WALDWICK, N.J. – Luke Rodgers’ journey to MLS has been longer and stranger than most, with plenty of twists and turns.
But on Friday morning, the long trip came to an end when the English forward reported to the Red Bulls for preseason training. The club has been after him since last spring, seeing him as an ideal strike partner with pace to help stretch the opposition’s back line.
Head coach Hans Backe had Rodgers as a player during his time coaching in England at lower-division side Notts County. Backe told MLSsoccer.com on Friday that Rodgers will line up as a forward and play off Thierry Henry.
“He’s definitely a higher striker, he’s not a target [forward],” Backe said. “I really hope that he will be a regular starting player.”
Rodgers did not participate in his first training session on Friday while he rehabs a right knee injury. Backe hopes to have the player available and healthy by February when the team travels to play four preseason matches in Cancún, Mexico.
Rodgers agreed that the timetable set forth by Backe of a February return is reasonable, adding that he’s happy to be with his new club. Last year, the Red Bulls were unable to complete a swoop for the diminutive attacker with Rodgers’ prior legal issues holding up a work visa to enter the country and play for the Red Bulls.
[inline_node:302286]A lengthy appeals process – which included character reference and citation of charity work to show his reformed nature – finally resulted in the granting of a work visa.
With the necessary paperwork in hand, he’s set about learning about his new teammates. From conversations with Backe and with the players he’s met so far, he’s garnered that MLS is a “physical, but athletic league.”
Friday afforded him the first real opportunity to see the quality of the league up close. As he watched preseason training from the player’s bench with his knee wrapped up, he said he was impressed with a league that people back in England take seriously.
“I’ve had phone calls from a number of players I’ve played with in the past who all want to come here and play,” Rodgers said. "When they heard I was coming to America and MLS, they wanted me to get them in contact with Hans to see if they can play.
“I just want to do as well as I can,” Rodgers continued. “I haven’t come here for a holiday.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be reached at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer