Shortly after Mo Johnston signed for the Kansas City Wiz back in 1996, he walked into a American bar and nervously took a seat. He was sitting there for a while before the strangest thought occurred to him. Nobody in the establishment knew he was. Nobody cared. A striker who had long been a prisoner of his own Old Firm infamy in Britain realized immediately that here was an opportunity to reinvent himself. As the years went by in the American Midwest, Johnston morphed into a much-loved, combative Roy Keanesque midfielder and captained the Wiz to the Major League Soccer title in 2000.
Although Johnston was two years older than Robbie Keane when he moved to MLS, the comparison is worth making. Just like his Scottish predecessor back then, Keane is a striker whose powers are perceived to be on the wane, moving west to take a lucrative chance to start afresh and to perhaps prove doubters wrong. Johnston seized his opportunity -- becoming one of the stars of the fledgling league and carving out a subsequent career in coaching that has included stints in charge of the New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC. He went native.
Whether Keane regards Los Angeles as a brief interlude or something potentially more enduring, he would do well to copy Johnston's attitude and avoid some common mistakes. If he comes to America as a glorified tourist, like so many other European imports before him (the jury remaining out on Thierry Henry), the fans will see through that act. Quickly. Even though it's now exactly fourteen years to the month since a 17-year-old Keane announced his arrival with a brace on his debut for Wolves, he should have enough left in the tank to make an effort and to put in a proper shift.
He would do well not to try to coast through games on his superior talent. David Beckham's apparent disinterest in working when his team doesn't have the ball remains a terrible indictment of his attitude even in the final year of his contract. Beckham gets away with not contributing because he sells shirts and tickets and because the Galaxy are the best team in the league, a slightly misleading title given that the convoluted play-off system used to decide the title ensures ten sides start as equals again at the end of October.
By then, Keane will have had enough scoring opportunities to show the 20,000 or so that constitute the LA fan base he is a significant trade-up on Juan Pablo Angel, the former Aston Villa striker he is being brought in to replace. That Angel has been a rather prolific scorer in MLS up until his lackluster season with the Galaxy fits nicely into the prevailing British and Irish view that Keane is taking a serious step down.
The MLS is actually better than most Irish and British commentators think it is, although still not as good as its defenders over here reckon it to be. For the most part, it's bottom half of the Championship fare with various individuals occasionally elevating the play above that standard. Keane is part of a new initiative, a deliberate policy encouraging teams to go younger with the imports, moving away from the pursuit of ageing embarrassments like Lothar Matthaus who made the league look like a Middle-Eastern retirement junket.
The distance Keane will have to travel for internationals is much more of a problem than the quality of the opponents he'll be facing each week. Mexico's Rafa Marquez has had no problem with his displays for his country since joining the New York Red Bulls from Barcelona two seasons back. Then again, Marquez doesn't have to fly 6,000 miles for home matches and even more for away fixtures.
Contrary to the popular view at home, Keane will not be the second-biggest star in the Galaxy after Beckham. He will actually be third behind Landon Donovan, the face of the game in this country and somebody whose celebrity wattage can be glimpsed in the commercials he fronts on television each night. Donovan scored the goal that took the US into the second round of last year's World Cup (the first tournament the whole nation really took notice of) and enjoys Packie Bonner-like status as a result.
Donovan's rise to national prominence illustrates the increased coverage the sport receives from mainstream and not just sports media these days. There has never been a more promising time to arrive in American soccer. Interest in the game is at an all-time high. However, the heightened profile won't help Keane negotiate the most significant on-field obstacle. Some of the tackling in MLS can be rather agricultural and one or two of the lesser-paid players (a few at each club earn base salaries around the $30,000 mark) have been known to remind the marquee names of the wage chasm with crunching challenges.
DC United's Branko Boskovic, a midfielder on the Montenegro team which made a promising start to 2012 European Championship qualifying campaign, has been out since April following the type of late tackle that is unfortunately commonplace. He was the third star player in a year to be kicked out of action for a long spell. It is hoped Keane was forewarned about this before he arrives in New York to take on the Red Bulls this weekend, a fixture that will be charged with Thierry Henry revenge scenarios.
Last Wednesday, Deadspin, the most irreverent, salacious and widely-read sports gossip website in this country carried a front page headline that read: "Robbie Keane will play for LA Galaxy, import sensational new WAG into American soccer". The type of story that may have pleased his wife Claudine more than him, it's definitely indicative of the direction their lives have just taken. Whether this translates into courtside seats at Los Angeles Lakers' games and paparazzi in his face outside The Ivy restaurant, the true benchmarks of Hollywood celebrity, remains to be seen. Like so much else about this move.