In 2015, Robbie Keane was invited to throw the ceremonial first pitch at a Dodgers game. Before he stepped out, Adam Serrano of LA Galaxy's comunications team asked him if he had ever thown a baseball before.
"No...but I've thrown plenty of rocks before" came the reply. Keane then threw a strike ball.
It encapsulates much of Keane's time in American: everything was achieved with an insouciant ease.
"He changed how Americans viewed the ageing European player", says referee Alan Kelly, another Irishman working in Major League Soccer.
The MLS was no retirement home for Keane. In his five-and-a-bit seasons with LA Galaxy, he won three MLS Cups and was voted the league's MVP ahead of the third of those triumphs in 2014. His statistics were frighteningly good: he scored 83 goals and assisted another 44 in 125 MLS games, with 23 of his goals match-winners.
His impact was huge: Fox Soccer said that he is the greatest Designated Player in the history of the league, and NBC reacted to his leaving by declaring that 'the King has left his throne'. Ahead of his final Republic of Ireland appearance, LA Galaxy took out an ad on the front page of The Irish Times.
Envoys of Keane's exploits in MLS arrived to Ireland in two forms. The first was the Monday-morning sports reports of his latest on-field exploits, with photos following later that week of the latest LA celebrity he had befriended. Mickey Rourke and Steve Nash got a call-out on his ice-bucket challenge; Barack Obama joked that he had found in Keane an Irish cousin; and he often played five-a-side at Rod Stewart's Hollywood mansion, on a pitch embossed with a massive Celtic crest.
That Keane ended up in LA owes largely to the work of David Beckham. At the beginning of 2011, Beckham was using his off-season to train at Tottenham, where he found Keane on the periphery of the first team following a curious spell at Liverpool, fated to be brief when Rafa Benitez tried to convert Keane into a right-winger.
When Robbie Keane was labelled as an “unidentified fan” in 2012 pic.twitter.com/GrY86lFHFp
— Irish Football Pics (@irish_pics) March 25, 2020
Keane was identified as the sharp edge to burnish Beckham and Landon Donovan's guile, and he worked out exactly as intended. In his autobiography, coach Bruce Arena quoted an LA Times report on Donovan's farewell to accentuate this point.
For the last decade, the Galaxy had been Landon Donovan's team. But Sunday, late in overtime of the final game of Donovan's record-setting career, the team changed owners. When Robbie Keane capped an MVP season by scoring the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over the New England Revolution in the MLS Cup final, the Galaxy became his.
That Keane was seen as a good fit for LA Galaxy went beyond his on-field talents, however. They also identified him for his...singing. Keane's father was a singer, and it was during his stint in America that Keane discovered familial ties with Morrissey.
Tim Leiweke was president of the company that owned LA Galaxy when Keane joined, and he explains why the Dubliner was a good fit. "Robbie was perfect for our league. He was a fierce competitior. He knew how to score goals. He could sing, he had an incredible voice he could dance better than most human beings, he was a colourful character, but he knew how to win".
Having characters like Keane, says Arena, was important to the success of the club.
Getting fans excited about your team, and about Major League Soccer, wasn't just about having great players who could score goals they'd replay on ESPN; it was important also to generate some buzz. Generally if you look like you're having a great time, people are curious and will want to check out what's going on.
This was part of Tim's vision, to have a blast promoting the sport and the team and the players, and it was a good one. The mayor of Berlin once said of his city that, 'We are poor - but sexy'. There was some of that to the soccer of the time.
Travis Clark covered MLS as a freelance journalist during Keane's time there, and his enduring memory of Keane shows that the club's plan kind of...worked.
As cliced and lazy as it sounds, it was the celebrations. It was a bit silly, but first of all players can do whatever they like when they score, and it looked like he was having fun, right? I'm not sure if that celebration is a full reflection of the person he is, but he is cetainly wired like that in some way. It was kind of goofy, but it's a good reminder that the sport is about entertaining us.
The first airing of that celebration - part cartwheel, part forward roll, part the arm shuffle of an unctuous gameshow host - was reported along a musical theme by the LA Times. "Keane cartwheeled his way to the southwest corner of the field as he has done for 14 years. Then after receiving several leaping hugs, the newest member of the Galaxy took a moment to himself. Keane stood in the corner of the pitch and thrust his arms in the air, looking for a moment like a rock star who had finished his encore".
Serrano's best memory of Keane is his belting out Journey's Don't Stop Believin' at the 2012 MLS title celebrations, but he saw plenty else in America that suggests Keane is well-prepared for his first post-playing gig as part of one of the least rock n' roll management teams in football.
"Bruce Arena ran things like a CEO", says Serrano, so allowed Keane influence tactics. Serrano testifies to Keane's sharp analytical mind, recalling team meetings at which he would articulate the weaknesses and tendencies of the opposition defence.
Serrano also sees his ability to excel immediately at a club, regardless of how different the culture within which it is found, and says it speaks to an adaptability that should serve him well in coaching.
I think he has the right temperament. He knows how to adapt. When you look at his ability to come to LA and adapt, it shows you something that can be a positive on the training ground when he is adapting to new situations and new surroundings.
He did well in India, too. I think Robbie Keane can do anything he sets his mind to.
He threw a strike [at Dodgers' Stadium]! It was incredible to see. That shows his adaptability, to always find a way. And he found his way into the hearts of the people of Los Angeles.
He is naturally talented at so much.
That’s why I don’t doubt the man. He has the ability to become a first-class manager in this game. I know he will be an assistant for McCarthy and that’s a huge honour, but by no means is that the end. I can see him being a first-time manager soon.
He has that gravitas about him. He can tell jokes and sing songs, but he has the ability to call-out those who need to be called out; to say the things that needed to be said.
Per Serrano, Keane is likely to have a statue outside the Galaxy stadium soon.
Quite the journey from the days of the 'unidentified fan'.