Rodgers no longer a mystery man to Red Bulls, MLS

UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – Not much was really known or expected of Luke Rodgers in MLS this year, outside of the brain of New York Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe.

Rodgers knew that. He also knew that what most people knew of him was largely negative, in so far as a popular website covering the Red Bulls voted Rodgers in a poll of fans to be the team’s worst player before the season even began.

But now, as the Red Bulls battle for their playoff lives in the season finale against Philadelphia Union on Thursday (8 pm ET, ESPN2, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), Rodgers is a key focal point of the New York offense and one of the best newcomers in the league this season.

“When I first came, the old physio Rick [Guter] told me that I was voted to be ‘Bum of the Year’ or something like that,” Rodgers said. “To be honest, there was no pressure on me from the start. I just felt that if I work hard, I will win the fans over.”

Rodgers has done more than that. His nine goals this season and tireless play have helped the Red Bulls stay afloat during tough times, and he’s scored a goal in each of the club’s three recent wins while battling to reach the playoffs.

“I just want to work as hard as I can,” he said. “You can have all the skill in the world, but you still need to work. I haven’t all the skill in the world but I will still work hard and try to score goals.”

Truth be told, it wasn’t just the fans who didn’t know anything about Rodgers; his own teammates and the coaching staff had scant knowledge of him. Take defender Stephen Keel, for example, the defender who has blossomed in his own right. Both players came on trial at the same time, but Keel had never even heard of the other man who had caught Backe’s eye.

What was known about Rodgers was his run-ins with the law in England and his penchant to get in trouble. Head coach Hans Backe had tried to bring in Rodgers last year, but due to the player’s arrest record, the paperwork for the visa was backed up. When Rodgers finally did arrive this past winter, his teammates knew little of him or his track record in the lower divisions of England.

What they knew of instead was the off the field reputation.

“I thought he was a fighter,” midfielder Dane Richards said. “A boxer, because everyone says he likes to fight and all of that, nothing good about him. Then he came, he’s a machine, a goal scorer. He’s really impressed me.”

Added assistant coach Jan Halvor Halvorsen said, “I didn’t know anything. He has impressed me a lot with his energy, his understanding. I did not expect anything because I didn’t see him before. He has impressed with the way he plays, the way he scores.”

A hard-charging forward, Rodgers is always active on and off the ball for the Red Bulls.

Halvorsen calls Rodgers a “typical English striker” and praises his work rate as “exceptional.” Last spring, when talking about the possibilities of brining in Rodgers, Backe promised that the diminutive forward would be “a pain” for MLS defenders.

Rodgers is hard working and always pressing the opposition’s backline, plus he makes hard runs to draw away defenders, opening up space for his teammates to get more active in the attacking third. He also isn’t shy from physical play or jawing at established league stars, as he did when caught LA Galaxy captain Landon Donovan’s ire for comments following the teams’ 1-1 draw earlier this season.

 “It is with anything I do, I give 100 percent,” Rodgers said. “I may not have the skill, the technique of Thierry Henry, but I always work hard. I think with any player, you may not be as fast, you may not have the touch, but if you work hard, people appreciate you. I’ve found that if you work hard, you get the rewards.”