Robbie Rogers' Renaissance Lifts Los Angeles Galaxy
The 27-year-old struggled during his time in Major League Soccer last season, but a new position and a clean bill of health have given Robbie Rogers a chance to showcase his considerable soccer talent.
BY Brooke Tunstall PostedULTIMATELY, WHAT ROBBIE ROGERS wanted was to be just another pro soccer player. A good soccer player, yes, but just another guy on the team. That and a nice long run of good health. Healthy for the first time in years and focusing almost exclusively on his play on the field instead of being a social pioneer and media darling, this season Rogers has flashed the form that once made him a U.S. national team player and starter on an MLS Cup champion. A career attacker, Rogers, 27, has a made a seamless transition to left back and is now starting—and more importantly contributing—to the hottest team in Major League Soccer and helping the Los Angeles Galaxy re-establish itself as a defensive force. Rogers made headlines—lots of headlines—last season but they had more to do with his public acknowledgement of how he was born, thus becoming the first openly gay male athlete in professional American sports. But there were times when it seemed there was too much about the “openly gay” and not enough about the “pro soccer player.” “Yes! I felt like that most of last year. I have made a conscious effort to say no to most media this year... This is by design. I felt like last year was too hectic and I wasn’t able to enjoy football,” said Rogers, who declined ASN’s initial interview requests and only agreed to answer questions for this article via email. “This year is more mellow and I have been able to focus on soccer and my team.” It got lost in all the hoopla last year but Rogers was once a hell of a player, an MLS Best XI midfielder as a 21-year-old for the Columbus Crew and a 2008 Olympian with almost effortless acceleration and the foot-skills to beat his man on the dribble and whip in dangerous crosses. LIttle of that was on display last season for the Galaxy who, amid much fanfare, acquired Rogers last May in a sign-and-trade with the Chicago Fire. Hindered by a series of injuries that had limited him to 10 games with Leeds and Stevenage and burdened by media obligations, Rogers showed considerable rust as he often looked a step slow and struggled to find a groove, appearing in just 11 games, seven of them starts, and contributing just a single assist on the stat sheet. Preseason started predictably for Rogers as he was sidelined by an ankle stress fracture he attributed to “overuse.” He was on the shelf as the season started but finally got healthy in May. “I can’t express to you how great it feels just to be able to train and be part of the team,” he said. “Injuries can be depressing especially when you have as many as I have in the past few years.” Ironically, it was an injury that has opened the door for his renaissance. Todd Dunivant, a former Best XI player at left back, has been limited to two games because of an abdominal strain, prompting Arena to approach Rogers about taking his place. “The idea was Bruce’s. We have obviously had some injuries and he saw some qualities in my game that he thought would suit that position. He spoke to me about it right when I got back healthy and fit," said Rogers. “I think playing left midfield and being an attacker has helped me read the game and understand where opposing players might want to get the ball or create dangerous opportunist for themselves. As a left back you must have good instincts as to where to position yourself. I obviously think my athleticism helps me track guys and to be dangerous getting forward.” The Galaxy eased Rogers back, first with a quartet of games with its USL Pro league squad, which “help(ed) me get fit and sharp after my stress fracture during the end of preseason” and then a couple of first-team appearance off the bench before he debuted as a starter June 28 against crosstown rival Chivas USA. With Rogers starting at left back, the Galaxy are now 4-0-2 with three clean sheets and a 0.66 goals-against average. That’s not all because of Rogers, of course, but when he doesn’t start the Galaxy are a rather pedestrian 5-4-4 with a 1.00 GAA. The Galaxy’s current form reminds Rogers of his time with the Crew when it won the MLS Cup/Supporters’ Shield double in 2008. “I would say the thing that I have started to notice that is most similar is the enjoyment we get from playing together. I remember some great games back in 2008 and a few of our games this season feel very similar.” Last week Rogers helped the Galaxy to a pair of road wins that have conjured up reminders of the team's 2009-2012 run, when it played in three MLS Cup finals, won it twice, and bagged a pair of Supporters’ Shields. First the Galaxy thumped league-leading Seattle 3-0, and then the club rallied to beat Portland 3-1, a comeback started when Rogers got forward in first half added-time and whipped in a perfect cross that Gyasi Zardes headed home for Rogers’ second assist of the season. For a reformed attacker, getting forward is the easy part of playing left back; the biggest challenges come with the actual defending. “The back line has to all be on the same page and that has been the biggest challenge. Whether to stay with the line or to make a split decision to break away is tough,” explained Rogers, who was quick to credit others for helping his transition to defense. “Todd has helped me a little the coaching staff has been incredibly helpful and watching video has really helped me… I feel good but I think I still have a lot improvement that I need to make. The more games I get the more comfortable I will feel at left back.” Mostly, however, Rogers attributes his recent run of form to good health and match-fitness. “I think every professional athlete will tell you that the most important thing is playing games,” he said. "Most importantly I needed to get healthy and once I was able to get games under my belt I think I have now started to play like myself.” Many forget that in Jurgen Klinsmann’s first game as U.S. coach it was Rogers who came off the bench against Mexico to score the tying goal. And it’s hard not to look at the current U.S. pool and see that starting left back DeMarcus Beasley—himself a converted wide mid—is 32-years-old and has no clear-cut successor. Could Rogers ultimately fill that role? It’s way too soon to tell but he has the skill-set Klinsmann wants in his fullbacks as well as a long history together—they were actually teammates in 2003 on the amateur PDL’s Orange County Zodiac, and Klinsmann helped arrange trials for a teenage Rogers with some European sides. Rogers will also be a year younger in 2018 than Beasley is now. In keeping with this mellow, no-hype stage of his career, Rogers was dismissive of such talk. “I am far away from the national team and haven’t spoken to Jurgen. At this point I will just focus on the Galaxy,” he said, “but you never know what the future holds, especially in sports.” Rogers is making one exception to his All Soccer/Minimal Media policy. There’s a sitcom in the works based on Rogers' life as a gay pro athlete. It’s been optioned by Universal Television and being executive produced by Emmy-nominated Craig Zadan and Neil Meron of Storyline Entertainment. Rogers will serve as a producer and if the show makes the airwaves there will likely be a media blitz for Rogers to promote the show. Despite the potential for distraction, he’s confident it won’t get in the way of his soccer. “I am not worried about this,” he said. “Yes, I will have a commitment to media if and when this is green-lighted but I am so excited for this project and this opportunity to possibly help change and teach people through comedy and laughter." Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter.
August 08, 2014
August 08, 2014