(Henry Bushnell contributed to this story.)
Throughout the 2017 Major League Soccer season, FC Yahoo had regular conversations with four well-known players. They spoke candidly about the swings of the long and grueling season and their hopes as the playoffs crept ever nearer. In the second installment, Luis Robles talks us through his year, starting with the prospect of a long-overdue MLS Cup title for the New York Red Bulls, in spite of a rebuilding year, and coming up short yet again.
Date: April 7
Record: 2-2-1, fourth in the Eastern Conference
Robles: “Our organization is one that wants to not only be competitive but sort of be the organization. We’ve talked the talk, but we haven’t necessarily done enough to say that we can be in that conversation. But we’re close. We’re really close. I think ultimately the one that puts you there is winning MLS Cup. You can win Open Cup, you can win Supporters’ Shield, you can participate in the CONCACAF Champions League, but until you really have that Cup on your mantle, it’s hard to say we’re up there with L.A. or Seattle. … Personally, I can be Goalkeeper of the Year every single year, and MLS Best XI and be involved in the national team. But if I didn’t win and I look back on my career, I don’t know if I’m going to truly feel vindicated.
“I think [our slow start] is a blessing in disguise. Because, say we do really well and we think we’re the finished product, and then we go through the first half of the season experiencing great success, and then all of a sudden we go through a very difficult period and things fall apart. … That’s the great thing about MLS. You can have a terrible start; you can actually have a mediocre two-thirds of the season. And as long as you get away in the last third, half the teams make the playoffs and you go on a run. In 2014, L.A. had a bad start. In 2015, Portland was atrocious, up until we beat them in September or something, and then they went on their run. Seattle [in 2016] was a bottom-dweller and things start to click for them and they win MLS Cup.”
Date: May 18
Record: 5-6-1, fifth in the Eastern Conference
Robles: “The season definitely has its ebbs and flows. Not too long ago, we’re on a three-game winning streak and it seems like everything’s OK. And now we’re on a three-game losing streak, and you just have to find a way to not get so wrapped up in what’s going on. It’s never really as good as you think and never really as bad as you think. I think we’re in the middle of that right now. … So perspective is necessary. But we’re in a little bit of a rut right now and trying to get out.”
“There are variables that don’t exist in other leagues. All of these things play a part, whether it’s roster construction, or the grueling schedule, or even just the challenges that MLS presents. There’s a degree of truth in all of them when it comes to the inconsistency of teams. But, when you look at the teams that have won over the years, it’s the teams that at the end of the year have found a way to overcome those challenges and do really well in the big games. And being on the other side of the coin, we’re still missing that. We’re still missing one or two players that can help us overcome that obstacle or help us develop that mentality. And where I don’t panic is where we’ve been on the other side, where we are consistent and we have incredible form and win the Supporters’ Shield and then in the playoffs flame out. I’m not opposed to being on the other side.”
Date: Aug 4
Record: 11-8-2, fourth in the Eastern Conference and on a four-game winning streak
Robles: “As you can imagine, because of the way that the results have presented themselves, things are going pretty well. It’s crazy how in our line of work winning cures everything, regardless of everything else.”
“How many teams have you seen that start the season on fire and then the reality of the 34-game season and the international break and traveling sets in and you don’t know what happened? It’s a really long season. And the cream eventually rises to the top, but it takes time.”
Before the season, the Red Bulls controversially traded their captain and longest-tenured player, midfielder Dax McCarty to the Chicago Fire, complicating their season from the start.
“The one that got overlooked from the preseason is we lost one of the best players in the league. And just because the core remains intact, you still have to replace a pretty big piece. And therefore there’s going to be some inconsistency and the players we use to replace Dax are young, and there’s growing pains to the process.”
Robles, who holds the MLS record for consecutive appearances and starts, has fallen out of the national team picture again after participating in January camp. He was also snubbed from the All-Star Game.
“Even though my record says I’m the ironman, I have emotions.”
Date: Sept. 22
Record: 12-10-6, sixth in the Eastern Conference and winless in five games. The Red Bulls also lost the U.S. Open Cup final to Sporting Kansas City
Robles: “You look at the games and you try to take them for what they are, as opposed to the macro. And you think, how can we get better here? How can we make adjustments here? It still has been a progression. Even though the results on paper don’t necessarily show the progression, the performances show the progression. We are getting better, but we continue to leak chances.
“There’s still a great sense of optimism about where we’re going. And when I see the way we are progressing, it makes me think that we have the ability to do something. Of course, I’m using that on the back end of us losing the U.S. Open Cup. But this organization has just constantly – constantly – been associated with failure and never living up to expectations. But if I look at the years I’ve been here, I feel like there’s progress there. We’ve won the Supporters’ Shield [twice]. We’ve been one game away [from MLS Cup]. We’ve been one goal away.
“Call me romantic, call me idealistic. Maybe I’m naïve and disillusioned. But this is where I’m at.”
Date: Nov. 8
Record: 14-12-8, sixth in the Eastern Conference. The Red Bulls were knocked out of the playoffs in the Conference Semifinals on away goals by Toronto FC
Robles: “So now the season is over and immediately, 21 teams don’t just deal with the disappointment of not winning but, of course, you have the carnage that ensues of contract options.”
Day after a team’s season ends, meetings are held for the players to learn their respective futures, whether options will be picked up or contracts renewed.
“You always feel for the guys going into this situation. You don’t know what they’re going to say. In my case, I had a better sense than most. But these things are brutal. And you can forget that this is a business, but you find out very quickly at the end of the season how the business is run. I’m guaranteed for a couple more years, but you just don’t know. When these things come to an end, and you filter through all the feelings and emotions and the business decisions have to be made, you never really know. I’m talking about 95 percent of the league. As a leader on the team, I’m helping advise guys, helping them sort through what their options are, or even helping them understand what just happened.
“Because of the way the league is set up, there’s a variety of different mechanisms that come into play – such as expansion drafts, re-entry drafts, free agency. And for the players’ sake, what we’ve done through the union, is we want players to have clarity on their situation as soon as possible. We put pressure on teams to make decisions right away. You don’t want to be left hanging around. You want your agent to start engaging in conversations that will give you a better sense of where you’re going to play next year.”
In the knockout round, Robles was accused of kicking out at an opponent from the Fire, but was spared a red card.
“I can only speak to what I was feeling. I wasn’t trying to be malicious. I was only trying to protect myself because of certain areas of my body that are sensitive because of injury. I just didn’t want him to fall on me. When I watch it, it actually looks really bad and I’ve been spoken to about it by a variety of different people. But I hope they can see my entire body of work and the type of player I am. In the playoffs, they [referees] tend to leave the cards in their pockets. In a league game, that could have been a yellow card – or worse – but it ends up not being anything and I just want to leave it as is, because there was no bad intent. It’s just too bad it looks worse than it is.”
In the next round, the Red Bulls came close to overcoming a 2-1 home loss in the first leg, but fell just short with a 1-0 victory in Toronto that knocked them out on away goals.
“We had a big task. But still, I felt we calmed down a bit. Once we got that goal, even as an onlooker you felt like this could happen. What my feeling was at the end, when it didn’t work out, was mixed. It was disappointment, but when I looked at the younger guys on the team and the way that they played, I just felt proud of this team. It is strange. The last two years, there was this big expectation where we were supposed to win. But we get knocked out, and it’s utter disappointment. This year is a little different, because there was almost a sense of optimism when you see these players who over one year have matured into impact guys. With the right piece or two, we may be where we want to be.”
At halftime, a big brawl broke out between the teams, resulting in two red cards.
“It started on the field. And with the amount of people involved, it just got deeper and deeper. Did it have an impact on the game? Absolutely. Will it have an impact on the rest of the playoffs? Absolutely. It was two teams that really wanted to win. And when there’s a lot on the line, there’s a lot of emotion and testosterone that gets involved.”
How does Robles look back on 2017?
“If I’m going to be very critical of myself, do I then deem every season we don’t win as a failure? Yes and no. The failure is that we didn’t get to our ultimate goal, but it creates an opportunity to learn something. The hope is that with enough lessons learned, my thick-headed self will get into a situation where I can encourage, help and inspire my teammates to play at the highest level so that one day we do win. I’m hoping this manifests in a culture that wins.”
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.