CARSON, Calif. — Here’s a classic rhetorical bait-and-switch from Landon Donovan.
“For me, Suazo might be the best pure player in this region," the LA Galaxy star said on Monday about Monterrey’s Humberto Suazo, before adding, "aside from maybe a guy on our team.”
Although Donovan didn’t mention him by name, Robbie Keane is that “guy.”
Which raises an interesting debate that could be settled, to some extent at least, when the Galaxy face Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals (first leg: Wednesday, 10 pm ET, Fox Soccer, live chat on MLSsoccer.com): Is Suazo the best player in CONCACAF or is Keane?
Without even thinking about it, many observers would give Suazo the nod. After all, the Chilean international has been the creative driving force behind the most successful period in Monterrey’s history. It's actually been one of the most impressive trophy-filled stretches for any CONCACAF club in recent years.
Monterrey bought Suazo from Chilean giants Colo-Colo in 2007, and since then they have won the Apertura 2009 and Apertura 2010 championships in Mexico’s top flight, and back-to-back CCL titles in 2011 and 2012.
El Chupete (the Lollipop), as Suazo is nicknamed, has also reaped plenty of player awards, including being named best player of both the Apertura 2009 and Apertura 2010 tournaments. He won the Golden Boot in Mexico during the Clausura 2008, and was the top scorer in last year’s CCL.
Keane, on the other hand, hasn’t been in this part of the world nearly as long as Chupete has. The Irish international joined the Galaxy midway through the 2011 MLS season. But still, he’s picked up a decent haul, including two MLS Cups and the 2011 Supporters’ Shield — the only bits of top-flight silverware he’s ever earned in his career.
Keane’s contribution to the Galaxy has been transformative. His goals — 26 scored in 44 MLS appearances — have helped on the stat sheet, but it's his swagger that has given the club an attitude that it belongs in the conversation about who’s the region’s best. Before Keane arrived, the Galaxy were a good team that was just missing out; today, they have that extra bit of attacking quality, perhaps even enough to get past Monterrey.
“Don't think for one second we think they're better than we are,” Keane said on Tuesday after training. “Look at the team we have: We're as good as anybody. We'll give anybody a game.”
Here’s LA manager Bruce Arena talking on Tuesday after training: “He’s a goalscorer. He’s a playmaker. He’s a freekick specialist. He’s the real deal.”
And here’s LA centerback Omar Gonzalez: “He scores amazing goals. His technical ability is great. And he’s very crafty and very clever, making good runs.”
Who are they talking about, Suazo or Keane?
It’s Suazo, but they could just as easily be talking about Keane. After all, technical ability, craftiness, cleverness, and good runs make up Keane’s skillset to a T.
Jose Villarreal, the 19-year-old Galaxy forward who grew up watching Suazo play for Monterrey and today plays alongside Keane, is more explicit in his comparison.
“[Suazo] is a clever player,” Villarreal said on Tuesday. “He’s like Robbie: same ability around the box with his creativeness with the ball.”
The problem with superlatives
To call someone the “best” is always tricky. So many factors must be ignored or overlooked in order to make the designation fit. For example, defenders rarely get a mention in arguments about the best players, thus excluding the likes of LA’s Gonzalez, Santos Laguna’s Felipe Baloy, and Club América’s Diego Reyes. And don’t even think about goalkeepers, the afterthoughts of player-of-the-year voters the world over.
This is why Donovan added the little qualifier — “pure” — to his statement.
Purity, in this case, is like code for “attacking,” meaning Donovan is assessing Suazo based on his possessing the types of skills that show up on highlight reels and in video games. The same skills that Keane has.
Oh, and also the same skills that Donovan himself has.
So perhaps this debate about who might be the “best pure player in this region,” which will take center stage over the course of these two matches, demands a third name: Donovan's.
It's probably not a coincidence that Donovan — often called the best American player ever — returned just in time for this series. The CCL is the only thing he hasn't won. And only if you beat the best, can you be the best.