Rogers, first openly gay MLS player, joins Galaxy

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Until about a month ago,
Robbie Rogers had no interest in being one of the highest-profile
openly gay athletes in the world.

Rogers didn’t want the pressure or
attention, and he was weary of soccer itself. After coming out and
simultaneously retiring in February, the former MLS champion and U.S.
national team player planned to devote himself to fashion school and
family, not soccer or social change.

Rogers told The Associated Press he
changed his mind when he realized how much he still loved his sport —
and how much good he could do by playing it instead of standing on the
sideline.

“I don’t know what I was so afraid of,”
Rogers said. “It’s been such a positive experience for me. The one thing
I’ve learned from all of this is being gay is not that big of a deal to
people.”

Rogers joined the Los Angeles Galaxy of
Major League Soccer on Saturday, agreeing to a multiyear contract in
another step by openly gay athletes in professional sports.

The 26-year-old Rogers recently thought
he would never pull on another jersey, imagining nonstop scrutiny and
criticism. His concerns were eased by the strong support he received
from family, fans and players, including Galaxy star Landon Donovan.

Now Rogers is eager to be more than a footnote. He is determined to thrive as the league’s first openly gay player.

“People are just really growing and
accepting and loving,” Rogers said. “Those other things are just not
that important to them. I think as the younger get older and the
generations come and go, I think times are just becoming more
accepting.”

The two-time defending champion Galaxy
traded top scorer Mike Magee to acquire Rogers, an MLS veteran who spent
the last two seasons in England. He trained with the Galaxy in recent
weeks and hoped to continue his career in his native Southern
California. The Galaxy made it happen by giving up the popular Magee in a
trade with the Chicago Fire, who held Rogers’ MLS rights.

“I want to get back to soccer, which is
what I love,” Rogers said. “I get to do something I love, and I get to
help people and be a positive role model. I’m really excited to set a
great example for other kids that are going through the same thing I
went through. It’s a perfect world for me, a perfect world.”

Coach Bruce Arena thinks Rogers already
is in decent shape despite 18 months with little match experience.
Arena figures Rogers could be a strong contributor to the Galaxy by
July, but he could play in any upcoming match.

“Certainly the league, and I think the
fans, are going to be receptive in a real positive way,” Arena told the
AP. “But we’re not in this to pioneer social issues. We’re trying to win
games as a team, and we’re trying to produce the best team we can.
Robbie has shown us that he has the potential to still be a real good
player in our league, and that’s what we’re hopeful of.”

Rogers is mindful of the place he’ll
take in the culture when he steps on the field this summer, but the
skilled, speedy winger is even more excited to contend for MLS titles
and another chance to play the U.S. national team — a stark contrast
from his plans earlier this year when he was accepted to the menswear
program at the London College of Fashion.

“I had a lot of fear to come back to
the game,” Rogers said, remembering countless instances of homophobia
everywhere from the stands to locker rooms. “I was just afraid I was
putting myself in an environment that in the past had affected my mental
health because I always felt like an outcast. I felt that I couldn’t be
myself.”

“But it’s been amazing,” he added.
“It’s been normal, just as it should be. I’m a soccer player. I happen
to be gay, but I’m a professional soccer player, and I have been since I
was 18, 19. … I’m just really excited to go back to the game, and
excited to deal with these stupid stereotypes that are out there with
athletes and the gay community, just a bunch of different things.”

He’s certainly not alone in this
movement. NBA veteran Jason Collins came out late last month, and Rogers
spoke with Collins on the day of the center’s announcement.

U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who
plays for Lyon in France, came out last year before the London Olympics.
She’s expected to join the Seattle team of the new National Women’s
Soccer League in mid-June.

Brittney Griner, the No. 1 pick in the
WNBA draft by the Phoenix Mercury, and Seimone Augustus of the Minnesota
Lynx are among that league’s openly gay players. Sheryl Swoopes, a
retired WNBA All-Star and current college coach, came out in 2005 during
her playing days.

But any day now, Rogers is likely to
become the first openly gay male athlete to play in North America’s
biggest professional leagues, a fact that’s still a bit surprising to
both Rogers and Collins.

“I would have thought more athletes
would have taken that step, I guess,” Rogers said. “People have seen how
accepting everyone has been of Jason’s and my story. I think it’s going
to take just more time and more athletes coming out. It’s all about
seeing that it’s not something to be afraid of. It’s not going to hurt
your career.”

While MLS has a fraction of the NBA’s
popularity, Rogers has the potential to be more influential than Collins
or featherweight boxer Orlando Cruz, who has won two fights since
coming out last year. Collins is a journeyman basketball player without a
contract for next season, while Rogers is an accomplished international
soccer player in his prime.

Rogers won an NCAA title at Maryland in
2005 and an MLS title with Columbus in 2008 while making the all-league
first team. He has played sparingly over the past two years for English
clubs Leeds and Stevenage after leaving the Crew in December 2011.

But his workouts at the Galaxy’s
training complex in Carson, Calif., were enticing enough, even if Rogers
acknowledged he’s “definitely a bit rusty right now.”

The Galaxy will work on getting Rogers back into top form, and they’ll also support him in his conspicuous new role.

“It’s going to take him a little time,”
said Arena, also the Galaxy’s general manager. “He’s got to adjust to
the Galaxy. He’s got to get himself in better form with the ball and his
fitness. That takes time for any player, as we’ve witnessed with Landon
over the last six to eight weeks. It’s going to take some time. We hope
Robbie can turn the corner quickly.”

Rogers is joining his league’s
highest-profile team, with Donovan and Irish captain Robbie Keane
leading a roster expected to contend for a third straight championship.
After six years as David Beckham’s home before the English midfielder’s
departure last December, the Galaxy know all about the spotlight that
will be cast on Rogers.

“There’s obviously going to be
attention, and I think that we are no stranger to that,” Galaxy
President Chris Klein told the AP. “I think the biggest piece of this is
the maturity of Robbie, and we’re quite confident in that. We’re there
to stand behind him as an organization. He has shown to be a guy that
has a tremendous amount of character and integrity, and I think he’s
going to fit our organization really well.”

The deal is a risk for the Galaxy, who
traded a beloved fan favorite for Rogers. Magee, a Chicago native, has
won two titles and scored eight postseason goals in four years with the
Galaxy, and he leads the club with six goals this season.

But Los Angeles is enticed by the
potential of Rogers, who has played 18 times for the U.S. national team,
scoring two goals. He dreams of playing for the American team at the
2014 World Cup in Brazil, but knows it won’t happen unless he excels
with the Galaxy.

Rogers immediately felt comfortable
training with the Galaxy and resuming his friendship with Donovan,
meeting the U.S. national team star for coffee. He’s also confident his
attacking game on the wing can help the Galaxy, who haven’t replaced
Beckham’s bending passes from the flank this season.

“They’ve been very accepting to me and
very cool with me,” Rogers said. “I’m just excited to get on the road
with these guys and continue the season.”

Aware that a whirlwind of attention is
approaching, Rogers plans to lean on his faith. He also hopes his
decision to use soccer as a platform for tolerance and acceptance leads
more gay athletes to come out, even while his primary focus is on the
game he has loved since his youth.

“You’re just going to be treated the
same as any other athlete,” he said. “It’s going to take time, but it’s
inevitable that the time will come when you’re solely judged on your
performance. That’s going to happen. You can’t put a time frame on it,
but I think it’s in the near future because I really have felt a shift
in our society and acceptance in our sports world. I honestly think in
the next few years, it’s not going to be an issue.”