CARSON, Calif. – Mike Magee scored 21 goals and nearly willed the Chicago Fire into the playoffs. Diego Valeri was centerpiece of the Portland Timbers' unexpected run to the top of the Western Conference. Tim Cahill was a driving force for the New York Red Bulls' capture of the Supporters Shield. Marco Di Vaio's 21 goals led the Montreal Impact into the postseason in their second year in MLS. Camilo won a Golden Boot for the Vancouver Whitecaps.
There are at least a half-dozen candidates with a legitimate argument for Major League Soccer's Most Valuable Player honor this year, a field as tight as the playoff race. But the LA Galaxy believe their captain, Robbie Keane – one of three finalists announced Wednesday for the award – is the best choice.
“I think it's hard to argue that he shouldn't be,” said Landon Donovan, the Irishman's usual partner up top for LA. “I mean, I would say [former Galaxy standout] Mike Magee has been the most valuable player to any team, in that sense of the word, but it's hard to name someone who hasn't made the playoffs as an MVP. Everyone in this locker knows the value that Mike has and what he's done for Chicago, but Robbie's been terrific from day one all year.
“I think it'd be hard to argue that he's not the MVP.”
Keane, a fiery competitor on the field and the Galaxy's locker-room leader, has numbers behind him. He hit double digits in goals (16) and assists (11) – Valeri was the only other player to do so – and in only 23 regular-season matches.
Impressive, yes, but more telling are the Galaxy's records when he's playing (12-4-7, with 44-19 goals for/against) and when he's not (3-7-1, 9-19).
Omar Gonzalez calls the 33-year-old Irishman a “game-changer,” Todd Dunivant says he's a “difference-maker,” and head coach Bruce Arena has suggested there's been no superior player in the league's 18 seasons.
Jason Kreis, whose defense stopped Keane in Real Salt Lake's Western Conference Semifinals victory over LA, also thinks Keane is “probably” MVP this year, “the most consistent and best player in the league,” and Donovan offers a telling superlative of his own.
“I think he's the most clever player in the league,” said Donovan, himself also a candidate for that description. “His finishing is fantastic. You can see why he's scored so many goals in his career, and if we had been better about getting him better service in certain times during the year, he probably would have scored 25 goals this year. He's always dangerous.
“I don't think I've ever played with a forward who creates that many chances every game, and it's remarkable that he does it every game, no matter what's the scenario, the situation.”
The Galaxy dominated possession, territory and chances in nearly every outing and would have easily captured the Supporters' Shield had defensive woes not cost them 15 points at the end of games. They also struggled to create or finish attacks when Keane was away, with Ireland's national team or during a handful of brief injury stints, or, occasionally, off his game.
He made the Galaxy attack go, dropping deep into midfield to collect balls and connect teammates, then getting on the end of plays, making final passes or opening space to unlock defenses. His off-the-ball movement is astonishing.
“If you just keep a camera on Robbie Keane during the game, you'll see what he does to defenders, and it's a nightmare,” Dunivant said. “He's always moving, he's always checking and moving, and just the slightest little step makes a defender drop, gives him an extra couple yards where he can get the ball into space, or he's checking to and then he's gone. These little movements that he has are so good that don't get enough credit.
“You know, Robbie's never one to not get enough credit, but those are the things he does that maybe you don't even see. That's why he gets the space he does, and he's open sometimes because his movement is so good.”
Says Gonzalez: “He's got good touch, and he can beat you one on one, and if you don't have your eye on him, you can see him one second and, next thing you know, he's somewhere else. He's very tricky.”
He scored hat tricks against Seattle and RSL, had two goals on two other occasions – and two assists, twice, too – and saved his most important goal for last, a brilliant and subtle half-volley (see video above) in the 78th minute to give the Galaxy a 1-1 draw in Seattle, securing a top-three seed in the West.
“That goal he scored [against the Sounders] wasn't a mistake or a fluke,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan said. “He meant to do what he did, and that tells you how a guy like he can slow things down in the moment. ... Teams focus on stopping Robbie Keane, and the fact that he is such an important player for us, that he's able to do what he does [despite constant attention] speaks volumes for him.”
Keane wouldn't mind winning the award.
“If I get it, great,” he said. “Of course, it's always nice to get accolades. But if I don't, I certainly won't lose any sleep over it. Not something I'm thinking about or too concerned or worried about, to be honest with you.”