Forget the lineups, the game strategies and the individual matchups. If you're looking for a key to the Galaxy's chances in its playoff series with the Seattle Sounders, count how many times Robbie Keane flips out.
There has been no greater correlation to the team's success this season than Keane's trademark goal celebration of a cartwheel and forward roll. Because when Keane tumbles, the Galaxy tends not to. In the 13 games the team lost, including in the playoffs, Keane scored just twice. But in the 16 wins he played in, he had 14 goals — followed by 14 awkward cartwheels and 14 ungainly forward rolls.
"I always worry that he's going to hurt himself because I wouldn't attempt it," teammate David Beckham said. "But he's used to doing it. He's practiced it quite a few times over his career. As long as he's scoring goals, I don't care."
Especially since Keane's two first-half scores were the difference in the Galaxy's Western Conference semifinal win over San Jose last week. Now he and the Galaxy face a bigger test in the two-leg conference finals, which begin Sunday at the Home Depot Center.
The Sounders have the conference's best defense, one that allowed less than a goal a game during the regular season before pitching shutouts in their two playoff games with Real Salt Lake. It's a streak the Galaxy will have to end if it hopes to return to the MLS Cup final, since the winner of the home-and-away series, which concludes Nov. 18 in Seattle, will be determined by total goals scored in the two games.
And that means the team will be counting on Keane, who was Major League Soccer's best player this season according to the Castrol Index, a complicated statistical formula that measures each player's every move.
"He's getting in great spots, and when he's getting chances he's burying them," Galaxy captain Landon Donovan said after Saturday morning's quick training session. "He makes our job really easy. He puts himself in dangerous spots and if we do our job and get him the ball, he's going to score more often than not."
Which is when Keane channels his inner Mary Lou Retton, racing toward the corner flag and turning a quick cartwheel that transitions into a forward roll. Keane says he's been celebrating goals that way since youth soccer in Ireland, but he can't remember exactly when or why he started doing it.
"Every player has their own thing, don't they?" he said. "That was mine for a long time."
Maybe too long, joked Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena. The Irish national team's record-holder with 54 goals and the 11th-most prolific striker in the history of the English Premier League, Keane has had more than 240 goals to celebrate in his 15-year career. And Arena says the gymnastic moves aren't quite as crisp at age 32 as they were at 17.
"When he was younger there was a lot more elevation. It was almost a flip in the air," Arena said. "This is a tumble on the ground so there's less chance of injury at this point in his life.
"But at the end of the day, he does what other people can't do on a regular basis: score goals."
And what he does after that may not be art, but it's a dance Arena and the Galaxy haven't tired of watching.