Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
HARRISON, N.J. – Luis Robles’ locker stood out a lot more than usual following the New York Red Bulls’ 1-0 win over FC Dallas last Sunday. It was decorated with a number of his different-colored jerseys and what seemed like a dozen scarves, scarves given to him by appreciative fans following a victory that pushed the Red Bulls into the top spot of the overall MLS standings.
Being handed those scarves was surely a touching gesture for Robles, but that moment was also indicative of just how far he has come in a season that saw him start out as a heavily-scrutinized goalkeeper before transforming into the indispensable No. 1 for a New York side with grandiose ambitions.
There is no denying that Robles did not get off on the right foot when the 2013 campaign opened. The veteran made several blunders, some that cost the Red Bulls goals, and there was a growing sense from fans and media that sophomore Ryan Meara would win back the starting spot once he returned to full health.
That criticism may not have weighed heavily on Robles, but it still affected him somewhat, as did his desire to play mistake-free soccer.
“I’m not oblivious to (the criticism), but I think I felt more towards [making it up to] my teammates,” said Robles of his early-season errors. “I was on the field and I wanted to be able to not only play well for them, but let them know that I’ve got their backs.
“There were some really difficult moments, but I also felt the’ support from them and that helped a lot, but also for Rafa (Gonzalez), the goalkeeper coach, who just continued to say that, ‘It will come, it will come. Just got to keep working hard.’”
The 29-year-old Robles kept his head down and tried not to let the outside opinions bother him, but he continued to be plagued with inconsistent play. He would deliver a brilliant performance one game and having a major slip-up the next.
Admittedly, Robles had his toughest moment on May 8th. The Red Bulls were hosting the Montreal Impact and seemed to be cruising to an easy 2-0 victory thanks to a pair of goals from Thierry Henry.
That changed in second-half stoppage time, as Robles hit an ill-advised pass that was well out of reach for centerback Markus Holgersson. Justin Mapp collected the loose ball and fed Marco Di Vaio, who managed to beat Robles with a shot that arguably could have been saved.
Di Vaio’s 91st-minute goal injected life into the Impact and saw them nearly find a late equalizer. New York ultimately came out victorious, 2-1, but Robles was left reeling until he got a quick pick-me-up from his rookie head coach, Mike Petke.
“After that Mike pulled me aside and [said], ‘Hey, we believe in your quality. You’ve just got to continue to work and when you make those better decisions we know that it will come together,’” said Robles. “For him to say that to me was huge, because not only did I feel the support but also it was just encouraging.”
What has been equally as encouraging has been Robles’ play in recent months. Gone are the gaffes that were far too common at the beginning of the campaign, replaced with a string of high-quality reflex saves that have left opposing players both frustrated and in awe.
One of those saves came a few weeks ago in a match that pit the Red Bulls against their arch-rivals D.C. United. After Ibrahim Sekagya was sent off for a tackle in the penalty area, Robles delivered a clutch stop to deny Dwayne De Rosario’s ensuing spot kick, effectively preserving New York’s 2-1 lead and ensuring that they would take maximum points out of the game at Red Bull Arena.
It was yet another big-time save for Robles, who has made a habit of stopping penalty kicks during his time with the Red Bulls, and another example of why the Red Bulls have stuck with him over talented youngster Ryan Meara.
“In a goalkeeper, you expect him to come up with one huge save a game, that game-changing save, and Robles has done that, if not more than that,” said Petke. “I’m very happy with where he’s at. I think if you would’ve went back to first day of preseason, the first week of preseason, and said that with four games to go he would be playing the way he is and be saving us on many occasions, I wouldn’t have said, ‘No’ but I would’ve said, ‘Let’s wait and see.’
“We’re very happy with where he’s at.”
On a team with star players like Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry, Robles rarely sees much of the spotlight. That might fit his low-key, pensive demeanor to a tee, but it is not to say that his huge contributions are going unnoticed.
Not by teammates and especially not by media and fans. Not anymore.
“He’s a vital part of our football team,” said midfielder Tim Cahill of Robles after last Sunday’s 1-0 win over FC Dallas in which Robles made another timely block on Fabian Castillo. “That save in the first half, I said to him, ‘That could win us the game.’ It ended up winning us the game. … Luis was fantastic tonight again.”
Robles may be shining in goal these days, but the expectations on him to continuously make incredible saves will only be intensified once the playoffs roll around. Just how far the Red Bulls go will depend in large part on Robles remaining consistent, and after overcoming his struggles earlier in the year, Robles is confident he can keep it going.
“At the beginning of the season, there were a lot of changes: new goalkeeper coach, new coaching staff, new everything, new players and faces and sometimes there has to be an adjustment,” said Robles. “I knew during that rough patch if I can just continue to keep my mind on the way I want to play and continue to work hard (it’d work out for me). … Now it’s starting to come together.”