CARSON, Calif. (AP) — Robbie Rogers is back where he feels he belongs and is most comfortable. On a soccer field playing the game he’s loved since he was a boy. Now that he has revealed the long kept secret that he is gay, he’s ready to move on and put the focus on resuming his career.
Rogers made history on Sunday night when he became the first openly gay male athlete to play in a U.S. professional league, making his Major League Soccer debut with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
“I guess this is a historic thing, but for me it was just a soccer game,” he said.
The team made it easy on the 26-year-old midfielder by building a 4-0 lead over the Seattle Sounders by the time he entered as a substitute in the 77th minute.
“No pressure at all coming in,” Rogers said. “I got to totally enjoy myself and take it all in.”
He received loud cheers from the crowd of 24,811 as he ran onto the pitch, with fans chanting his last name. Rogers’ family, including his grandparents, and friends were in the stands.
He ran by teammate Landon Donovan, who slapped his hand and patted him on the back as he took his position.
“Because of the nature of the way sports has been for so many years — the macho culture that’s been embraced by everybody — it’s of interest to everybody,” Donovan said. “Now, hopefully, the hype about it is over and he can get back to being a soccer player, which is what he wants to do.”
Rogers had five touches, one tackle and three completed passes in the game’s final 13 minutes. He hadn’t played professionally since last year. He spent the last two seasons in England.
Rogers retired from the sport in February, when he revealed in a post on his blog that he is gay. He has been training with the Galaxy since April at the invitation of coach Bruce Arena.
“I’m back here kind of where I’m supposed to be,” he said, nattily attired in a blue suit with a white shirt buttoned to the neck and gold tie bar befitting his interest in fashion.
“It’s crazy to me to think I stepped away from this game at 25,” he said. “I’ll sit in my bed tonight and thank God gave me the courage to do this and come back.”
Rogers’ signing on Saturday was so recent that he wasn’t listed in the game day program, which featured a picture of Mike Magee in the centerfold. Magee, the Galaxy’s leading scorer and a fan favorite, was traded to his hometown Chicago Fire, which held Rogers’ MLS rights.
“In a lot of ways the easy part is over,” Arena said. “Now the difficult part remains, which is getting him positioned to play. Our expectations for Robbie are not anything big in the near future. Hopefully, he’ll get back to the way we think he can be.”
Rogers has the support of his teammates, who understand how much he wants to regain the form that once earned him a spot on the U.S. national team.
“I’m sure he’s delighted to get that off his back,” said Galaxy captain Robbie Keane, who had his first career three-goal game in MLS. “It’s time for him to concentrate on just being part of this team.”
Seattle coach Sigi Schmid, who once coached the Galaxy, sought out Rogers for a supportive pre-game hug. The two men have known each other since Rogers was 7.
“When he came out and said he was going to retire from playing, I sent him a text and said, ‘Don’t retire from playing because you came out. If you want to play, you should play. You’ll be accepted,’” Schmid said.
But it took time for Rogers to decide he wanted to accept Arena’s offer to train with the Galaxy. Eventually, he knew he wanted to resume his career with the team located not far from his hometown of Huntington Beach.
Arena cautioned that Rogers needs time to regain his fitness and skill level.
“As a player he can’t be judged tonight or the next couple weeks,” the coach said. “It’s way too early. He’s got a way to go. We’ll be patient with him.”
Nerves began getting the best of Rogers in the hours before he left home for the stadium. Not because he was worried about the prospect of being the first openly gay male athlete to play, but because his soccer skills were rusty.
“I was like, ‘Oh gosh,’” he said.
He called his sister for reassurance.
“I just needed to hear someone’s voice,” Rogers said. “We were talking about my dog. Just get my mind off things.”
Schmid believes that in time Rogers’ sexuality won’t be a story anymore.
“It doesn’t matter if you have a gay player on your team, it doesn’t matter if you have a Jewish player on your team, it doesn’t matter if you have a Baptist on your team,” he said. “I think we’re becoming more cognizant that it takes all sorts of people to make this world go round, and we’re a lot more accepting of that.”
Rogers isn’t sure what awaits him as the Galaxy heads out on a five-game road trip, and he is held up as a role model.
“This is a learning process for me,” he said. “I would ask these people to remember I’m human as well. I’ll try to be a good person through this whole process.”