Long Journey to Play for New York Appears to be Worth the Wait
Luke Rodgers waited a long time for this. Over the past year, everything from a work visa controversy to a car accident kept him from the one thing he wanted to do: make a home start for his new club. And on Saturday April 16 the 29-year-old Englishman got his wish.
On a soggy night in Harrison, New Jersey Rodgers and his Red Bull New York teammates defeated the San Jose Earthquakes in clear fashion, 3-0. Although a win takes all 11 players, it was as if Rodgers took his teammates aside and said “I got this.” It didn’t take long for the striker to scratch the score sheet. A minute and a half in off a Rafael Marquez corner kick Rodgers was the beneficiary of a bouncing ball right inside the 6-yard box. He didn’t hesitate, heading the ball firmly into the back of the net. But he was far from done. In the 15th minute his fellow striker Thierry Henry stole the ball from Earthquake defender Ramiro Corrales. With a good display of the developing chemistry between the two, Rodgers timed a fierce run towards the back post, perfectly colliding with the Henry cross, and suddenly the Red Bulls were up 2-0. Just for good measure Rodgers returned the favor in the 87th minute with a beautiful cross to Henry, as the Frenchman headed in his first goal of the season, ending a 684 minute goal drought.
“I’m just so excited, this is my home debut, and I’m just so happy to have scored 2 goals.”
More important than ending a 3-game winless streak or revenging last year’s playoff exit at the hands of San Jose was simply playing 90 minutes of well-rounded soccer. In his first ever start at Red Bull Arena Rodgers proved what a spark plug he can be, and hopes to be, for the remainder of the season.
But while he seemed to score with ease on Saturday, it was far from easy for Rodgers to get to where he is today. Throughout his professional career Rodgers has bounced around throughout the English circuit, playing for Shrewsbury Town, Crewe Alexandria, Port Vale, and most recently Notts County, where he played under current Red Bulls coach Hans Backe. New York has had its eye on him for years, and the two sides originally hoped to come to an agreement prior to last season. But legal troubles of the past resulted in the denial of his work visa.
This past January, the two sides finally agreed to a contract. New York had its man, an explosive striker to compliment the finesse of Thierry Henry. But alas, Rodgers prospect took another hit when he was involved in a serious car accident back in England. His offseason training derailed, it was clear the new acquisition would not be ready for the start of the season. A vigorous rehabilitation program brought Rodgers back to form earlier than expected. He made his debut on March 26 against the Columbus Crew, albeit a brief appearance. But it wasn’t until Saturday when it seemed like Rodgers had finally arrived.
Part of the reason the club has remained so patient in acquiring Luke Rodgers has been the coach Hans Backe. Backe briefly coached Rodgers in 2009, when the two were both with Notts County. It didn’t take long for Rodgers to gain the support of his Swedish coach, and there is no doubt that Backe played a large role in Rodgers coming to New York. He knew what he had in the speedy striker, and how his skills would translate to the MLS.
“He’s a busy, busy striker. We need one striker who takes the runs in behind, or else we are no threat. That’s why I think he can suit well in this league.”
With Thierry Henry more of an on-the-ball player, Rodgers can spread the defensive line with well timed runs in behind, just like the one that resulted in his second goal of Saturday’s match. He also provides healthy competition for New York’s young prize, 18-year-old Juan Agudelo. As the two fight for playing time it will surely bring out the best in both of them.
Since his arrival in training camp Luke Rodgers has done everything right for his Red Bull club. In addition to years of European experience he brings a humble attitude and an admirable work ethic. He doesn’t expect playing time, but only vows to continue to work hard.
“I always felt it (transfer to New York) was going to happen. I knew I was going to play here. The manager picks the team. I’ll just keep working hard and doing what I’m doing.”
Early on, the patience of the Red Bull club and support of its coach have paid off. New York now has three legitimate scoring threats and should contend for the MLS cup. For Rodgers, the move to a new league appears to have been worth the wait. Now he can just focus on having fun and playing soccer.
Listen below for Rodgers's thoughts on the game.