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Much more than Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle: the Irish history in Major League Soccer

From Paul Keegan to Chris McCann and everyone in between.

MLSIrishMain All pictures courtesy of Press Association.

EVEN IN THE earliest days of Major League Soccer – when the marquee names were Carlos Valderrama and Roberto Donadoni – there were some Irish players making a name for themselves.

MLS began in 1996 and in that inaugural season, there were two Irish players involved: Paul Keegan and Ian Hennessy.

The deal was simple: along with the high-profile stars, the infant league needed an abundance of cheaper, solid domestic players. They had both come through university scholarships – Keegan at Boston College and Hennessy at Seaton Hall – and were both standout collegiate players. For the 1996 season, they were picked up by the New England Revolution and the New Jersey Metrostars respectively.

It was a different era.

While playing with the MetroStars (the first incarnation of what’s now the New York Red Bulls), Hennessy was also studying for a PhD in molecular biology at Colombia University.

The fledgling league went through some growing pains and, as Hennessy told The42 last year, the early years were played out under the constant threat of folding.

Maybe because I was older, I marvelled at the comedy of it all and how patch-work it was. On the outside, people thought it was top-flight and professional but it really wasn’t. I felt it was always a week away from collapsing on itself. If you had put me on the spot back then and asked if it was going to take off or collapse, I’d say collapse. Maybe because of my experiences with Arsenal I had seen the other side. The big crowds, the top pros so it was a wonder to me how it ever got off the ground at all.”

But still, there was the allure of being there in the first place. In Hennessy’s case, he left an economically-ravaged Ireland in 1986 while Keegan followed in the early 1990s. And in the latter’s case, it was like walking onto the set of a TV show. A long way from Walkinstown.

American Soccer - MLS - Pre-Season Training Camp - Los Angeles Galaxy v New England Revolution Paul Keegan spent four years with the New England Revolution. Source: Matthew Ashton

“When I walked off the plane, it was a dream come true.  You saw these things on the telly. There were the big fancy cars, the weather was roasting and I was on my way to Boston College”.

Keegan stayed four years with the Revs before returning to plenty of success in the League of Ireland. But New England weren’t done with Irish imports just yet.

Richie Baker spent the 2004 season in Massachusetts and made 20 appearances under former Liverpool defender Steve Nicol, tallying six assists in a side that also featured Clint Dempsey. The Revs reached the Eastern Conference final that year though the winger found it difficult to get a consistent run in the first-team and returned to Shelbourne after a brief MLS sojourn.

MLS CHIVAS USA FC DALLAS SOCCER Source: TONY GUTIERREZ

Simultaneously, former Irish underage international Ronnie O’Brien was excelling at Dallas Burn and was a four-time MLS All-Star and named in the league’s Best XI in 2004 and 2005. Injuries blighted his subsequent stints at Toronto and San Jose and he retired from the game at the age of 29.

There followed a litany of Irish internationals who dabbled in MLS – Darren O’Dea, Andy O’Brien, Caleb Folan, Sean St. Ledger.

St. Ledger played for Orlando City SC in their debut 2015 campaign, sharing a dressing-room with the likes of Kaka. Like those before him, it was easy to get a little starstruck.

“When you play with someone like Kaka, you just don’t want to embarrass yourself, really”  he told me at the time.

“Considering the talent he’s played alongside, you don’t want him to go home to his wife and say I’m the worst player he’s ever played with”.

But over the last number of years, the league has established a greater profile. Inevitably, a higher calibre of talent has arrived, including Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle.

Doyle remains at Colorado for the forthcoming season while Keane’s next destination remains unknown – his legacy as MLS icon absolutely assured, though, after a stellar five-year spell with the LA Galaxy.

But there is one more Irish name to watch out for this term: Chris McCann.

The 29-year-old Dubliner, who spent nine years at Burnley in both the Championship and Premier League before a three-season stint at Wigan, will be part of expansion side Atlanta United.

The former Irish youth international had spent some time with Coventry this season while he waited for the MLS pre-season to get underway.

McCann’s coach in Atlanta will be former Barcelona boss Tata Martino: yet another reminder of just how far Major League Soccer – and the league’s collection of Irish players – has come in two decades.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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