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Jan 26, 2010

Robles trying to reclaim his starting berth at Kaiserslautern

Luis Robles was riding high. He landed a ticket to South Africa for last summer's Confederations Cup and made his debut for the U.S. in the Gold Cup after establishing himself as the No. 1 keeper at one of Germany's most venerable clubs. It took a while to get the starter's spot, too, which made it more gratifying. Marrying his high-school sweetheart kicked off the memorable two months. But representing his country came at a cost. By the time Robles returned to Kaiserslautern for preseason training, a little later than normal thanks to his international adventures, he had lost his spot to German under-21 international Tobias Sippel. With the World Cup looming and the No. 3 spot on the national team up for grabs, behind English-based duo Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, Robles hasn't been able to get it back. "The most important thing to give myself a shot, even an outside one, is to be playing, because that gives the coaches a chance to look at me while I'm sharp," Robles, a native of Sierra Vista, Ariz., said in a phone interview. "If I'm not playing that's tough, because there are other goalkeepers that are good and playing week in, week out. I can't refute that." Sippel was part of Germany's victorious squad at the under-21 European Championships in Sweden, backing up the colossal Manuel Neuer. He then went straight to camp, giving new coach Marco Kurz an early look. Sippel has since started every league game and is regarded as one of the top keepers in the division. Kaiserslautern is leading the standings and appears headed for promotion back to the Bundesliga, so Kurz, understandably, probably won't be making many changes. "We spoke briefly when I was in the U.S. for the Gold Cup, and we kept in contact through text messages," the 25-year-old Robles added. "I came in and knew I had to do well to get my spot back, but I also felt I had a good shot at it. I was just as surprised as anyone when I found out I wasn't playing." Robles, according to his agent Andreas Kirsch, turned down a chance to be part of the U.S. setup for the January 2009 friendly against Sweden so he could cement his spot at Kaiserslautern. Upon signing in July 2007, he was Kaiserslautern's No. 5, a long way down. An injury to Sippel last season opened the door for Robles, and he went on to make 19 starts. Just for the record, Robles says he and Sippel get along well. "At the end of last season, I think they were at the same level more or less," Oliver Sperk, who covers the team for German daily Die Rheinpfalz, said in a phone interview. "Tobias has more talent than Luis, but Luis works very hard, and this is the outstanding thing with him. He's very focused and improved a lot the last few years." Kirsch claimed a number of teams in the second tier were interested in signing his client on loan during the current transfer window. The chances of a move diminished, however, when No. 3 Kevin Trapp, a German under-19 international, sustained an arm injury that necessitated surgery. "When Luis took over the starter's role, it was an unbelievable thing in Kaiserslautern, because you do not have to be the same level as a German player, you have to be much better to take over the position [as a foreigner]," Kirsch said in a telephone interview. No doubt Bob Bradley and his staff recognized that. Despite declining an opportunity to accompany the national team to a World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica in June -- his wedding took precedence -- Robles was named to the Confederations Cup roster, joining Howard and Guzan. His debut against Haiti in July's Gold Cup didn't go as planned. Robles looked shaky on both goals in a 2-2 draw, flapping at a cross on the opener and getting caught out of position on the second. Robles knew he didn't perform well. Still, it didn't get him down. "My understanding from the coaches was that they like to look at players a few times before they play them, but they were right off the bat ready to play me," said Robles, a former standout at the University of the Portland. "That was another thing that gave me some assurance, that, 'Hey, if I continue to play my cards right, I'm in line to fill in that No. 3 slot and be part of this team in 2010.' For whatever reason, that's not God's plan. I have to be content with that, but it's given me a different motivation to work harder." Robles' contract expires in June, and Kaiserslautern, averaging more than 30,000 fans at the impressive Fritz Walter Stadion, has publicly stated it wants to keep him around. He's not sure that'll happen if he remains on the fringes, with a move to another German team the likeliest scenario if he can't usurp Sippel. Kaiserslautern was the perfect fit as an introduction to Germany, given its hefty American population owing to military personnel. Robles was born in Fort Huachuca, Ariz., a U.S. Army center, and his father, Al, was a lieutenant colonel in the army. Robles is almost fluent in German, and he and wife Cara enjoy living in the city. "To come here, where it's a half-German, half-American city, it's really helped me get into European football, and I feel like recently getting married, it's also helped Cara get integrated, too," Robles said. A return to the starting lineup would help further.

Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.

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