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Robbie Rogers' small step onto field for Galaxy is huge

Rogers, in his debut for the Galaxy late in a 4-0 rout of Seattle, becomes the first openly gay male athlete to play in one of the five American major professional team sports.

May 27, 2013|By Kevin Baxter
  • Robbie Rogers stretches as the Galaxy players loosen up before the start of their game against Seattle on Sunday night at Home Depot Center.
Robbie Rogers stretches as the Galaxy players loosen up before the start… (Michael Nelson / EPA )

As historic moments go, Robbie Rogers’ debut with the Galaxy on Sunday featured surprisingly little drama.

With 13 minutes left in a 4-0 rout of the Seattle Sounders, official Alejandro Mariscal quietly called Brazilian midfielder Juninho to the sideline and sent Rogers in to take his place.

And with that Major League Soccer -- and perhaps the U.S. sports landscape in general -- changed forever. Because when Rogers stepped on the field he became the first openly gay athlete to play for a professional men’s team in one of the country’s five major leagues.

Rogers received a polite ovation from a crowd of 24,811 at Home Depot Center.  And though he touched the ball only five times and didn’t mount anything close to a scoring chance, he did break a barrier that once seemed impenetrable.

“Many years from now most people won’t remember the score of this game. But they’ll remember when he stepped on the field,” said former Galaxy executive Alexi Lalas, now an ESPN soccer analyst. “That’s cool. That’s important.”

A two-time high school All-American at Santa Ana Mater Dei, Rogers played for the U.S. national team as well as the MLS’ Columbus Crew and two teams in Europe. In recent years, however, his career appeared in steep decline, a slide he blamed on injuries.

But in February, after parting with second-tier English team Leeds United, Rogers posted an emotional letter on his blog page in which he revealed he is gay. In the letter Rogers wrote about the emotional toll keeping his sexual orientation secret had taken on him and said he would “step away” from soccer.

He never mentioned retirement, though, fueling speculation he might someday return to MLS to play in his hometown with the Galaxy. That possibility moved closer to reality last month when the Galaxy asked the Chicago Fire, which owned Rogers’ MLS rights, for permission to have the midfielder train with the team. A short time after that, formal talks on a trade began,

The league office monitored the negotiations closely, pushing both sides toward a deal that was finalized Friday. The Galaxy paid a high price for Rogers, with the Fire insisting on versatile Mike Magee, a fan favorite who led the team in scoring. But the Galaxy swallowed hard and agreed to the trade two days before its nationally televised game with Seattle, an opportunity the league wanted to exploit.

“Without a doubt,” Lalas said. “I think everybody went out of their way to try to make this happen. It’s an important moment.”

In fact, Lalas said, Rogers’ appearance Sunday might ultimately prove more historic than David Beckham’s move to the Galaxy and MLS, something Lalas helped engineer.

“It’s not as big in terms of the attention and focus. But in terms of what really matters? Yeah,” he said.

Sunday’s match was the 26-year-old Rogers’ first professional game since December, when he played for Stevenage of England’s third-tier league while on loan from Leeds. And he admitted that weighed on him as game time approached.

“Earlier today I was really nervous,” he said. So on the drive to the stadium, Rogers said he called his sister Alicia.

“I just needed to hear someone’s voice,” he said. “We were talking about my dog. Just to kind of get my mind off things. I guess part of me was just afraid. I understand that historically this is a big thing. But for me, it’s just another soccer game.

“So I was kind of battling with both of those things. OK, this is a soccer game. I’ve done this a million times. But then obviously I know, I’m not naïve, I know people are watching.”

As for the game, three first-half goals from Robbie Keane and one from Sean Franklin sparked the Galaxy to just their second win in five matches while handing the Sounders their first loss in nearly two months.

For Keane, who left the game in the 73rd minute and leaves the country Monday for international duty with Ireland, the three goals -- two of which came on penalty kicks -- gave him 18 in 25 MLS matches since summer’s European Championships. It was also his first MLS hat trick.

“It was really perfect,” Rogers said. “We won, which is most important. My family was here, my friends. My grandparents.

“I’ve kind of been on this huge journey trying to figure out my life. And now I’m back here. I think I'm kind of where I’m supposed to be.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

twitter.com/kbaxter11

Times staff writer Andrew Gastelum contributed to this report.

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