The job of a goalkeeper is never an easy one. We spoke to USA and New York Red Bulls shot-stopper, Luis Robles about how God changed his perspective on the beautiful game.
Luis, did you always want to be a goalkeeper growing up?
No, that comes down to a little bit of divine intervention from my coach! Basically, growing up playing soccer it was all pretty recreational. I played Baseball on a more competitive scale but then my eleven-year-old friend tried out for a soccer team and I went along with him as support more than anything else. It was a week long try-out and I was cut the first day! It didn’t really work out but what transpired was that their goalkeeper got hurt and my friend told me to go in goal, even though I had no formal training whatsoever. So I ended up being on team for about a year and I fell in love with the position and the challenges it presented for myself. The rest is history!
Growing up as a goalkeeper, were there players in your position who you wanted to emulate?
Primarily, Ilker Casillas; partly because he’s only a couple of years older than me which is wild because he has just achieved so much in the European game. When I was in college, I looked at this guy who was playing for one of the greatest teams in the world, in Real Madrid and I really wanted to imitate him.
In terms of a more physical standpoint, most goalkeepers like Petr Cech or Thibaut Courtois are 6 ft 3 or 6 ft 4; but Ilker is not that, he’s more like 5 ft 11 and I’m barely 6 ft. So to see someone like Casillas break the mould and encourage other keepers like me was just huge.
Let’s talk about your time in Germany and how that impacted your career.
Yeah I mean playing in Germany had a huge impact on not only my career but also my personal life too. When I went out there, I was on the tail-end of my career over here. I was having trouble finding an American agent; it wasn’t like there were guys knocking on my door and saying, “hey, this MLS club are interested in you, can I be your agent.” So when a former team-mate of mine who was I played at the university of Portland, who was now playing for Millwall got in touch and said “I think you have a chance to play soccer in Europe, use my agent!”. The more and more I prayed about it, the more it seemed that God was opening up that door for me; but it wasn’t an obvious door.
When it came to the MLS draft and I was picked up by DC United, a part of me thought that maybe I had heard the Lord wrong, but then the next day I got a call from my friends agent and he said that he had a trial set up and a plane ticket ready for me. It’s funny because I felt my heart was in that decision and the spirit prompting me there, so I decided to take my chance and do it. So, after five and a half years of playing soccer in the US, two different clubs, 50 odd professional appearances, going through super-drafts, the Lord showed me through all these experiences, that my identity was so wrapped up in the idea of being a professional soccer player, that I didn’t even realise that this was part of the refining as a Christian.
For me, that was actually the beginning. Christ allowed me to understand that success has no bearing on the way I esteem myself and that’s all because of God’s grace and love.
Now you’re in New York, how did that move come about from Germany?
So when we came back from Germany, my wife was 7 months pregnant. My prospect of becoming a professional soccer player were now pretty dim by this point. I contacted the MLS through an agent and there didn’t seem to be much interest out there and if there was a murmur, that was quashed by the fact I would have to enter the MLS allocation draft. Essentially, the allocation draft is where only 1 player is submitted to 20 teams. Teams can have interest but what seems to happen is that teams can put other teams off the individual and at the end of the day, the only person who gets screwed over is the player! In this situation that’s what I was facing. For big players like Tim Howard, that’s not a problem, the allocation draft is the only way of giving every team a fair chance; however, for small fish like me, it was a lot more of an issue and there was barely a chance I would be selected! So it just seemed like it wouldn’t happen.
Then, my wife who was 7 months pregnant said to me that we should keep the faith and give it a try. So we prayed about it and decided to put a time frame on the decision. The date we gave was August 11th which funnily enough was the date her sister was going to get married. At this point, it was the middle of July and there was literally nothing going for me. But, I believed that she had heard from the Lord and we both wanted to be faithful to that and see it out. A month goes by and on August 1st, I make contact with MLS and they explain to me what the deal is. On August 9th I get accepted on the allocation process and I get signed by the New York Red Bulls. On August 11th, my sister in law gets married – so the Lord was faithful!
It was just a whirlwind really, we’d had a pretty rubbish past few months with a miscarriage and with family members becoming very sick, so we were wondering what God’s plans for us were. But we kept the faith and he blessed us. He opened up doors where doors should have been closed. He put my shattered confidence back together and in a way that made me able to face up to bigger challenges! When we look back at what the Lord has done with our lives, we are so thankful.
Best striker you have ever come up against?
I would have to say Robbie Keane. He is a tremendous player and technically so strong in his ability. He’s a creative player and I think that’s something that has eluded the American player, so it’s a huge step forward in having him in our national league week in week out.
Stand out career moment?
I think the very first time the New York Red Bulls won their first piece of silverware back in 2013! We had a brilliant season and went on a sensational run of form towards the end of the campaign. It was amazing because we are one of the original franchise who had never won everything. It came down to the last game and to win that was just an amazing experience, so that has to be one of my highlights.
As a keeper, there’s a lot of pressure on your shoulders and as a Christian, how do you cope with that pressure?
When I look at my position and the challenges that are associated with that position, I can see why the Lord put me there. As a goalkeeper, you can do everything right; you can train right, do everything by the textbook, but if the striker puts it in the top corner, I’m not going to save it. For me, it’s a lot like life. It’s like following the Lord.
You can go to the right school, have the right education and understand who you’re meant to be but then there’s still so much that I cannot control. When I crossed that bridge and realised that there is so little that I can control, that’s when I committed my life to the Lord and gave it all to him. Now, I don’t have to worry because he says to cast all my fears and worries onto Him! When you realise that Lord is for you and not against you, you have more control than you have ever had before. My actions are to love and serve people, if I have a great game, I love and serve. If I have a stinker, then I love and serve. I want to live my life in a way that glorifies God.
You’ve represented your country twice, how proud are you of those caps?
I don’t think I take too much pride in my personal achievements, maybe that’s because I am a competitor and I like to look forward to the next step, I know I have been accused of that before. I think when my career is done, I will have a lot of time to think and dwell on my career and give a lot of gratitude. With that said, I have a lot of gratitude to give right now. These experiences just make me realise how grateful I am and see how far God has taken me and I want to continue that walk with Him.
Do you have a favourite piece of scripture?
I have lots of pieces of scripture that I lean upon, it’s the living word of God and it applies to all aspects of our lives. One verse that sticks out for me though when I am meditating and waiting on God is Hebrews 11:6. I want to please God and it pleases him when we put our faith in God. When we step out in faith and do things to expand His kingdom, that’s when we please him. I think in my career, I realise that God has redeemed me from the shadows and when I look back at my testimony and the small details from when he put me in goal at twelve years old, it makes me realise that God cares for me and every aspect of my life.