CARSON, Calif. – Robbie Keane isn't seeing enough of the ball, and he's not happy about it.
Injuries to Giovani Dos Santos and Steven Gerrard haven't helped, and chemistry is still evolving after the LA Galaxy went through a substantial offseason makeover, but tactics also are depriving the Irishman of opportunities.
The Galaxy captain, playing in an unfamiliar role as the advanced striker, has two goals in three MLS games, from late penalty kicks in home victories over D.C. United in the league opener and San Jose last weekend. He's not had many chances – one per game – to challenge opposing defenses from the run of play.
“That's two games that I haven't touched the ball very often ...,” Keane said following Saturday's 3-1 win over the Earthquakes, “so [maybe we should be thinking about] changing the system or something. Because when you play the front on your own, naturally, you don't get many touches as a No. 9. But what you should be doing is getting some chances in, and I haven’t gotten any chances in the last few games, so that's a bit disappointing.
“So hopefully that will change in the next few weeks.”
Keane's a mobile forward who likes to drop deep into midfield to find the ball and create attacks, but his role has been altered.
“The closer you play to goal, the fewer touches you get,” head coach Bruce Arena explained following the Galaxy's training session Tuesday morning at StubHub Center. “He's playing as a high striker.”
And he's playing there, Arena said, because “he scores goals.”
Keane, who has 75 goals in 111 career MLS regular-season games, netted 16, 16, 19 and 20 the past four years, so he scores goals regardless of how he's utilized. But the new assignment has left him limited space in which to operate.
“I agree with him. I'm not sure the reasons why,” said Mike Magee, who partnered Keane up top in the second half against D.C. United and in the loss the following week at Colorado but played on the right side of midfield against San Jose. “First and foremost, the other teams are going to zone in on him – he's not going to surprise anybody – but in this game [against the Quakes], we were definitely trying to be patient, because they were bunkering in. So, obviously, that factored into it, but, absolutely, I felt it during the game.
“If we want to create more chances, we have to get him the ball.”
Per Opta Sports, Keane averaged 48.32 touches per 90 minutes over the 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons, and that number dipped to 37.94 last year. He's averaging 31.33 touches per game this season, with 34 against D.C. United, 17 against Colorado and 43 against San Jose. Throw out the Colorado game, and the figure isn't that far below normal.
But he's not getting the kind of touches that lead to chances. He's had three good opportunities so far, headers just off target against D.C. and Colorado and a shot at the start of the second half last weekend that Quakes 'keeper David Bingham corralled.
There have been several issues. Dos Santos exited at halftime of the league opener with a leg strain and hasn't played since, and Gerrard, who has a good rapport with Keane, was ill during the first game and lasted only a couple of minutes against San Jose before a calf strain forced him to the sidelines. LA played poorly in Colorado, and they struggled in attack in the other two games until the second half, when they scored four vs. D.C. and three against the Quakes.
Keane has already had five partners up front – Dos Santos and Magee in the opener, Magee and Gyasi Zardes at Colorado, and Sebastian Lletget and Alan Gordon last week – as Arena tries different options in Dos Santos' absence.
Lletget had played just once before as a forward for the Galaxy, in a US Open Cup game last year, but was favored over Magee and Zardes, a natural forward, because, Arena said, he's “a threatening guy playing out of that position” who offers “a little more pace.”
“[Lletget is] not yet a good passer playing there, but he's dangerous on the dribble and running off the ball ...,” Arena said. “Gyasi's best position right now for our team is where he's playing.”
“It's still early,” said midfielder Baggio Husidic, who came on Saturday for Gerrard. “Obviously, it's a pretty new squad with new players, so it's kind of easy to pick out things why [Keane is] not getting the ball, but I just think the chemistry isn't there yet. ... It really is a whole new team, in so many different positions. It's going to take time.”
Said associate head coach Dave Sarachan: “We've had different lineups each time, and we've used guys in different spots. Once we get a steady group together and get our partnerships working and get in sync, I think Robbie will have less to complain about.”
Keane's game is so advanced, so nuanced, that it takes some getting used to, too.
“Robbie makes such good runs, and if you haven't played with him a lot, they're hard to find,” Magee said. “He's clever and he's cheeky and he moves late because he wants to bait defenders. I know when I first [started playing with him in 2011], it took me awhile to get used to his runs.”
The expectation is that Keane will see more of the ball as the season proceeds, whether he's playing as the high striker or in his preferred role underneath.
“Robbie will find the ball,” right back Robbie Rogers said. “He'll find ways to get goals, he'll create chances and we'll create chances for him. I'm not really worried about it.”