CARSON, Calif. – It was the first time it happened and hopefully the last time it will matter.
Late into Sunday night, Robbie Rogers stood on the sideline at the Home Depot Center, took a deep breath, gave the slightest of smiles and stepped into United States sporting and social history by becoming the first openly gay male athlete to play in an American pro sports league.
That's a lengthy description for a seminal moment that perhaps shouldn't matter anymore, but it still does because decades of intolerance are not undone overnight and because acts of human courage like those of Rogers and Jason Collins deserve recognition.
It mattered to the crowd of 24,811 in this suburb just south of Los Angeles, mattered just enough to give Rogers a rousing welcome and a standing ovation, yet not too much to totally overshadow a resounding 4-0 trouncing of the Seattle Sounders.
Which, of course, is exactly what Rogers wanted.
"I just want to be treated like anyone else," he said. "And the guys made it real easy. Being four goals up made my experience very enjoyable. There was no pressure at all. I could just take it all in."
Rogers had many friends and family in the crowd but, quite correctly, there was no great fanfare. His name was not even announced immediately before kickoff as he was one of the substitutes and not a starter.
Major League Soccer is not perfect and its highest-profile club, the Galaxy, has its share of detractors. But both parties handled the acquisition of Rogers and the process leading up to his entrance in the 77th minute on Sunday with class and common sense that other American leagues may borrow when they face the same situation in the future.
In reality, the 26-year-old could not have wished for a more comfortable L.A. debut, coming on for the final rites of a game the Galaxy effectively won in the first half thanks to a hat trick from Robbie Keane.
Rogers announced his retirement from soccer along with his sexuality in a blog post written with the help of a few glasses of wine on February 15, and he would not have undone that decision for another club other than the Galaxy – who are situated a mere 15 miles from his childhood home of Rancho Palos Verdes.
There was a wish to be close to his family – to allow their support to assist him through his return to the game and to be on a team with established stars who naturally command most of the attention. To make that happen, some moves needed to be made as the Chicago Fire owned his rights were he ever to return from a spell in England with Leeds United and Stevenage Borough.
But the deal got done and here he was, entering the field, stooping to pick a blade of grass and getting a slap on the back from Landon Donovan. The game had petered out by the time he arrived and nothing of value could be learned by 14 meaningless minutes of playing time, a fact not lost on head coach Bruce Arena.
"Robbie did well, did well with the lead up to all this," Arena said. "He won't be judged on tonight or the next couple of weeks."
Rogers wants to be judged on his ability alone and in that sense he has tough shoes to fill. The Galaxy acquired Rogers' rights in a trade with the Fire and was forced to give up Mike Magee, one of their most productive and popular contributors, as part of the bargain.
To effectively replace Magee, Rogers will need to show the kind of talent that has earned him 18 appearances for the United States men's national team. The wide spaces of the Home Depot Center should suit his explosive speed and all-action style.
"Robbie is a good player and I said to him, 'Don't retire because you are coming out,' " said Seattle coach Sigi Schmid, who has known Rogers since the player was seven years old and with whom he won an MLS Cup with the Columbus Crew in 2008. "It was a good moment. Fortunately our society is more cognizant of people's personal choices now."
Sadly, other parts of the world may not be, at least in a soccer sense, which is why Rogers felt there was no way he could continue in England after coming out. Some of the worst elements of society lamentably still populate European soccer stadiums, where sickened minds concoct unrepeatable chants against opposition players, including homophobic jargon regardless of the player's true sexuality.
But one of the most likeable things about MLS is that its relative newness means it is untarnished by some of the beautiful game's ugliest traits. That is why Robbie Rogers is here, as himself, comfortable in his own skin and feeling at home.
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