Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan celebrates with teammate Todd Dunivant… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
As confetti and fireworks rained down on a chilly Home Depot Center on Sunday night, marking the Galaxy's 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer's Western Conference final, Robbie Keane stepped atop a hastily constructed platform at midfield, taking his place alongside Landon Donovan and David Beckham.
That's the way the Galaxy envisioned things would be when Keane joined the team in mid-August on a transfer from Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League: Keane, Donovan and Beckham standing head and shoulders above their teammates and leading the way to a league title.
Thanks to injury and Keane's responsibilities with the Irish national team, that plan has taken time to materialize. But it worked to perfection on this night, with Donovan scoring the Galaxy's first goal, Beckham and Keane assisting on the second and Donovan setting up Keane for the final score, sending the Galaxy on to the MLS Cup final in two weeks at the Home Depot Center.
There the Galaxy will meet the Houston Dynamo, which won the Eastern Conference final earlier Sunday by upsetting Sporting Kansas City, 2-0, on second-half goals from Andre Hainault and Carlos Costly.
Houston won despite losing midfielder Brad Davis, a leading MVP candidate, to a strained right quadriceps late in the first half.
The Galaxy knows a little bit about winning despite injury. Take Keane, who was supposed to spark the team's attack but wound up spending more time watching than playing since joining MLS. The game Sunday marked his first full MLS match — and it was clearly his best.
"Of course you get frustrated. And you hate being injured," said Keane, who most recently dealt with a strained muscle in his left thigh.
"There was concern," Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena said, "that he may not recover from the injury. Robbie told me he's a quick healer."
Keane, however, credited trainer Armando Rivas, who cut the expected recovery time from six weeks to three weeks, allowing Keane to start all three of the Galaxy's playoff games.
"I'm just happy to be back fit," he said.
He made his presence felt early and often against Real Salt Lake, getting off a game-high five shots, one of which hit the post, another which narrowly missed the net and a third that finally found its mark, securing the win in the 68th minute.
The teams exchanged goals midway through a fast-paced and entertaining first half, with Donovan scoring on a penalty kick in the 23rd minute and Real Salt Lake answering on Alvaro Saborio's header two minutes later.
Mike Magee put the Galaxy ahead again 13 minutes into the second half after Beckham gathered in a Keane pass and bent a perfect cross across the goal mouth, allowing Magee to knock it home with a diving header.
"Luck of the Irish," Arena quipped. "Magee's Irish, right?"
Well Magee's father is, said Keane, who closed the scoring by taking a pass from Donovan, racing up the left wing where he eluded defender Jamison Olave, then sending a low shot into the far corner.
A few hours later, Keane was off to Europe to rejoin the Irish team for a two-leg European Championship playoff against Estonia. And with a two-week break between the conference final and the MLS Cup, Donovan was scheduled to fly to Paris to meet the U.S. national team ahead of its friendly with France.
Both will be back in plenty of time to prepare for Houston. "We haven't achieved what we want yet," Donovan said of the Galaxy. "But we've taken all the right steps."
Which isn't to say it has accomplished nothing because with the win Arena broke a tie with former Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid for the most postseason wins in MLS history at 21.
"Any time you accomplished something that Sigi's attained, it's remarkable," Arena said. "Everywhere I've been, I've been part of a great organization."