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Rapid to Vienna: Doyle aims to stake claim in play-off showdown with Keane

“As long as I’m playing professionally I’ll be available for Ireland.”

Image: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

WITH A GREY Irish sky overhead as Kevin Doyle provides a weather update over the phone from Colorado, it’s suddenly much easier to understand why he left English football behind to move to the MLS.

“It was 30 degrees [celsius] here yesterday, which isn’t bad considering it’s nearly November.”

Denver has been home for Doyle, his wife and their two children since he made his debut for Colorado Rapids in May of last year.

After a difficult end to his time as a Wolverhampton Wanderers player [which included brief loan spells at QPR and Crystal Palace], when the club was relegated to League One just 12 months after they were in the Premier League, Doyle is now part of a Rapids side that’s among the favourites to be crowned MLS champions in December.

According to the MLS salaries that were released back in March, Doyle will earn $1.12million for 2016. The Wexford native, who turned 33 last month, describes Denver as “a great place to live” too, so it’s hardly surprising that there’s no hint of regret in his tone when he discusses life as a player in Major League Soccer.

“It’s not a pensioner’s league over here, despite what some people might think,” says Doyle, who’s been playing in front of average home attendances of over 16,000 this season, which is on a par with Denver’s NHL [Colorado Avalanche] and NBA [Denver Nuggets] teams.

“We train just as hard — if not harder — as I’ve ever done at any stage in my career. It’s far from easy. If anyone ever asks me about coming out here, I’d advise them that it’s a brilliant place to live and a really enjoyable league to play in, but don’t think you’re going to be able to just chill out. You can chill out, but you won’t be getting in the team.

MLS Fire Rapids Soccer Source: David Zalubowski

“There is a lot of travelling involved in the MLS and a lot of time away from home, so that does take a bit of getting used to. But from what I’ve been told by other lads, the league is just in a completely different place to what it was four or five years ago — in terms of coverage, intensity in training and the overall standard.

“It’s completely different now and players have really had to adapt. There are players coming from all over the world to play here these days — not just England or Ireland or Europe in general — and it has changed it for the better.”

Last weekend, the Rapids were one of two teams in with a chance of finishing with the highest points tally of all 20 teams in the MLS. The football culture on this side of the Atlantic has taught Doyle to refer to that as “winning the league”, and although the MLS rewards its best regular-season team with a place in the CONCACAF Champions League — as well as an accolade known as The Supporters Shield — the overall champions won’t be crowned until the MLS Cup final is played in December after a series of play-offs.

In the end, a draw with Houston Dynamo wasn’t enough to overtake FC Dallas anyway, but Doyle was still conditioned to push for the summit of the table, even if their play-off place had already been secured thanks to a season which saw them lose just six of their 34 games.

“It’s definitely different. For the American lads, the play-offs are everything,” he explains. “Every sport is about the play-offs where they’ve grown up. We nearly won the league last week — we finished second — and for me that was disappointing. But that’s not a big deal here. It’s about finishing in the top six and getting into the play-offs. So I’m trying to get my head around that.”

Knowing that he’s entering the final years of his career and is now isolated from the intense scrutiny of the media in Ireland and Britain, one wonders what motivates Doyle — and his peers in the MLS who have also played at a higher level in the past — to continuing pushing themselves to the limit in pursuit of success in a league that is still widely sneered at elsewhere in the football world.

Source: Major League Soccer/YouTube

At 33, is he still as driven as he was before to help Reading and Wolves to establish themselves in the Premier League, and to contribute to Ireland’s efforts to qualify for major tournaments?

“Yeah, I think so,” Doyle says. “Even though it’s not the be-all and end-all here, I’d love to have won the league last week. Now with the play-offs, I’m desperate to win there too. As I get older, I want to win things as my career comes to an end. That’s where my motivation comes from.

“When you get older, no matter where you’re playing — whether it’s in England or wherever — you have to get yourself motivated. You don’t experience nerves the way you did when you were younger. But we play in front of big crowds and in great stadiums, we get massive support and it means a lot to the fans.

“It’s much bigger out here than people might imagine. There’s billboards and signs up everywhere about us. Especially now that we’re in the play-offs the coverage has been big. It’s on all the sports channels, it’s live on Fox Sports 1. It’s bigger than what people think — especially so in the last couple of years, from what I’ve been told.”

Another incentive is his desire to add to his tally of 66 senior international caps, although that objective has been hampered this year by injuries. In March, Doyle was given a chance to stake a claim for a place in Martin O’Neill’s Euro 2016 squad with a start up front in a friendly against Switzerland. Eighteen months since his last appearance in an Ireland shirt, it was an opportunity he may not have been expecting.

“When you get a bang on the shin, you get that bit of pain at first and you try to run it off. But when I went down and had a look at it there was a fair bit of shock,” says Doyle, reflecting on a collision with Swiss defender Tim Klose that left him with a gruesome gash on his shin and forced him out of the game in the 27th minute.

Kevin Doyle injured Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“You don’t expect to see bits and pieces of you wide open like that. But it was fine afterwards once I’d got it stitched up. Other people seemed to be more freaked out by it than I was. The doctors gave me some medication while they sorted it out so I was nice and happy for a while.”

But it wasn’t long after Doyle saw the damage to his leg that he knew his chances of a summer in France had ended: “I sort of had that feeling, yeah. It was my first start in a long time and I was feeling really good, very fit. I’d had a good start to the season with Colorado and I had a chance to get into the squad for the Euros.

“It’s amazing what goes through your head when you’re down injured like that and waiting to be brought off. I was kind of thinking, ‘This could be my last game for Ireland’, but I was actually really lucky because it could have been a lot worse. There’s a lot of nerves and veins around that area so I was blessed to be out for such a short time.”

The injury kept Doyle sidelined for six weeks. Coming to terms with not being involved as Ireland reached the knockout stages at Euro 2016 wasn’t easy, but being so far removed from the action helped him to accept the situation.

“I was glad in a way to be out in America because you’re such a long way away from it that it makes it easier to get over. When you’re that close to being involved in something and then not going, it’s tough.

“We actually had training or a game most of the time when Ireland were playing so I barely got to see any of the games. The Copa America was on too so that was the main focus of attention out here. It was sort of weird to have a big competition like that going on and Ireland were involved, but you don’t really know a whole lot about it.”

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MLS Fire Rapids Soccer Source: David Zalubowski

When it comes to Doyle’s international ambitions, however, living nearly 5,000 miles away rarely has its benefits. Nevertheless, it hasn’t had a detrimental impact on his appetite for international football. As long as he’s playing at club level, Doyle will be willing to take a call from the Ireland manager.

“It is hard,” he admits. “You play over here on a Saturday or Sunday, you fly to Ireland and arrive in on a Monday morning and you’re straight into training. Your body is all over the place for the first few days but you sort of get used to it.

“It is difficult when you leave your wife and kids behind but I’ve decided that I’m going to make myself available until I retire from soccer completely. Whether I get picked or not is obviously another thing. As long as I’m playing professionally I’ll be available for Ireland.

“It’s fantastic. I love going home and meeting up with lads I’ve played with and against for years. It’s nice to get back and be in that group, and I’d love to stay involved and continue to represent my country. But I’m realistic as well. We’ll see what happens.

“It’s two years until the next big tournament and anything can happen in that time. If I do well in the play-offs, I’m sure that will give me a chance to be involved [for the World Cup qualifier against Austria in Vienna on 12 November].”

Doyle was included in Martin O’Neill’s provisional squad for the qualifiers against Georgia and Moldova earlier this month, but an ankle problem forced him to withdraw. The former Cork City and Reading striker says it’s been “an annoying season with injuries” but he admits that he’s been fortunate on that front for most of his career.

Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“My body has taken a fair battering over the years,” he says. “I notice it in the mornings getting out of bed a lot more than I did before, but I feel physically great when I’m on the pitch. The good weather and training in nice conditions probably helps, but I feel fine. I’ve just been unlucky this year with injuries.”

An injury-free run until the final day of the season would serve him well, but America’s love of the play-off system means that Doyle is unsure if the campaign will end next weekend, on 11 December or somewhere in between. If all goes according to the plan, the Rapids will be involved in the MLS Cup final a fortnight before Christmas.

In tonight’s first leg in the Western Conference semi-finals in California, Doyle will be up against a familiar face as the Rapids take on LA Galaxy. He hasn’t exchanged any messages with his former Ireland strike partner Robbie Keane in the build-up to the game, but he’s hoping to have a reason to gloat after next weekend’s second leg.

“I’ll talk away if we win. If we lose I’ll ignore him,” Doyle laughs. “I’m sure he’ll be the same.”

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