By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 19, 2018) US Soccer Players - Three years ago, Rubio Rubin seemed to have the world at his feet. A star of the USMNT U-17 squad, he won US Soccer’s Young Male Athlete of the Year in 2012. Rubin made an ambitious move to Dutch Eredivisie side FC Utrecht when he turned 18, signing a four-year contract in March 2014.
USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann handed the versatile attacker his USMNT debut a few months later in a friendly vs Colombia at Craven Cottage in London. Rubin’s solid showing suggested that he could be a building block as a new World Cup qualifying cycle dawned. He would finish his first Eredivisie season with three goals for Utrecht, then chipped in two goals to help the USMNT mount a gutsy run to the quarterfinals of the 2015 U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
Things can change quickly in Europe’s top leagues, though. For Rubin, a severe ankle injury, a coaching change at his club, and the cold realities of life in the big time conspired to drive a promising career off course.
Rubin remembers when and how his time at Utrecht ran off the rails, and with startling speed.
“I was able to go into preseason my second year, after my injury, and earn a starting spot,” he recalled in a conversation with USSoccerPlayers.com this week. “I was one of the starters in the first three games – against PSV, Heerenveen and I think it was AZ – and I just didn’t score in those three games. And right away, I was benched for the fourth game and then I didn’t see the field after that.
“So I knew a little bit about the business – I was still young, I was 19, I think? – and moving on that quick from me, it was tough, of course. But I also understood it. You have to score goals as a striker. I had to score more goals. It’s just life, it’s just the reality of football.”
A few short months later he left Utrecht, transferring to Denmark’s Silkeborg IF in January 2017. That didn’t take. In the summer he found himself joining another club midseason, this time Stabaek in Norway. Now, he’s a free agent, the only unattached player called into this month’s USMNT January camp, rebooting his career at the relatively tender age of 21. He took some hard knocks – mental, physical, psychological – across the Atlantic, a move he chose over a Homegrown offer from his hometown Portland Timbers.
“Going over there as a young talent, teams are willing to invest, especially at a young age, but over time – it’s football, it’s a business, you know what I mean?” explained Rubin, admitting that it stung to be cast aside so quickly by his first pro club. “I think a little bit of that, the business aspect, kind of came down on top of me a bit. Also, being away from my family, not seeing them as much – but I remained strong and continued to work. Especially during the times when you’re not playing the games that you want to play, not progressing like you want to, you start to think about family, if they were there with you, all that stuff. Those two things were something that definitely snuck up on me.”
Rubin remains determined to absorb every lesson and march on.
“I used everything as a learning experience and try not to look at the negatives, always the positives, and just continue to look forward in my career,” he said. “Because I’m still young – I think that’s something that people forget. I’m only 21 years old – soon 22 – but continue to chip away and do my best as a footballer … I managed to grow a lot the last three or four years that I’ve been in Europe and it’s been an enjoyable road for sure.”
Rubin has beaten the odds just to make it this far. The son of a Mexican father and Guatemalan mother, his family struggled to cover the typical costs of elite youth soccer during his childhood and at one point he nearly had to quit entirely. It’s a story that resonates in the wake of Jonathan Gonzalez’s decision to switch his allegiance from the USMNT to Mexico, and the wider debate it’s provoked about US Soccer’s relationship with Latino communities.
“When I was coming up, there wasn’t an academy when I was 13, 14 years old. So I had to go through this whole process to get to the national team,” he recalled, “so I had to go through ODP [Olympic Development Program], then regionals, then to the national team. That’s one of the flaws, I guess, of the system – you’re missing some players.
“I went through that system and I made it, [but] there are some players in that situation where they’re not able to play in the academy, not able to pay. My parents, they did some crazy stuff for me to continue to play soccer. I remember one time my pops wanted me to quit soccer just because it was so expensive and they couldn’t afford it. But there were some guys on the team, their parents were able to pay for me. It’s one of those things – soccer in America, it’s not free. In most countries, especially Europe, the best players are playing for the [pro] academies, everything is paid and all that.”
January camp is a welcome honor and a reunion with some of his old youth national teammates. It’s also a valuable dose of exposure that has already helped stoke interest in his services from teams in MLS and Liga MX. Earning some minutes in the January 28 friendly vs Bosnia & Herzegovina would provide a timely moment in the shop window.
“I don’t doubt myself,” he said. “The time will come, the goals will come, it’s only a matter of time. That’s the way I think and thats the way I’m going to keep playing, keep moving forward and keep developing.
“We’re exploring all options,” he said of his next club destination, noting that he’s leaving the process in the hands of his agent. “I want to give this camp everything I can give it and just continue to build from here – work towards that fitness, that preseason grind.”
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