Galaxy forward Robbie Keane celebrates after scoring against D.C. United… (Jonathan Moore / Associated…)
The whispers started before Robbie Keane had even left England.
He was 31, and slowing down, they said. One of the most prolific scorers in Premier League history, the Irishman had lost his touch, bouncing from Tottenham to Scotland and then on to West Ham United, where he started only five games for the worst team in the league.
So when Keane left the continent for the Galaxy and Major League Soccer 14 months ago, it seemed like the logical next step toward retirement. But rather than a golden parachute, Keane has found the fountain of youth in the U.S., reigniting a stellar career by helping the Galaxy to an MLS Cup title last fall, then carrying an injury-riddled team back to the playoffs with a brilliant stretch drive this year.
"He's had an outstanding year," Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena says. "He's been as good as any player in the league."
Since returning from captaining the Irish national team in June's European Championships, Keane has had a goal or assist in 15 of the 19 MLS games he has played. The Galaxy won 11 of those 15, climbing out of the conference cellar and into a postseason it will begin Thursday at the Home Depot Center against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The winner of Thursday's game advances to a two-game Western Conference semifinals, beginning Sunday in San Jose.
"He's hasn't faded out of games. He hasn't had spells where he's been dry," defender Todd Dunivant says of Keane. "He's been everything we expected."
Anyone who was expecting anything less wasn't paying attention, says Keane, who insists he joined the Galaxy not because he had to, but because he wanted to.
"It's a different challenge really," he says of MLS play. "I played at the highest level for a long time in England. I could have stayed there and played, easy, for a couple of more years. I just fancied a completely new challenge.
"Plus if you're not playing for Man United or Chelsea and you're not really winning things, it's quite tough. I played for a long time and it was just time for a new chapter in my career."
It's a chapter that began in early 2011 when the Galaxy's David Beckham, who was training with Tottenham, began selling Keane on joining him.By the time the English season ended in May, it was obvious Tottenham saw Keane as a part-time player and was ready to move him. So the Galaxy swept in, landing the striker three months later for a reported $5.7-million transfer fee.
But it wasn't the money that interested Keane, as much as it was the chance to prove himself again. He wasn't looking to retire; he was looking for redemption.
"I didn't come over here to finish my career," he says. "If you know me, if you look at the way I play, I'm still enthusiastic about it. That hunger to score goals and wanting the team to win, that hunger is still in me. And I think it will be in me for a long, long time."
Keane, 32, had a goal in his MLS debut last season, then set up Landon Donovan for the only score in November's MLS Cup final. But he really came on in the second half this season, finishing as the team's leading scorer with 16 goals — fourth-best in the league — while placing second in assists with nine in 28 games. Six of his goals were game-winners, and five of his assists led to game-winning scores.
"He's been a leader on the field and off and obviously his goal scoring speaks for itself," Arena says of Keane. "It's really that simple. He's a personality, he's a quality attacking player and he makes our team different."
Dunivant says it's Keane's soccer intelligence that makes him dangerous.
"He's so clever," Dunivant explains. "His runs off the ball are as good as it gets. It's so difficult for defenders. They have to make decisions all the time with him. And as a defender the last thing you want to do is always have to be put in situations where you're making difficult decisions.
"He puts that on defenders. He makes guys look bad."
Now his recent play is making many of his former bosses in the Premier League look bad as well. Liverpool, which let Keane go after one season, surfaced Tuesday as the latest to express interest in re-signing the striker, who has two years plus an option left on a Galaxy contract that is paying him $3.4 million this season.
So don't count out the possibility that Keane will wind up retiring here after all.
"It's obviously a great place to live," he says. "The family's really enjoying it. Hopefully, we're very, very settled here [and] we can stay here for a long time. And as long as I keep fit, keep healthy and keeping playing for the best result and help this team grow, I'll be happy."