In celebration of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, Major League Soccer took part in the 2024 AAPI in Sports & Culture Symposium at NFL Headquarters in New York last week.

Former New York Red Bulls and Inter Miami CF goalkeeper Luis Robles, the son of a Puerto Rican father and South Korean mother, shared his inspiring life story as a member of the AAPI community on behalf of MLS, marking the league's first-ever participation in the event this year.

Organized by the NFL in partnership with MLB, NBA, NHL, USOPC (United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee) and Major League Soccer, the event was attended by 120 people, including executives from each league, with hundreds more participating virtually.


"Change the Game"

Organized under the "Change the Game" theme, the event highlighted the impact Asian Americans are having on sports at both the executive and player levels. Moderated by NFL Network's Mike Yam, the two-panel convention first featured several female Asian executives in sports, followed by a second discussion with current and former athletes.

"This panel is great because I feel like I get to talk to people that are me at that moment just from a representation standpoint," said Janaki Cash, the New York Mets' vice president of ticketing and revenue strategy. "For me, the mentorship was found from a business perspective and people who I respected. I leaned on them from that end. And I will say over time, sharing my perspective, how I was feeling and how I was being treated, led to them also changing their mentalities in their workplaces about female representation, Asian woman representation. Now it's a little bit of a joke, but they'll hit me with, 'I'm in a room full of white guys -- where's the you?' I appreciate that, now go bring the 'me' through the door because commenting on it is just step one. Now go make the change."

Cash was joined by Tammy Henault, the NBA's chief marketing officer, and Jessica Park, chief of brand and fan engagement of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committees. All three shared how they're helping to reshape how Asians are viewed in sports, while addressing the misconceptions about Asians in the sports landscape and their impacts on the industry at large.


Robles shares his story

The second panel included current and former AAPI athletes, with Robles offering his insights alongside Premier Hockey Federation player Reagan Rust and New York Jets linebacker Zaire Barnes.

Robles pointed to the stereotypes and preconceived opinions that existed with him being a young Asian athlete, "I was always one of the last people picked [as a child],” the now 40-year-old said. “And I really hit the trifecta. One, because I'm Asian. That means I'm not very athletic. Two, I’m a goalkeeper while I'm not very tall. And then three, I played soccer, so that means you're definitely not a "real" athlete growing up.”


Despite those challenges, Robles shared that his background gave him a distinct mental advantage over the competition during his formative years. This mentality, in turn, allowed him to enjoy a decade-plus-long career with stops in Germany and MLS and three caps with the US men's national team.

“As I progressed as a soccer player, I went through a lot of challenges," said Robles, the 2015 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. "And yet the mentality within my household, the one that my parents instilled within me, wasn’t to take the path that’s easily taken. If anything, they always would encourage me to lean into adversity.

"Because of my mom's plight and that immigrant mentality, I was able to develop a mindset that allowed me to make it to some of the highest levels."

Growing up in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, Robles recalled soccer not being as popular a sport in the United States as it is today, pointing out to the myriad of global soccer events that will take place in the region in the next few years.

“Growing up there wasn't a lot of soccer on TV. If anything, I remember when I was in college, we'd have to wake up super early in the morning to go watch what was called Fox Soccer Channel at the time,” he said. “That’s why it’s so exciting to be in soccer right now, not only within Major League Soccer. The next couple of years [are] going to be incredible. When you look at this summer with Copa America and then in 2025 the Club World Cup and then in 2026 the FIFA World Cup, it’s all going to be here in North America."

Recently promoted to Technical Director of MLS NEXT, Robles wants to help soccer hopefuls of all backgrounds and cultures defy the odds just like he did.

"I also just feel indebted to all those soccer coaches and all those mentors along the way that took time out of their lives to invest into me," Robles said in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com earlier this month.

"So now it's time for me to give."