Robbie Keane easily has been the best designated player in MLS history
When designated players arrive in MLS, they bring with them a fairly common list of attributes. There is ability, of course, and a history of success elsewhere. Usually they've excelled for both club and country. Granted, there are differences in terms of skill set, pedigree and former clubs, but those are usually the starting points.
Yet there is one area that has a huge say in a DP's success or failure, and that is attitude. Fortunately for the LA Galaxy, Robbie Keane's competitive streak borders on the maniacal, and with player and club now going their separate ways after six seasons, it goes a long way toward explaining why in terms of on-field performance, the Irishman is the best DP signing in the league's history.
Too often in MLS there have been high-profile players who came in and acted like they were doing the league and their club a favor by simply turning up. Even David Beckham, who probably still ranks as the most important DP in league history given his name recognition and the degree to which he raised the league's profile, wasn't immune to this particular virus. It wasn't until he tore his Achilles while on loan with AC Milan that he seemed to give MLS and the Galaxy the proper level of commitment they deserved. That was never in doubt with Keane, who barked at teammates, ran off the ball and celebrated his goals with the same gusto that he showed earlier in his career.
The utter consistency he displayed with the Galaxy after arriving in 2011 is further proof. When looking at the full seasons he played in Los Angeles, he recorded 16, 16, 19, and 20 league goals before falling to 10 during an injury-plagued 2016. Including playoff and Cup matches, he scored over 100 goals for the Galaxy. And he did this all while remaining a key figure with Ireland's national team.
Sebastian Giovinco may yet go down as the best DP in league history, but he has only been in MLS for two seasons, and he'll need to keep his prodigious scoring rate going for a while longer yet in Toronto. He'll also need to win some trophies, something the Galaxy did with regularity during Keane's time with the club, winning three MLS Cups and a Supporters' Shield. Keane also had a penchant for coming up big in the most important games. He scored in both the 2011 and 2014 MLS Cup finals.
Of course, it helped to have the likes of Beckham and Landon Donovan by Keane's side, but his guile and finishing ability played just as big a role, if not bigger. It's worth noting that prior to Keane joining Bruce Arena's team, LA's attack was spearheaded by a washed-up Juan Pablo Angel. The impact of his arrival was driven home by the Galaxy manager after the 2012 MLS Cup final.
"Robbie and I, I think we grew up together in Brooklyn. We have the same kind of mentality," Arena said then. "He is one tough bastard, skillful, as competitive a personality, a great friend to players, a great teammate. You look at it and [in 2011] we said, 'To get a little bit better, it would be nice to have something a little bit better [up top].' We were incredibly lucky to be able to acquire Robbie."
Indeed. Keane made an already excellent team unstoppable, and he made LA's attack fearsome. That is due primarily to his soccer IQ. Keane's isn't big, or even that fast. But like most successful forwards, he has an exquisite sense of timing, not just in terms of his runs into the box but in the moments that he chooses to get separation from defenders. He has driven countless MLS defenders to distraction with his quick bursts into the gap between midfield and defense, and that proved to be a key component in helping the Galaxy build their attack.
While Keane's time in LA is up, his aim is to take his talents to another MLS club. His ability to stay healthy has waned in recent years, so that will impact where he lands and how much he'll be able to contribute. But his attitude remains as intense as ever, meaning we haven't seen the last of MLS' most effective designated player.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.