SIERRA VISTA — Talking to soccer kids and their parents and others gathered Sunday, Luis Robles spent more than an hour sharing stories of inspiration and achievement. Underlining it all was instilling a belief in each of us of a “spirit to try to get better.”
Robles was born on Fort Huachuca and raised in Sierra Vista, and now at age 31, has advanced to the heights of his professional soccer career with the New York Red Bulls of the MLS. Coming off a season which culminated this past November with the 2002 Buena High School graduate being named the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, Robles’ message Sunday afternoon while speaking at Thunder Mountain Community Church in Sierra Vista was that the road he took to get there is the same road local kids can take to reach their own dreams.
Robles and his wife and their two children (and one on the way) are back home visiting family for the holidays from their current home in Hackensack, N.J. Taking exit 302 off I-10 to get to Sierra Vista, he shared to the dozens gathered, including front rows of kids in soccer jerseys, still gets emotional for him.
“As you’re taking that road, you get to see (Sierra Vista) in the distance. And every time we make that drive, I can’t help but be grateful for the opportunity that I’ve been able to receive since I left,” Robles said. “Because I was just like you guys. I grew up here, I played youth soccer.”
He’s reached the top of his profession, but it’s been a journey of hard work and relentless dedication along the way. And it’s the disappointments and unpredictable opportunities, he shared, that fueled his inner motivation.
In the first place, he grew up a baseball player, not a soccer player. The kid from Sierra Vista who idolized Derek Jeter and would later get to play for the Red Bulls in Yankee Stadium eventually took up soccer in the Sierra Vista Soccer Club and readily admits, “we were awful.”
He later tried out for a traveling team, the Sierra Vista Rolling Thunder, only because his friend did. Robles didn’t make the cut.
A couple weeks later, the team’s goalkeeper got hurt, and Robles got his opportunity.
He didn’t even know an Olympic Development Program (ODP) team existed and tagged along to another tryout, again following his pals and never thinking he had a chance.
“But the best goalkeeper in the state forgot his goalkeeper gloves. Like, what are the chances of that? He forgot. He’s a goalie! The only thing he needed were the gloves!” Robles shared, in a story to which youth soccer players could certainly relate. “But he forgot his gloves and was miserable at the tryout. So I ended up making it as an alternate.”
The starting goalie eventually got sick before the tournament, and another unpredictable opportunity opened a door for Robles, who found himself heading to Idaho to represent Arizona on the ODP team.
“So what continued to be a common theme in my life — and it will be a theme in everyone’s life — is that opportunity will arise,” he noted. “And sometimes you’re prepared for it, sometimes you’re not. But these are usually the pivotal points in your journey to whatever it is that you want to do. Whatever it is you want to be.”
Robles’ message wasn’t limited to the young people gathered Sunday afternoon. He reached out to the adults and parents, too, who may not even realize the potential they have to influence a young kid’s journey along the way.
“Everything that I am today is a reflection and a summation of all the hard work that other people have poured into my life. And those people sometimes were coaches, sometimes they were pastors, sometimes they were my wife, my father-in-law, my parents. Sometimes they were people that I may never see again,” he said. “But they took the opportunity to invest in a kid’s life.”
Robles eventually turned Sunday’s discussion over to the kids to ask questions.
Ever get an own-goal scored on him by his own team?
“Oh, all the time. You kidding me?”
Has he ever scored on a goal?
“I have not,” he answered immediately, with a hint of regret. “Every once in a while I’ll have a young kid come up to me and be like ‘Hey I just scored’ and I’m like, ‘Wow, I’ve never done that. What’s that like?’”
Drawing probably the biggest laughter was a young player asking the MLS most valuable goalkeeper “How much do you make a year?”
“That’s funny, because that’s usually the second question. This one made it to the third,” Robles joked.
Before answering, he talked about how his first pro contract with a team in Germany paid him $800 a month and that he lived — for free — in the wash area of a “grungy” 16th century mill in disrepair in rural Germany. It was a lesson about sacrifice and commitment, he added.
He did get around to answering the question, though. He says he’s currently renegotiating his deal with the Red Bulls and, as the league’s top goalkeeper, knows he can push to “be paid the highest” and is expecting a new contract “well over $300,000” a year.
“Money isn’t necessarily the motivation,” he advised the kids. “I want to be on a team that wins. I want to be part of something special, and I feel like I’m a part of that with the New York Red Bulls.”
Robles included several mentions of his faith throughout the talk, and defined God’s grace as “getting something that we don’t deserve.”
“But at the end of the day, each part of that journey, it can’t take away from the fact that I started in the same position as each and every one of you. Sierra Vista Soccer Club,” he said, before drawing more laughter, “in lovely podunk Sierra Vista.”