EAST HANOVER, N.J. — There’s no soccer term for a save that defies all expectations and odds.
In volleyball, a particularly vicious block elicits a loud “Rufio!” from the crowd. In basketball, a slam dunk is called a jam, or a stuff. In baseball, a deep home run is a long bomb, same with a lengthy football pass-and-catch.
When New York Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles made what would later be voted the 2014 Major League Soccer Save of the Year — two saves, in fact, on one attack by the Seattle Sounders — the ESPN commentator uttered the phrase “daylight robbery.”
It was, in fact, pure theft. Running left, Robles, a Sierra Vista native, dove back to his right to deflect a left-footed strike by Sounders midfielder Marco Pappa. The ball bounced straight up toward the forehead of a charging Clint Dempsey. Dempsey smashed the ball with his head and Robles, scrambling, emerged. The goalkeeper leapt to his right once more and punched the ball away with his right hand.
For most goalkeepers, it would’ve been the save of their careers.
The best save of his career came two years before — and almost five years ago today.
And the save? Daylight robbery?
It was his career itself.
And it wasn’t even Robles in goal, but his wife, Cara.
• • •
July 4, 2012, was Independence Day in more ways than one. Luis and Cara Robles sold all their possessions in Germany and moved back stateside, gambling that Robles could hook up with an American team.
His tenure in Germany was filled with numerous coaching and leadership changes, and his last stop — with Karlsruher SC — was the most frustrating of all.
By the summer of 2012, Robles was on his seventh different coach in 18 months.
“In Germany,” he said, “they change coaches like they change underwear.”
The club was not invested in him, and with Cara seven months pregnant, the couple decided to move back to Sierra Vista and move in with Cara’s parents.
That first week living with the in-laws, Robles said, “I was going crazy. I had to do something. If I was sitting around all day watching ‘Million Dollar Listing,’ I’d go insane.”
Robles’ soon-to-be brother-in-law was going on a trip and asked him to step in for him at his real estate job.
“He thought I was doing him a favor,” Robles said, “but he didn’t realize he was doing me a favor.”
Robles consumed himself with his newfound real estate career, finding an instant aptitude, and more importantly, the right attitude. He shuffled papers. He made calls.
“Whatever they needed me to do, I was going to be the best at it,” he said.
The last day, Robles’ boss put it out there: A full-time career was waiting for him if he wanted it.
Robles darted home, ecstatic. Had he found a new path? A new sense of pride? At the very least, with a baby on the way, a new source of income, one that wouldn’t depend on the stability of ownership or the stability of a groin?
He told Cara the news.
“No,” she told him. “No. We’re going to try this one more time.’”
“So the credit for saving my career goes to my wife,” Robles says now.
Robles called all of the old University of Portland Pilots teammates in his Rolodex. With every phone call, even the ones that led nowhere, Robles’ faith in himself was restored.
“They felt like I wasn’t done yet,” Robles said of his myriad soccer contacts. “If anything, they believed in my quality more than I believed in myself. They kept saying, ‘I think you’re really going to regret it if you don’t push on every door.’”
So he pressed on, the numbers on the phone wearing thin from use.
The more he looked for a spot, the further away it seemed. Robles swallowed hard and realized that a comfortable life awaited the couple if he continued down the real estate path, a life without the fear of injury, the fear of being cut, the fear of inadequacy. Most importantly for a gamer like Robles, this new career offered a challenge, and that’s what he was looking for most of all.
Cara sat him down.
“Let’s make a deal,” she told Luis. “I’ll let you pursue these other ventures, but after my sister’s wedding.”
Robles’ sister-in-law was set to marry on Aug. 11, 2012. He had about 20 more days to chase soccer.
The business of soccer had beaten Robles’ spirit, but the game itself was still an utter joy.
Robles returned to the fields in Sierra Vista where he’d spent just about every day growing up playing with his three best friends — Miguel Guante, Tim Nottingham and Sean Malarchik — and just being back out there sparked him. He’d come home from the pitch a new man, and, he said, “My wife would see the buzz on my face.”
Robles was convinced he wasn’t done. Cara saw it in him, too. A goalkeeper’s goal keeper, perhaps.
“I feel like his pursuit of soccer, everything about it, felt so supernatural,” said Cara, who has known Robles since junior high and began dating him as a freshman in high school. “Even in Germany, when things weren’t going well, there was a still a lesson in all this. God is carrying us through a storm and he’s sustaining us. I just felt like God had taken him so far, to fulfill the dream of playing in Europe, all these things that had been taken away and restored to us. I had a faith that God wasn’t done yet. It wasn’t about him just having a taste of his dream.”
So Robles took it upon himself to get the full meal.
He Googled Major League Soccer. When he was finally directed to the player acquisitions department, they knew some of his story.
There was just one problem: He couldn’t be signed by an MLS team outright. Because Robles had played in one match for the U.S. National team, he was put in a unique pool of players designated for an allocation draft.
“The problem is, those unique players were Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard,” he said. “Not Luis Robles.”
A team would have to use its allocation pick, typically reserved for the best on the national squad, on Robles. Even after Robles agreed to an MLS contract, the league insiders were skeptical— several teams had expressed interest in the 28-year-old goalie, but none would commit to reserving an allocation slot for him.
Ali Curtis, the MLS senior director of player relations and competition who would eventually become the Red Bulls’ sporting director, told Robles to hang tight; he had a good chance of hooking up with a team further down the road. On the day of the allocation draft, Aug. 8 — three days before the wedding deadline — he heard from Curtis.
“If I’m being honest, you’re not going to be picked,” Curtis told Robles around noon. “Don’t expect to hear from me again today.”
Four minutes later, she called back.
“You won’t believe it; you’ve been selected by the New York Red Bulls,” Curtis told him.
There are not words to describe the Robles family’s sense of relief.
Not that he’d continue his soccer career, and certainly not about going to New York — Robles was convinced he was going to be traded, and told his wife only to pack a couple bags — but about one thing most of all.
The couple had been turned down for health insurance in Arizona.
With Cara two months from her due date, they were thrilled they wouldn’t have to pay $25,000 for the delivery of their first child.
• • •
On Wednesday, nearly five years to the day after his soccer journey brought him back from the abyss, Robles will play in his 158th straight match for the Red Bulls.
We’re in Cal Ripken Jr. territory, here, folks.
The previous MLS record for consecutive starts was 141 by midfielder Chris Klein. For a goalkeeper to own this record is astounding.
“The first thing to talk about is he’s a freak athlete,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “Now, when you’re that explosive, you’re actually prone to a lot of muscle injuries, and he’s managed to avoid that by his mental and physical preparation. He is the last one off the field, first one in the gym, last one out of the gym. Literally every aspect you’d want a professional athlete to treat his profession with, he’s good at that. He’s the best at that I’ve ever seen.
“It’s not an accident.”
Nor is it, as Red Bulls backup goalie Ryan Meara said, “a fluke.”
“Almost every day, you see him either before or after practice in the weight room, and it’s not like he’s lifting crazy weights. He’s doing prevention exercises,” Meara said.
Robles puts it plainly — “It’s not as if I’m Gumby and made out of rubber” — and he credits luck and his faith in God as much as he does his rigorous training. He knows he’s been bolstered by the overall success of the franchise; though the franchise is still chasing its first MLS Cup in its 22 years of existence, the Red Bulls have won two of the last three Supporters’ Shield trophies, awarded to the top regular-season team. They’re 7-8-2 so far this season.
Robles remains very much a part of New York’s plans. The Red Bulls signed Robles, 33, to a long-term contract extension on Wednesday.
“When things are going well, you don’t examine it so closely,” Robles said. “There have been moments where my play has been just OK, and there have been moments where my play has changed the game. And look, I’m very grateful that I haven’t experienced anything major. All it takes is one bad moment and it can turn around someone’s season, let alone career.
“I know that I’m moment away from something changing. I’m grateful for every moment that I get.”
• • •
Looking back on his first reserve game five years ago, Robles smiles.
New York was facing Marsch’s former team, the Montreal Impact, and Robles recalls seeing coaches from throughout the league watching him from the sidelines. He was convinced his stay in New York would be brief.
“I played out of my mind,” he said, “and the Red Bulls realized they had something.”
That he was even with the team is a bit of circumstance not lost on him. Robles learned later that the team’s sporting director didn’t actually make the pick in the allocation draft; one of the team’s officials had. Meara was one of the league’s hottest young players at the time, though a serious hip injury would derail his promising career, and Robles wouldn’t even speak to the sporting director for weeks. Robles remains convinced the official who selected him did not realize the ramifications of the allocation draft pick.
But what’s kept him in goal for 157 straight games is exactly what kept his soccer career alive in the first place: An unyielding faith and the support of his family.
“If we’re going to get to the nitty-gritty of who I am, I’m a deeply spiritual person,” he said. “I’ve read the Bible cover to cover I don’t know how many years running. I don’t want to put that as the core of the story, even though I know deep down it is. It was only some of the peace I found reading the Bible or being on my knees and praying that kept me going.”
He visited and revisited his favorite Bible verse, the ending of Psalm 27, in which the Hebrew king, David, reveals both his great courage on the battlefield and his great fears at home.
“You see the humanity in him,” Robles said, “the struggle and the strife.”
The 27th Psalm ends with verse 14, which says “Be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart; Wait, I say, on the Lord.”
But it was verse 13 that Robles comes back to time and time again: “I would have lost heart, unless I believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
He and Cara had already lost a baby to miscarriage when he returned home to Sierra Vista. Robles had lost his team, and both his father-in-law and his father were sick. But he found clarity.
“I learned two things when the rug was pulled from under me: You don’t have as much control over things as you think, and the most important part is how you act,” said Robles. “I constantly came back to those truths, that I really don’t have control over that much and I can only control how I handle a situation.
“There’s something liberating about that.”