regular media availability. And yes, he is still the second most famous player at the Galaxy (for anyone outside of the US), despite his Russell Brand photograph hilarity. But the two faces of the Galaxy franchise have been front and center all weekend, leaving Keane a distant fourth, behind even Arena.
Yet any forward thinking Galaxy fan should have been focused on Keane just as soon as the match concluded. The Irish striker was effective all afternoon, scoring two goals that were called back (the former much more reasonably than the latter) and concluding the game with a penalty to record the final tally of 3-1. As he has done all season, Keane was constantly seeking the far shoulder of the last defender and more often than not, slipping into space to either create for himself or draw the attention of Houston’s defenders and open space for Donovan and others.
With Beckham now gone and Donovan potentially on his way out as well, Keane could find himself, if not the captain, at the very least one of the leaders of the club in 2013. Speaking the day before the final, Keane said:
I’m very happy and very content here. When you’re playing in a team like this and you’re getting to the championship finals every year…it certainly does help. I’m really enjoying my time here. As long as I keep enjoying myself and as long as I let my football do the talking, I’ll be very happy to stay here. I look forward to a number of years here.
When Keane arrived last summer, he joined a club that reached the MLS Cup final in 2009 and won the Supporters Shield in 2010. The Galaxy were already atop the MLS table when he arrived in August 2011 and continued on to win the MLS Cup on home turf. The point is that the team Keane joined was already in place in many ways. Though 2012 did not go exactly as well as 2011, during the regular season anyway, little changed apart from Donovan’s move in from the wing.
Now, with Beckham leaving and Donovan considering doing the same, Keane has pledged to remain with the Galaxy and has even claimed to have not thought about another loan deal to the Premier League (despite Aston Villa, QPR and Norwich all apparently eager for his signature). Though Beckham got his ovation, it was Keane who gave him that opportunity by winning and converting an injury-time penalty. Asked afterward about the penalty, Keane said he never even thought about letting Beckham take it. While that might be seen as egotistical in some circles, it could also be read as a signal that Keane is more than capable as a leader at the Galaxy without the omnipresent aura of Beckham.
In fact, some suggest Keane is anxious to have more of an impact on the team with Beckham’s departure. Perhaps landing in LA and given fifteen months to adjust could be exactly what Keane needed at this point in his career. He has already won two MLS Cups at age 32, which is where Beckham stood when he first arrived in Los Angeles in 2007. There is no indication that Keane necessarily wants to finish his career at the Galaxy, but he could have many more productive years ahead if he so chose. Said Keane on Friday, “My first priority is the LA Galaxy and that will always be the case.”
Now with news that Kaká is favored over Frank Lampard to replace Beckham, Keane is already speaking as if he is old guard at the Galaxy:
If we want to – as a team and an organization – to push on and be the best that we can, to attract players like Kaká would be brilliant…We welcome anyone with his stature and his ability to the Galaxy.
The key word – we – is impossible to ignore.
Today, Robbie Keane played an important role in a team full of stars. If Kaká comes to Los Angeles, as Tim Leiweke has suggested is certainly possible, Keane will probably be second fiddle in the world’s eyes, once again. But this time he could hold a different place in the Galaxy team. He could be the leader in the dressing room. He could be the star veteran who also helps build relationships off the field with his teammates. He could be the leader that the Galaxy need to transition out from the end of one era into the beginning of the next.
For a player who has drawn so much criticism in the UK in recent years, Robbie Keane might just have found the perfect place to play out a second act.