CARSON, Calif. – Robbie Keane has played with more strike partners in his career than Harold Ramis busted ghosts in his.
He cut his teeth playing alongside legends like Niall Quinn, Teddy Sheringham and Steve Bull. He’s played considerable minutes alongside hit men Jermain Defoe, Dimitar Berbatov and Shane Long.
He even had all-too-brief moments next to Fernando Torres and Darren Bent.
For a guy who has scored close to 300 goals in his professional career, Keane has made a living figuring out a way to remain effective even as the face next to him has changed.
Since moving to the LA Galaxy in summer of 2011, Keane has remained elite: 34 goals and 21 assists in 55 appearances in league play. In MLS terms, that’s a strike rate that ranks him as the third-most efficient goalscorer in league history – only Stern John and Mamadou Diallo scored more often.
But that also just fits into the Keane narrative. Much like the rest of his career, he’s put up numbers like that in LA despite a revolving cast of strike partners that has included Mike Magee, Landon Donovan, Jack McBean, Jose Villarreal and Gyasi Zardes.
Keane has never been as lethal, though, than he has with Donovan at his side. Keane deposited 22 of those 34 goals when the US national team hero lined up next to him. The reason for that success? It’s because he and Donovan are so similar in the way they attack – or “choppin’ and changin’,” as Keane explained to me through his brogue after Galaxy training this week.
“We’re very similar in the way we like to drop off,” he said, also pointing out that both are similarly undersized.
In fact, if you ask Keane where that ranks among his favorite partnerships of his career, he immediately compares Donovan to Berbatov (at right), the Bulgarian marksman with whom he combined for 91 goals across all competitions at Tottenham Hotspur during the 2006-07 and ’07-08 seasons.
“We had a great understanding,” Keane said. “He was quite similar [to Donovan] as well because, even though he was taller than me, he likes to come in and get the ball and play in the midfield area, and so do I. So like Landon, we kept chopping and changing. For me, that worked brilliantly.”
Funny thing is, Keane is being forced to adapt again. The Galaxy went out and signed two monstrous front men to pair with him: 6-foot-1, 190-pound Samuel, on loan from Brazilian club Fluminense; and even bigger 6-5, 205-pound Canadian national teamer Rob Friend.
Those signings are what made it necessary to move Donovan back to midfield, a place where he’s spent a good chunk of his LA career. And this preseason, that’s forced Keane to work his magic of quickly figuring out the tendencies of the guy playing next to him.
“It doesn’t take really that long,” he said. “You kind of understand them fairly quickly – or I do, anyways.”
That's been a helpful skill this preseason. It hasn’t been as hard with Friend, a 33-year-old who has played in Norway, the Netherlands and Germany. Keane says his experience is the obvious advantage, as is the Saskatchewan native’s skills as a classic hold-up man.
“He plays up top, stays high,” said Keane. “I can kind of feed off him when he holds the ball up.”
With the 23-year-old Samuel, it’s a little different. Keane says he’s already figured out the big kid’s tendencies and instincts – even at his size, he’s shown a little of what Christopher Sullivan would call “la fantasia” – but it’s more about getting the Brazilian to figure out his game.
“Sammy, every time we play together on the pitch, even if it doesn’t come off, I’m aware of what he’s trying to do,” Keane explained. “[I’m trying] to plant the seed so as soon as the season comes around, he knows exactly how I play.”
And at age 33, that’s not changing. Keane is fully fit and feeling good after offseason surgery on both Achilles’ tendons, something he says dogged him all of last season and severely limited him. (Which is sort of remarkable when you consider his 16 goals and 11 assists landed him in the final three for MLS MVP voting.)
That doesn’t mean he can’t feel pressure to gel quickly with yet another strike partner. Keane says he doesn’t lament the fact that his top running mate is moving backfield a bit – “[Donovan's] still an attacking player and, because of his quality, he sets up a lot of goals," he said, "so in that respect, it won’t really change too much" – but he is adamant that being able to complement your partner is crucial.
“I don’t think it’s overrated,” he said. “Once you feel comfortable playing with someone, as long as the two of you are in it for the right reasons, regardless of who scores and you’re doing it for the team, that’s the most important thing.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.