National Writer: Charles Boehm

How Landon Donovan helped RSL's Rubio Rubin get his groove back

When you watch Rubio Rubin’s dazzling bicycle-kick golazo vs. the San Jose Earthquakes – and hopefully everyone reading this has played it back a few times by now – you witness a player seemingly at the top of his game.

Brimming with confidence, fresh off bagging a brace in Real Salt Lake’s previous match. Blessed with technique, imagination, athleticism and the audacity to throw it all together in conjuring up an incredible moment. It was a goal worthy of Diego Maradona, Rubin’s coach at Dorados de Sinaloa for a memorable stint in 2018-19.

“I always wanted to do something crazy like that in a game,” Rubin told this week. “You train your whole life for moments like those.”

Few onlookers would suspect that a 25-year-old striker pulling off such a feat was bracing himself for retirement just a few months prior.

“No one wanted me,” he said. “No one was willing to take in a player during the pandemic, or whatever it was.”

Last summer Rubin found himself stuck in limbo as COVID-19 ravaged the planet and indefinitely shut down soccer leagues across the world, including the Liga de Expansion MX, the revamped Mexican second division where he was on loan to Dorados from Club Tijuana. He had to wait weeks just to catch a flight home from Culiacan to his native Oregon, and a coronavirus outbreak had infected 17 members of Dorados’ squad, further diminishing his appetite for a return.

With the pandemic piling further economic misery on the league’s already-tenuous members, the authorities canceled the remainder of the Clausura (spring) season and suspended promotion/relegation to Liga MX for the next five years, fashioning the second division into a youth league of sorts – not too appealing to a player who was 24 at the time.

As his Xolos contract moved into its final months, Rubin and his agent worked out an early termination, but no other clubs offered more than a trial to a forward with seven US men’s national team caps to his name.

“That’s just the reality. People forget about you when you're not performing,” said Rubin, once a teenage phenom who passed on a Portland Timbers homegrown contract offer to sign with Eredivisie club Utrecht at age 18, making his full USMNT debut a few months later.

“Last year, in the summer, it did go through my head. I was like, ‘I don't want to retire, but I might have to.’ It was scary … in my head I was like, ‘Ah man, am I that bad of a player to have to give it up now?’”

Then Landon Donovan called.

Rubio Rubin USMNT

With his San Diego Loyal SC side making a late push for the USL Championship playoffs, the USMNT and MLS icon was looking for stretch-run attacking reinforcements. As unloved as Rubin might have been feeling, Donovan was just as elated to discover that he was available.

“We wanted that profile and [Loyal GM Ricardo Campos] said, what about Rubio Rubin?” Donovan recalled to this week. “Well yeah, that's great, but there's no way we're going to get a player like that.

“He's not the biggest guy, but he holds the ball well. He’s good in the air, both in just helping the ball and flicking balls on and then attacking the ball in the box. He runs very well; he's not going to burn by people, but he's got enough pace to get by defenders. Technically his feet are very good,” Donovan enthused of Rubin. “He's an excellent passer. He runs with the ball well. He's clearly, as everyone has seen, a fantastic finisher when he gets in and around the goal. He can score with both feet. If I tried to pick apart where there’s a weakness, I just don't – there's not a weakness there.”

With unusual circumstances aligning the fates, Rubin touched down in Southern California for a brief but vital interlude.

“From day one, he was an absolute joy to be around and totally changed the complexion of our season,” said Donovan. “Here was a guy who had played for our national team, came into a middle-table USL club and could’ve absolutely walked in and thought he owned the place. And he was humble, he did everything we asked him … He was one of the hardest-working guys every day, in all ways.”

Rubin reeled off seven goals in five matches for Loyal, confidence coursing through his veins again. While San Diego's postseason push fell short (due to a variety of reasons) he’d shown obvious, undeniable quality, reinvigorated by Donovan’s unstinting belief.

“When you get that call from him saying, ‘Hey man, come play for me, you're going to play every game and you're going to be the man and there's no reason why you should not be scoring every game,’ it's going to help you, it's going to get you where you want to get,” Rubin said of Donovan. “We had this connection not only on the field but just as person to person, where he knew that I was a good person as well as a good player. And when you feel that from a coach, sky's the limit.”

RSL took note of Rubin’s situation earlier in the year, and with a Western Conference-worst 25 goals scored in 2020 were in need of some punch up front, especially after their tempestuous relationship with Designated Player Sam Johnson was terminated in October. They filed a discovery claim on Rubio after “he tore apart every team he played against,” in Donovan’s words, in the USL Championship.

Now a once-goal-shy RSL front line looks menacing even before the imminent arrival of another former USMNTer, Bobby Wood, on a free transfer from Hamburg. That looming competition for minutes has further fueled what Rubin describes as a “now or never” mindset at this momentous juncture in his career.

“He's gone through a lot,” said RSL general manager Elliot Fall of Rubin. “He's had a tough career so far in a lot of ways. I mean, he just hasn't found a home. And he's come in and he's done an absolutely phenomenal job. You just have to tip your cap to what he is, the mindset he's come in with, the work ethic, the desire to improve, who he is and who he's capable of being.

“Look, I'd be lying if I said I expected him to come out and play this well. But we were very excited about him.”

A youth national teams standout who spearheaded the United States at the 2015 U-20 World Cup, Rubin made his way to Europe as quickly as he could. He was once among the USMNT’s most-hyped prospects, but sees now that he wasn’t quite ready for all that as a teenager.

“If you want to say, yeah, I was one of the biggest talents coming out, 18 years old, go to Europe alone. [But] didn't really have that mental toughness,” Rubin said, pointing to his head. “When things didn't go well, I would be up here – I mean, I would completely psych myself out, train extra, when it wasn't about training extra, it was more like, you got to be patient … When I got to Europe I wasn't the best player, and that kind of was shocking to me a little bit.”

The young Rubin leaned hard into the “no days off” philosophy, centering his life around his soccer ambitions and obsessing over every detail that might help him maximize his talents. Eventually, he learned that approach came with limitations.

“When I was a teenager, I was always like soccer, soccer, soccer, everything was soccer. What are you eating, how much are you training, are you doing extra, blah blah blah. And yeah, that mentality is great, don't get me wrong, you need to keep it up,” he said. “You’ve got to know when to turn it off and be like, I’ve got to enjoy my life. You’ve got to find new hobbies.

“I would always put soccer first, and I would forget about my life, even if it was hanging out with a girl, going out for dinner – whatever it was, it was like, 'Oh I can't do that because I gotta go to bed.' You know, ‘a good professional,’ you know what I mean? That mentality kind of messed with me when I was a teenager.”

Bouncing from the Netherlands to Denmark to Norway to Mexico has given him an appreciation for plying his trade on home soil. When his parents attended RSL’s home opener last month, it marked the first time they’ve watched him play a professional match in person. He considers his present self not only a more mature pro, but a more complete human being – with the same hunger as before, just focused more intelligently.

“I just want to have the mentality that I had at San Diego Loyal six months ago when I first started with them, kind of have the same mentality of like, I have five games and I’ve got to prove myself and make every opportunity count,” he explained. “I'm here to perform, I'm here to play, I'm here to earn my starting spot.

“I’ve found the right balance now.”