LOS ANGELES (AP) — Robbie Rogers is joining the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer in another step by openly gay athletes in professional sports.
He told The Associated Press his fears about returning to soccer were eased by the strong support he received from family, fans and players, including Galaxy star Landon Donovan. Now Rogers is ready to accept his role as the league’s first openly gay player.
“I don’t know what I was so afraid of,” Rogers said Friday. “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.”
“People are just really growing and accepting and loving,” he added. “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 26-year-old player had retired in February on the same day the former U.S. national team player publicly came out in a blog post.
Last month, NBA veteran Jason Collins came out, and Rogers spoke with Collins on the day of the center’s announcement.
“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.”
U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe came out last year before the London Olympics and plays for Lyon in France. 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, came out in 2005 during her playing days.
The two-time defending champion Galaxy will announce a deal Saturday to acquire Rogers, who came out in February while simultaneously announcing his retirement.
Rogers is an MLS veteran who spent the last two seasons in England. About a month ago, Rogers decided he wasn’t truly ready to give up soccer.
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 high-scoring midfielder Mike 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.”
Rogers isn’t likely to debut for Los Angeles immediately, although 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.
“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.
During his brief retirement from soccer he contemplated entering the London College of Fashion. But the break only confirmed for him that his competitive fire for soccer still burns.
“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.”
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; 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.
“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.
“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.”
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