The New York Red Bulls put in an impressive performance to earn a rare win on Mexican territory on Tuesday night in Tijuana. They exuded confidence and demonstrated a clear level of thorough preparation. But they couldn’t have done it without the efforts of goalkeeper Luis Robles, as the goalkeeper made 13 against Xolos.
Robles’ performance will be remembered by Red Bulls fans for years to come, but it’s not surprising to anyone who’s been following the goalkeeper since he won the team's starting job in 2013. Over the last six years, Robles has been one of the top goalkeepers in the league, and a key part of the club’s success.
What makes Robles so good?
When Robles is out on the field he portrays confidence and security. It doesn’t just help his game, it helps his teammates’. The goalkeeper is often the foundation of a team. He’s the stable presence; the one always organizing and shouting. It goes a long way when a team likes and trusts the player behind them.
Games can get frenetic, but a steady personality at the base can help a team stay focus and composed. It’s not just that Robles is well liked, it’s also the subtle actions on the field. For example, he generally grabs the ball out of the goal quickly after conceding; he gets the ball back to midfield, and puffs out his chest as if the goal was a fluke. It’s a small signal to his team that can go a long way.
There is a reason he currently is the captain of the Red Bulls. His leadership qualities are evident every time he steps on the field.
I want to highlight the response that he gets from his teammates when he chews them out during a game. Most of the time when you see goalkeepers scream at a defender, the defender walks away, ignores the yelling, or, worst case, gets into a shouting match with the goalkeeper. This rarely, if ever, happens with Robles. You can tell from the body language of the defenders that they don’t resent the feedback.
This is down to two reasons. First, it’s the type of information he is giving his teammates and, second, how he delivers it. He's yelling, but it is in a constructive tone not an attacking one. We all know the difference between the two. By being constructive as opposed to destructive, you still get your point across while supporting your teammates and the efforts they are giving on the field of play — this is evident in the save he makes in the first half on the wide set piece from Tijuana. As goalkeepers we aren’t doing all the hard work out there, it’s the field players who are running their backsides off for 90 minutes that lead to results and the last thing your teammates want is a goalkeeper who doesn’t appreciate their work and effort.
Robles isn’t especially tall for a goalkeeper, standing at 5-foot-11, therefore he needs to have good positioning. Goalkeepers with a larger frame can get away with more due to their poor positioning. He very rarely gets caught out of position and gives up a goal as a result.
This is best personified in the save he makes in the second half on Tijuana's Luis Mendoza. The ball is heading to the top corner at the far post yet Robles extends with his right hand to tip the ball out for a corner kick. I wouldn’t say this is that difficult of a save for Robles, but only because he is off his line, in a happy medium between the near and far post, and set waiting for the shot. A lot of the time in these situations it is easy to get drawn too far to the near post as the striker shoots from the angle because you are moving in line with the ball, here Robles resists this urge and trusts his positioning to make the save. He does this efficiently and with relative ease and is always going to make this save.
Reflexes and change of direction
This is simply something you can’t teach goalkeepers. You are either born with good reflexes or you’re not and Robles is one of the lucky ones. His ability to get a hand or foot out to push the ball to safety is extraordinary and should never be overlooked.
Think back to the swerving shot he saved in the first half of the match. As the ball is struck Robles is heading to his left because that’s where the ball’s trajectory initially goes before it starts to move. As the ball starts to dance in the air Robles must immediately get set, keep his body balanced and change direction. I can’t explain to you how difficult this is to do from a goalkeepers perspective. Most goalkeepers would be in trouble as this ball starts to dance. Robles made the play look easy.
There is an argument to be made that since Robles has been the most consistent goalkeeper since coming to MLS in 2012. After all, he has made 174 consecutive starts.
None of the saves he made were that breathtaking, but if one of those shots were to slip by we wouldn’t call it a blunder. Games are often lost on those non-saves, but that rarely happens with Robles in goal. Not every goalkeeper makes those saves and makes them look as routine as Robles does. He is so strong in the foundation of his goalkeeping — his footwork, positioning, set position and balance — that he can replicate his actions every night. When Robles is in goal for the Red Bulls, everyone around the club knows what they are going to get.
MATTHEW PYZDROWSKI is a current professional player, in his 9th season, currently as the #1 goalkeeper with Varbergs BoIS in the Swedish Superettan. He has previously spent time with the Portland Timbers, Angelholms FF, and Helsingborgs IF. Prior to turning professional he starred on the men's soccer team for the Marquette Golden Eagles. A current columnist for HOWLER Magazine.