When he emerged in 2006 from the University of Portland as the goalkeeper with the most career saves in school history, Luis Robles had surprisingly few options. He could hang around and see if and where he’d be drafted by Major League Soccer. Or, he could take up an offer from an agent he’d never met to travel to Germany and go on a few trials.
For years now, American players have faced that same dilemma. But most of those who eschew MLS for the big lights of Europe quickly wash out of the pro game. Robles didn’t — for a time anyway.
He told MLS teams straight up that he was interested but that he’d be pursuing his German leads too. "I thought that this was a real opportunity and maybe I could do something abroad," the thoughtful and eloquent Arizona native says. "I think every young kid’s dream is to check it [Europe] out and see where they stack up."
DC United drafted him with the third-to-last pick of the 2007 MLS draft. Robles was on his way to Germany by then. The agent had come through with a one-way ticket, got him a trial with FC Kaiserslautern and after one practice session, Robles was offered a contract with the reserve team for the remainder of the season.
The money wasn’t much better than the $12,000-odd developmental contract Major League Soccer had promised him. "It wasn’t anything spectacular," recalls Robles, now 28. "But since the opportunity was there it wasn’t one I was going to pass up."
That opportunity turned into a career. The following season, Robles got a first-team contract and became the team’s backup goalkeeper. The next year, he won the starting job after the first-string goalkeeper got injured. He spent the summer of 2009 at the Confederations Cup and the Gold Cup with the United States men’s national team, but upon his return found a new manager who was annoyed he’d been gone so long and benched him for most of the season.
Kaiserslautern secured promotion to the Bundesliga but Robles signed with Karlsruher SC, which had just been demoted to the second tier. He hoped to start regularly and get back into the national team and he played well enough, as his team struggled. Karlsruher went through four coaches that year, and the last put him back on the bench. Karlsruher wouldn’t sell him, in spite of interest from others. And as Robles’s playing time vanished, so did his confidence and appetite for the game. His personal life was rockier: his wife Cara had two miscarriages; her father was also diagnosed with cancer.
Robles’ contract ran out last summer. There was interest from other German clubs, but he and his wife decided they’d rather go home to the United States as Robles’s 82-year-old father wanted him close by. A devoutly religious pair, Luis and Cara had always prayed for guidance and gone wherever they felt God wanted them to. As such, he’d turned down several bigger contracts from other clubs throughout his career, he says, because it wasn’t the path they thought was laid out for them. That path now led stateside. But there was no club for him here. A January move to the New York Red Bulls hadn’t worked out.
"I thought, Okay, my wife is pregnant, we need some sort of health insurance," says Robles. So he took a minimum wage job with a real estate office. It wasn’t much, but it had benefits.
"I started to see life outside of soccer and thought maybe this was the time to transition," says Robles. "It seemed like all the teams that were interested were no longer interested, like every door we pushed was closed. Waiting for the phone to ring every single day became a chore so that’s why I had to do something else and that’s why I got the job. I told my wife that if soccer was done I was okay with that and ready to move on. I’d do something else."
They hadn’t heard anything from an MLS club in weeks. But at Cara’s insistence, they decided to give it a little while longer until they closed the door on soccer. On Aug. 9 came a contract offer from the Red Bulls — for the league minimum: $44,000.
"At that point, it wasn’t even about the money, it was about getting health insurance," says Robles. "She was seven and a half months pregnant. Just to have that insurance and not have to pay $30,000 for her pregnancy was a joy. It ended up all working out in the end."
Robles has started for the Red Bulls since late last season and has proved himself very capable. "I think he has a lot of qualities," says Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke. "He’s done very well for us and kept us in many games over the last nine months."
The strange arc of his career has made Robles both a cautionary tale and a success story about skipping MLS and going right to Europe. Robles is aware that he’s fortunate. "I’ve started to realize that I’m just not as awesome as I thought I was," he says. "At the time, I guess I thought it all worked out because I was such an amazing player. But that’s actually not the truth. I got breaks in my life that I didn’t necessarily deserve. Other guys more talented didn’t get those opportunities."
Many of the players who bolt for Europe out of college, or even high school, don’t catch on anywhere, or not for very long anyway. European pro soccer is a swamp. And most who enter get stuck or drown. They typically drift back to the United States and, having scarcely played in many months, are lucky to even sign in MLS. But the lure of the big money is often too much to resist.
"I’m a firm believer in keeping young American talent here," says Petke. "But if a player can come out of college and go overseas and make that much money, there’s nothing I can say to stop them."
It’s a short-sighted move. Almost without exception, the American-born players on the United States men’s national team who play in Europe passed through MLS, maturing and building a name and establishing a body of work. They’re usually the ones who go over and make it.