The goalkeeper is the last line of defense for a soccer team. And one night earlier this year, the New York Red Bulls desperately needed a stop.
After a successful 2014 season that saw Luis Robles and his teammates make it to the MLS Eastern Conference Finals, the organization and it’s new Sporting Director, Ali Curtis, decided to let go of the team’s popular head coach, Mike Petke, and replace him with Jesse Marsch, previously an assistant coach with the U.S. men’s national team. Many of the team’s loyal followers were not happy.
After his AQ photo shoot, Robles headed to a town hall meeting hosted by the team at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. The sole player on the panel, he heard the fans gripes and their passion. Calmly, he defused much of the anger in the room, speaking on behalf of the players.
As the fans lit into Curtis and Marsch, the atmosphere was tense and uncomfortable. “My name is Mike and I’ve been a season ticket holder since 2006,” said one fan, addressing the Red Bulls front office. “I think it’s sort of shameful that you brought Luis out here, who we all love.”
In response, Robles took the microphone and spoke from his heart. “I wasn’t asked to come here tonight,” he said, “ I volunteered to be here. I felt it was important to have a voice representing the players.”
It’s that kind of leadership that has made Robles a fan favorite in goal for the Red Bulls. Not one to shift responsibility, he takes the challenges the team faces with honesty, the only way he knows how.
Robles never planned on becoming a professional soccer player. Growing up near Fort Huachuca in Arizona, a United States army base, he didn’t dream of making big game saves or think about playing alongside stars like Thierry Henry. An 11-year-old Luis Robles only played the game so that he and his soccer-playing best buddy could spend as much time as they could together.
“I went to a try out and after the first day it was clear the coach was not a fan of mine and cut me,” Robles recalls. “A week or two later he called me up and offered a second chance if I was willing to play goalkeeper. I was thrilled. It meant I was going to be able to be on the same team as my best friend.”
Inseparable Robles and best friend Sean Malarchik both graduated to the Arizona state rep team—and then they took separate paths. Robles refined his goalkeeping skills at Portland University before signing a pro contract with German Bundesliga giant Kaiserslautern. Sean joined the military and served in Afghanistan as an explosive ordnance specialist, the bomb disposal job portrayed in the Academy Award-winning film “The Hurt Locker”.
“Sean had the qualities to be everything that he wanted to be but I am just really grateful to him for introducing the game to me,” says Robles. “For me, playing soccer was about just hanging out with my best mate all the time.”
Now 31, Robles remains humble and modest about a pro career that includes a 2009 appearance for the national team. The son of an army veteran father originally from Puerto Rico and a Korean mother, Robles says his tough experience in Germany (he also played with Karlsruher during a five-year stint in Europe) made him change his perspective on life.
“When I got to Germany I was this fresh out of college, bright-eyed, 22-year-old kid who was going to conquer the world,” he recalls. “I thought everything I had was because I was so good and I sacrificed so much and I was so hard-working, I deserved it, I was entitled to it.”
That all turned out to not be quite true. “I wasn’t as awesome as I thought I was,” says Robles, who joined New York Red Bulls in 2012. “That allowed me to be a little more sensitive to other people’s situations and started to develop compassion in my life toward those who were less fortunate than me. I realized that I wasn’t just doing this journey for myself but for an entire community of people. It goes back to Sean, it goes back to my parents, and it goes back to my coaches. Along the way there have been so many people who have made sacrifices for me.”
Goalkeeper is a unique position in soccer and not just because the role allows the use of hands. A ‘keeper can stop 99 attempts on his goal but one error can lose a match. The job is as much about mental application as it is physical dedication.
“Maybe for some people being a goalkeeper is borderline nuts but for those who have stood in the goal, more than anything, it is courage,” says Robles. “There is definitely an unspoken union among us. There is respect. I know that other goalkeepers have gone through similar journeys, similar dips, similar highs, and it takes a lot of courage to be in front of that goal.”
Robles rates former Red Bulls teammate Thierry Henry—who also retired in 2014—as the best he has played with. Henry, according to Robles, inspired teammates by emphasizing their professional responsibility to each other and the fans.
“I took that responsibility to heart and I wanted to almost make him proud, like a dad in a sense,” he says. “It sounds kind of silly but it is true. You wanted to do whatever it takes to not only gain his approval but also make him proud.”
And now Robles carries the mantle into a new era in Red Bulls soccer. This year, the team will face off against NYCFC to engage in an ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of soccer fans in the New York area. With the Red Bulls challenging for first place in the Eastern Conference, it's clear who has the early advantage.
“Soccer is growing, the league is growing, and there is a lot of momentum but this rivalry it is going to light up,” One thing is for sure. When Robles steps in goal, he is ready for whatever comes his way.