CARSON, Calif. – Soccer is not a sport about statistics – the way baseball is, for instance – but Robbie Keane's importance to the LA Galaxy can be summed up in a few numbers.
When the Irish forward has been on the field for the Galaxy in MLS play, 522 minutes over six games, they are plus-12 in scoring, with 15 goals to their foes' three. When he's not, they're minus-six.
The Galaxy are 4-1-1 in games Keane has played, with three four-goal performances. They are 2-4-1 without him, averaging less than a goal per game.
It's rather telling.
“Yeah,” Landon Donovan said when shown the math. “Aside from all the special things Robbie does, he occupies people. Even when he's not scoring in games, he's a threat and he's something the other team has to worry about. When he's not on the field, it makes it a lot easier for teams to key in on a few guys. Just his presence is effective, and then when he's playing well, it makes it that much more dangerous for our whole team.”
The Galaxy haven't yet figured out how to be so dangerous without Keane, their captain, who will be missing again Saturday night when they take on Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto Stadium (9:30 pm ET, watch on MLS Live).
Keane, 32, has 23 goals in 38 MLS regular-season games since joining LA in August 2011, and he has another seven in 10 playoff games during two MLS Cup title runs. But it's the things that don't show up in the stats – his magnificent runs off the ball to open space and create opportunity, his ability to connect everybody around him, his fiery leadership, his on-field intelligence – that makes the biggest difference.
He might be the smartest player in MLS.
“I would agree,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan said. “I can take it a step further: I've been here [in MLS] since the beginning in '96, where we had some really good forwards in the league, and I don't think there's been anyone as elusive, creative, dangerous, crafty, experienced like Robbie Keane. I think he'll go down as good as there has been in this league.”
Keane has missed seven league games while away on international duty or while dealing with a pesky ankle injury that has finally healed. He's with Ireland's national team until the middle of next week and will be back for LA's game June 19 against Portland.
Without him, the Galaxy are very young up top. Jose Villarreal is just 19, Jack McBean (out now with a collarbone injury) is 18, and Gyasi Zardes and Charlie Rugg are just rookies. Donovan sometimes plays up front but more often is in midfield. The youngsters' time on the field will pay off down the line, but it's hit and often miss right now.
“When Robbie's on the field, it's just a lot different,” Villarreal said. “Robbie's one of our pillars of the team, and I guess we depend on him too much. I mean, it's not bad to depend on a player like that, because he's a phenomenal player, but we've also got to put in the work, and it's a little frustrating when you can't do it without Robbie.”
The equation isn't particularly difficult.
“If you took LeBron James away from the Miami Heat, do you think they would be [as successful]?” head coach Bruce Arena said. “Those are the facts of life in sport. Good players make a difference. That's why we pay that player a lot of money.”
So how do you replace Keane?
“If you can't replace him with his [skill set], you can do another thing,” midfielder Marcelo Sarvas said. “You can run, you can fight. If you're not able to do the same [things as Keane], you can find spaces, play with your speed, fight and help with your defense. Every player has different characteristics.”
The Galaxy can only do so much.
“You don't swap a reserve for Robbie,” Arena said. “And if you have a way of doing that, I would like for you to send me that formula, and we'll go right to the lab and mix it up and get it ready to go.”