Philadelphia Union players, coaches thrilled to see openly gay soccer player Robbie Rogers return to MLS
May 31, 2013, 2:54 PM EDT
CHESTER, Pa. – The Philadelphia Union were in Florida for the preseason three months ago when former US national team player Robbie Rogers wrote a blog post in which he simultaneously revealed he was gay while retiring from professional soccer.
Then, came the overwhelming support. In large numbers, it seemed, athletes took to social media to praise Rogers for his courage and encourage him to come back to Major League Soccer, where he played from 2007 to 2011 before trying his hand in Europe.
Philadelphia Union center back Amobi Okugo was one of those athletes, telling me for this CSNPhilly.com article, that “we all have different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different morals. We’re all welcoming guys. When he comes back, if he comes back, he’ll feel at home.”
A little more than three months later, after the 26-year-old Rogers indeed came out of retirement and made history by becoming the first openly gay man to play a game in a major North American team sport, I caught up with Okugo again to get his thoughts about MLS’s big moment.
“At the end of the day, it’s about soccer,” he said. “It’s not about where you’re from and who you are. It’s great that he felt comfortable enough to come back into the league, especially so soon after he retired.”
Okugo doesn’t know Rogers on a personal level, so the fact that he’s always wanted to see him in on another team in the league says a lot.
Union assistant coach and technical director Rob Vartughian does know Rogers well, having coached him to a 2005 NCAA title when both were at the University of Maryland. But his views on the situation are the same as Okugo’s.
“The bottom line is that he’s a special soccer player,” said Vartughian, who keeps in touch with Rogers via email. “I think we live in a society that’s accepting of that. I think you’ve seen that from the responses he’s received from our league. At the end of the day, the kid can play. And he’s a really good kid. So that part doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t even be in the conversation.”
One day, an athlete’s sexuality won’t be in the conversation. But today is not that day. Despite what some naysayers might say, Rogers stepping onto the field in a Los Angeles Galaxy uniform was a very big moment in American sports. It was a big moment because Rogers used to be a closeted athlete who wanted to come out but didn’t think he could, at least while still playing professional sports. Then, with the help of teammates and rivals alike, he changed his mind.
There are, undoubtedly, many other athletes that play many different sports who are also in the closet and grappling with the tough decision of what to do next. And those people can now see how big Rogers’ smile was and how loud the cheers were when he came into last Sunday’s nationally televised game, a weight having finally been lifted and only a soccer field in front of him.
“Robbie is a great kid,” Vartughian said. “He is one of the most genuine people you’ll ever meet. I think everyone is really happy for him, really proud of him and really excited to see this next chapter for him.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com, CSNPhilly.com and The 700 Level. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.
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