Luis Robles is a man of faith.
Faith in his own abilities, faith in his family, and faith in the powers that be. Yet in recent years, that faith was put to the test. The life of a professional athlete is full of ups and downs, but for Robles the roller coaster ride was tumultuous beyond compare.
Currently, the trend is upward. Robles plies his trade for a New York Red Bulls club historically synonymous with roster turnover, but has now stuck around for four years and has already established himself as a centerpiece with the new regime. The veteran has made himself an indispensable figure in the locker room and on the pitch, and with the fans, and the guys calling the shots since 2012 have noticed.
“He’s one of the elite goalies in this league,” Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch says. “His presence in the goal is big. Because of his personality he’s such a calming influence on our team – that’s his greatest quality. He has an assuredness and a steadiness and a belief in himself that makes everybody in the back feel comfortable with him behind them.”
Four seasons is not forever, but it’s hard to remember a time when the 30-year-old wasn’t an ever-present for the Red Bulls.
Yet it wasn’t too long ago when soccer itself was anything but a certainty for Robles.
Like many kids of his generation, Robles grew up at a time before MLS was really established and long before it had started to ascend as it has in recent years. He dreamed of playing for a big club in Europe. In pursuit of that, after leaving early from the University of Portland, he signed with FC Kaiserslautern in 2007 at the age of 22.
Over the next three years, he worked his way up from the reserves and into sporadic minutes with the first team. That caught the notice of the US national team's then-head coach, Bob Bradley, who gave Robles his first – and to date, only – cap in the summer of 2009 at the Gold Cup.
A year later Robles switched colors, signing with Karlsruher SC in the 2. Bundesliga, the second tier of German soccer. The first season in Blue and White went well, as Robles started 23 games. But by January 2012, it had become clear to him that his time in Germany was coming to an end. After falling out of favor, Robles knew it was time to make a move away from the club to revive his career.
He earned permission to secure a move following what he describes as “one of those ugly parts of the business that you can never really prepare yourself for.” Luckily, salvation was right around the corner: the Red Bulls reached out to Robles in the hopes of acquiring his signature ahead of the 2012 season.
It was a union that, in theory, seemed to benefit both parties. Entering the 2012 season without an established goalkeeper in the team, New York saw Robles as the type of veteran who could solidify the position. For Robles, a return to first team soccer was appealing.
Even more important was a move back to the United States.
“My dad was sick, my-father-in-law was sick, and my wife and I thought: ‘Here’s an opportunity to come home.’”
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. As a player capped by the US, Robles was subject to the league’s allocation process, meaning his move to New York was not guaranteed.
“Because of the allocation draft, it caused a roadblock,” Robles says. “It wasn’t something that Red Bull wanted to pursue. I understand [how it worked] with Sacha [Klejstan], because he was a big-time player. He was a name. He was someone who the league would have a lot of interest in. But me? I was not a name. A lot of people weren’t even aware of who I was.”
Robles went back to the drawing board. He began to question not just his current situation, but also his future in his profession. The game that he had played since childhood, which had taken him around the world and given him so much, suddenly seemed like a trivial part of his increasingly complicated life.
“We were dealing with my dad being sick, with [my wife] Cara’s dad being sick," he says. "We’d also just lost a baby. There were a lot of things going on in my life that made me reevaluate what I wanted to do.”
Six months after his move to New York fell through and with no other prospects on the horizon, Robles’ doubts mounted. Despite his experience and obvious talent, few doors opened to re-ignite his passion to continue playing.
“I told my agent where my mind was at," he recalls. "I told him that I’m really thinking about not playing anymore. Unless there was just some incredible opportunity for me or some challenge that piqued my interest, I was looking at other things to do with my life. I was very close to walking away.
"In my mind, I already had.”
Faith, even when it's lost, has a way of pulling through. Often when it's most unexpected.
When an offer from the Vancouver Whitecaps came in, it would have gone by the wayside were it not for the intervention an unlikely comrade in arms.
“The guy who really sold it to me was Bakary Soumare," Robles says, referring to the current center back for the Montreal Impact. "We crossed paths at Karlsruher briefly and he was telling me that he was trying to get back to America. So when the Vancouver offer came around, it was something I seriously considered, mostly because of what [Soumare] was saying.”
It was then, on July 4th, 2012, that Robles and his wife decided to say goodbye to Germany for good despite not having a contract in place in Vancouver or anywhere else.
“We sold all of our stuff and said, ‘This is where we want to go,’" he says. "My father-in-law’s cancer had progressed pretty aggressively so we wanted to be around because we didn’t know how it was going to end.”
The next few weeks were emotionally taxing on Robles and his wife. The move to Vancouver was still very much up in the air, and with a child on the way, the two found themselves sitting, waiting, praying for a phone call.
It never came.
And Robles was forced to resign himself to the fact that his professional soccer career was at its end. He took a job working for a realtor, mainly because he needed to secure healthcare for his pregnant wife.
“I thought to myself, 'I really like what I’m doing here. I’m enjoying life after soccer,'" he says. "I was at a stage in my life where I was six years later than a college graduate [would be starting], and if I’m going to have to go through that struggle of doing it six years later and with a kid on the way, I might as well just start.”
Looking to put his family above his future in soccer, Robles approached his wife with his thoughts on officially changing professions. And while Luis seemed ready to hang up the gloves for good, Cara wasn’t as willing to accept that notion.
“After spending a lot of time praying about it, she thought, ‘You have to give it one more chance because the worst thing you can do is two, three years down the road be watching a soccer game and just regret that you didn’t see it out until the end.’”
Cara set a timeline for Luis. By August 11th, should an offer not come, the two would officially move on and take the next step in their lives.
Tired of waiting for a phone call, Robles began to take a more proactive approach. Bypassing his agent, Robles made contact with the league office in a last-ditch effort to get the wheels turning on a move to MLS. He quickly found himself on the line with Ali Curtis, then a member of MLS's player department.
“He knew who I was right away," Robles says. "He remembered my situation from January with the New York Red Bulls and the allocation process.”
Curtis told Robles that a move to MLS would require his entry into the allocation draft and would more than likely see Robles earning the league minimum. With his ego battered, Robles had one question.
“Does it come with health insurance?”
The job, of course, did come with health insurance. And it came just days before Cara's deadline was due.
RBNY signed Robles on August 8, 2012, via the same allocation process that had proven an obstacle earlier in the year.
Since then, he's gone from the man who needed saving to the man who saves.
His heroics have regularly kept New York in games and propelled the Red Bulls to unprecedented results. He helped them earn their first piece of silverware when, in 2013, they lifted the Supporters’ Shield, and he soon saw his salary bumped to far more than the league minimum. In 2014, he backstopped the team past Sporting KC in the MLS Cup Playoffs Knockout Round for their first ever playoff win at Red Bull Arena, and then – in another milestone – helped New York to the franchise’s first-ever playoff series win over bitter rivals D.C. United.
Yet arguably his greatest moment with the Red Bulls occurred off the pitch.
After head coach Mike Petke was unexpectedly fired in January 2015, after having guided the club to two of its most successful seasons in history, fans were incensed. They aimed most of their vitriol at Ali Curtis, who has recently been hired from the MLS league office as the Red Bulls' new sporting director.
In an effort to mend the relationships between the fan base and the front office, Curtis and the Red Bulls held a town hall meeting, during which season-ticket holders were given the opportunity to air their grievances with Curtis, Marsch and General Manager Marc de Grandpre.
What the supporters didn’t expect was the presence of a player: Robles.
Immediately, some fans accused Curtis of propping Robles on stage as the front office’s “flak jacket,” but Robles disabused them of that notion.
His presence and the same calm demeanor he embodies on the field helped to diffuse at least some of the tension in the room.
“I had expressed my desire to represent the players, because through all of it, people were forgetting that the players had to deal with [the changes], too," he says. "So if they could see that I wasn’t taking it personally, maybe that would represent that the players weren’t either, that it’s just part of the process.”
As a man who feels indebted to the franchise, Robles saw the town hall as a way to give back. Many have forgotten the slow start Robles got off to in that Shield-winning season, but it remained fresh in the goalkeeper’s mind.
“In the beginning this organization may not have been entirely sure of what they had, but they stuck by me.”
And thus he stuck by them. This offseason saw yet another purging of the roster, but Robles was never on the chopping block, his position never one that was targeted for an upgrade. So when the now infamous Town Hall meeting was announced, Robles took it upon himself to make his presence felt.
“I wasn’t there necessarily to represent Jesse or Ali, I was there to represent the organization. I’m really grateful to the chances they’ve given me, and I want to put my best foot forward as a representative of this club.”
What the future holds for Robles is still to be determined. A new season beckons as the Red Bulls – for the 20th time – look to finally bring MLS Cup to a franchise whose fans yearn for it.
For Robles, there is plenty to be thankful for no matter what the lies ahead. If you ask his head coach, a return to the national team may be in order.
“I think he should get a look,” Marsch says. “I think he deserves it. By a goalie’s age, he’s still very young and I think he has many years ahead of him. I think he’s a guy that [US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann] would benefit from getting to know more on a personal and professional level.”
Regardless of whether a call-up is in the cards, Robles can reflect on his incredible journey with fondness and see just how much has changed for the better.
“When I was going through the process of becoming a professional, I wasn’t as cognizant of just how special my support system was. How much I relied on them, how much I leaned on them, the strength that they gave me, the way they empowered me,” he explains.
“Up until a certain point, I thought I had it because I deserved it. I thought I had it because I was so awesome. But then I started to realize that wasn’t true. At the end of this whole process, I’ve just become more grateful for the things in my life.”