Robbie Keane on turf, young U.S. players and just wanting to play
Graham Parker talks with his MLS MVP nominee Robbie Keane about his excellent season, telling Gyasi Zardes to watch Lionel Messi, why the CONCACAF Champions League is only good if you win it, why he hates artificial turf and what keeps him hungry.
"I'd strained my hamstring."
There's an exasperated pause. From being relaxed company, if occasionally sounding slightly puzzled as to why anybody would want to ask questions about the game when they could just go out and kick a ball, Robbie Keane suddenly sounds terse.
We're halfway through what until this point has been a free-flowing conversation about what I see as his MVP-worthy season, when I stumble into problematic territory while asking him about the last game of the regular season against the Seattle Sounders, when the Supporters Shield was on the line and Keane did not play.
"I'd strained my hamstring," repeats Keane, as if daring me to claim otherwise.
I'm not fishing, I tell him. We'd been talking about turf and his experience of it in the league and Keane has been so vehement about how much he "hates" the surface that I've wondered if it was even a small factor in the decision for him not to play.
"I think you know me better than that. I'm a player who plays every game. I'd played every other game I was asked to play on turf, so why would I miss a game on a decider to win a cup?"
That's actually the marginally more family-friendly version of the answer Keane gave me first. Another pause and he's adding more, still sounding aggrieved: "It affected me for three weeks ... I missed a week's training."
I remind him that the last time I'd sat down with him, he'd just flown back 5,000 miles and 14 hours from an Ireland international in Kazakhstan, arrived at 4 p.m. in the afternoon and played in a Galaxy game that night, so I'm probably not going to be questioning his commitment.
Before I almost derailed the conversation, we had been talking about his team's CONCACAF Champions League exit against Tijuana at the start of the season and the second leg -- on turf -- in Tijuana.
I'd watched that game from high in the press box as the bounce repeatedly deceived the Galaxy players -- even leading directly to a goal on one occasion -- and the question about the Seattle absence had mainly come out of remembering that series and knowing that this weekend will also see the deciding legs of both MLS conference championships played on artificial turf in Seattle and New England.
And Keane is nothing if not damning about those surfaces:
"I've said it before and said it so many times. If this league wants to progress -- or any league in the world -- turf has to go. It's very simple. Very, very simple. It's not good enough. In this day and age, playing on turf, it's not good enough. It's completely different to play on. I don't care what anybody says, I've played on it. It's completely different -- it's not good for you. So if this league wants to progress, the turf 100 percent has to go."
I ask him if he has sympathy for the top women's players involved with the legal case against the World Cup being held on turf next year.
"Yeah I do, because it's a different game. Completely different than playing on grass. Should never play on it. Doesn't happen in Europe. Maybe the odd team in Switzerland or somewhere would have it but of course I feel sorry for [the women's players], because I hate it, and I think no one likes to play on turf -- completely different game."
We go back to that Champions League exit to Tijuana in March. Aside from the surface, Keane is generally ambivalent at best about the virtues of a team caught between its 2013 and 2014 identities competing in a competition the 2012 side earned the right to play in:
"Yeah, it's difficult. How can you play a Champions League in two seasons? Players come and go, and stuff like that, so it's not a fair run for the teams. The Champions League is good, but it's only good if you win it. When you're playing all these games, and you're traveling and so on, it can be a hindrance to be honest with you. It reminds me of the UEFA Cup. The UEFA Cup's great if you win it, but if you don't win it, it's a bit of a nightmare, you know?"
We talk a little about how that Galaxy side was still a team very much in transition, after the limitations of the 2013 side had finally been definitively exposed in the playoff series defeat vs. Real Salt Lake.
"Yeah, you look at the games last year, we'd nobody really to call upon to come off the bench when you're losing the game," says Keane. "We like to play as much as we can, but you know, the best teams in the world, when they're losing, sometimes just get the ball and kick it forward to a big man.
"Last year, me and Landon [Donovan] were playing up front and we were never going to win a header against the two lads at the back. That's why I was saying with the players we've brought in, we've got different dimensions -- Alan Gordon coming on for the last 15-20 minutes just gives us something different to give the opposition something to think about, rather than always knowing me and Landon are going to get it to feet and try and play around them."
Not that the physical aspect was what made the difference in the 5-0 aggregate win against Salt Lake this year.
By the time we'd gone from the Tijuana exit, where the physical presences of Rob Friend and Samuel had been shoehorned into the Galaxy team as an approximation of that physical "dimension" Keane (and coach Bruce Arena) felt the team needed, to the StubHub Center demolition of RSL in the second leg of the conference semifinal, the Galaxy had grown back into a team doing what they did best.
That is to say that, while they had a more physical weapon in Gordon when needed, they were generally passing and moving the ball at pace and at will; the midfield duo of Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas were pressuring high up the field and the forward trio of Keane, Donovan and Gyasi Zardes were bewildering defenses with their movement.
The latter in particular has added an overloading element to the ball-playing attack that has been missing since Mike Magee departed for Chicago in May 2013. I ask Keane about Zardes' progress this year and what it has meant:
"He's learning, you know. If you look at it this year compared to last year, he's a completely different player. Instead of last year, trying to do tricks and stuff like that, when he was playing on the wing and doing all these stepovers. I said to him, 'I never see [Lionel] Messi doing stepovers -- or [Cristiano] Ronaldo even.'
"Ronaldo does it now and again, but when Ronaldo's running one-on-one with someone, he doesn't really do many stepovers, but he's running at pace, shoulder-to-shoulder, getting at you. I know he does it now and again, when he's winning the game and he gets in the corner and he does that little thing that he does, but that's only just for show but, for running at people one by one, I told [Zardes] ... "
At this point, Keane's on a roll, as he tends to be when discussing how players go about their trade ...
"... This year it's different because he's playing on the shoulder of the defenders and I'm always saying to him, 'Listen to me, as soon as I get the ball always look in behind and I'll find you. Nine times out of 10 I'll look for you, anyway -- I might not find you but I'll keep trying to get you in.'
"And I think in that respect he's learning and he's listening. He's a good lad and he's only going to get better and better and this year was a prime example of that. From last year Gyasi's quick, he's strong, and now he's adding goals to his game, which is obviously very very important for a striker."
I remind him that last time we spoke he'd described himself, at a similar age to Zardes, as a "cheeky chappy" who was always getting "slaughtered" by senior pros when he'd nutmeg them in training. I ask him if the memory of what he had needed at that age was behind his treatment of young players like Zardes:
"You need to let them know, yeah. I mean, I'm not going to mollycoddle players, you know? I've been through it myself and I know what it takes to become a top player. I've played at the highest level all my life and have continued to do that. And to stay at the highest level and have that hunger, and that desire. You get that from experience and from understanding the game. And you never stop learning, no matter how old you are, but Gyasi's at a stage now where it's critical in his career that he listens to people.
"Whether he likes to hear it, he's going to get it. Whether it's me being positive towards him or me hammering him and being on his case about doing things properly. You have to have that balance. You have to have a goal for it. My goal is to try and help them, not to try and belittle them and take the piss out of them in front of other players -- I'm trying to make them better players.
"If you look at this year and the difference in Gyasi, I wouldn't say it was down to me, but I've definitely had a hand in it in terms of trying to help him as a striker in terms of movement and stuff like that."
The talk of how best to develop young American players turns to the college system. Keane is not a fan:
"Of course it was different for me because I was closer to England and stuff like that, and the opportunity is a little bit different over there because people watch you from 15 years of age or whatever.
"Over here, the college system -- I don't think it helps the players to be honest with you. If you look at top players in the world they started off [as pro players] at 16 years of age and stuff like that, or have been in academies. That's a problem, I think, over here.
"If you look at how big the country is you'd think you'd be guaranteed of getting a world beater, because you have the facilities, you have everything, but the problem is you're developing too late. They develop when they're 22 -- when I'd had five years playing in England behind me already -- before these lads even get a chance to play for the first team over here. It's a huge difference."
We touch on Jurgen Klinsmann's comments on key national team players returning to MLS and their standards dropping and I point out that Keane's performances have been something of a rebuttal to that logic, in that while he has been in the league and winning titles with L.A., he's also continued to play and score goals at a prodigious rate on the international stage.
Before I even get a question out about the reason for this, Keane is jumping in to cut me off emphatically:
"Hunger. Hunger. Hunger and desire to still play. Just love what you do. Fairly simple. But you have to have it in you. I love what I do. I could easily just finish up and pack it in tomorrow and live a good life. I've been very fortunate in my career in earning a decent amount of money where I could go home and chill out, but for me it's not about the money.
"It's about playing. I love playing. I'd play for free. And having that desire and that hunger. If you want to succeed, of course you have to have the ability as well, but you have to have that hunger. You have to have it. I don't care who you are."
He's Robbie Keane. He'll be playing on turf on Sunday night in Seattle. Don't question his commitment.
Keane on ...
His best goal this year:
"I think I'd say the Chivas one."
His fellow MVP nominees, Lee Nguyen and Obafemi Martins:
"I respect every player in this league, and with the three of us up against each other all you can do is respect them and look how well they've done this year ... two obviously fantastic players who've proven this year how important they were to their respective teams"
His own candidacy for MVP:
"If you look at it every season since I've been here, I've done better every year, you know? So for me that's how I look at it. For me, it's about being consistent. You can have one good season and then fall by the wayside, but for me it's about being consistent and continuing to do well every season and I've done that so far. This year's obviously been an exception with the amount of goals and amount of assists that I've got ... and I'm fairly happy with what I've achieved this season."
His MVP pick on his own team and on other teams:
"Someone on my team? I think looking at the way Landon's played recently, probably Landon. On the other teams, I think if you look at the goals [Bradley] Wright-Phillips has scored -- he's scored a lot of goals. So probably him."
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.