U.S. forward Rubio Rubin ready for next chapter of stop-start career
REDONDO BEACH, Calif. -- Rubio Rubin is ready to step back into the light.
It's about 48 hours before the U.S. national team's friendly with Bosnia & Herzegovina and the sun is aiding Rubin's cause. After spending the last three winters in the chill of Northern Europe, the Oregon native is grateful for the typically balmy winter day just outside Los Angeles.
"We're in California, you can't get better than that," he says. But the reality is that for the past two years, Rubin has been confined to the darkness, relatively speaking, unable to break through in a sustained way at any of the three overseas clubs he played for. In the last calendar year he has logged just 218 first-team minutes.
This month, he was thrown something of a lifeline. Unattached to any club at the time, Rubin was invited to the U.S. team's annual January camp, a a chance to be seen and remind people he's still around.
"People keep forgetting I'm still young and sometimes they forget what happened when I was 18 years old," says the 21-year-old. "I'm still that same player. I don't doubt my talent or my ability to play football. It's just that sometimes all it takes is investing in me, giving me the opportunity to play."
A few years ago, Rubin was one of those bright prospects that the U.S. seems to churn out, the latest "can't-miss" kid. In 2012 he was named U.S. Soccer's Young Male Player of the Year. In 2014 he signed with Dutch club FC Utrecht, made 29 first team appearances in his first full season and even scored twice for the U.S. U-20 national team at the 2015 U-20 World Cup. He even caught the eye of then-U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann at that time, making three appearances.
Then the spotlight was yanked away from Rubin and settled elsewhere. A broken foot sustained in the fall of 2015 required surgery and sidelined him for six months. His attempt at a comeback with Utrecht saw him spend most of the next season with the club's reserve team. In search of more first-team minutes, he moved to Danish side Silkeborg at the start of 2017 but only saw the field three times.
That summer, Rubin moved to Norwegian side Stabaek. It was a calculated gamble in that the team's leading scorer, Ohi Omoijuanfo, was rumored to be heading to a team in the English Championship. Instead Omoijuanfo stayed put and finished second in the league in scoring that season with 17 goals, leaving Rubin to mostly ride the bench. Left with option of re-signing or moving elsewhere, Rubin chose the latter. Reports on Thursday suggested he's signed with Liga MX side Tijuana.
"I wanted to be in a place where there was an investment, that I was going to be able to play," he says. "Obviously you have to earn it, but the coaches [at Stabaek] didn't show as much [interest], they didn't give me the confidence that they wanted me to be there."
Rubin insists he has no regrets about the meandering path he's taken though if there was one thing he would do over again, it's that he would have done his injury rehab back in the U.S. instead. He remained in Utrecht during this time to provide support to his teammates but looking back, he says he needed to be "more selfish."
"Over there, first come the players that are playing and then you're waiting [to get treatment] until they're done," he says. "It's just the way it is in football. But if I was with a personal trainer and getting my rehab, that would have been much better."
Rubin's parents spent three months with him after his operation but then returned home to Oregon. It was then that the reality of his situation took hold. Rubin had spent time with the U.S. U-17 residency program, so he knew what it was like to be away from family, but being injured creates an odd dynamic, one in which a player is part of the team, but also disconnected from the buzz of training and games. That existence can be wearing.
"When things aren't going well and don't go your way, you start to wish there was much more support. It was isolating," says Rubin. "Sometimes I'd just cry in my room and hate what was going on.
"But it was a good experience. Obviously I didn't want to break my foot but now I know what I know. If it does happen -- knock on wood it doesn't happen again -- I know how to think about it, be more selfish and think about myself and my rehab. It's just a learning experience. That's what life is about -- you can't learn when you're winning all the time. I lost at that time, so I learned something."
The experience overseas has also toughened Rubin in that he is more aware of soccer's cut-throat nature.
"I'm just more mature, seeing the business side of football," he says. "When I was younger I didn't really think about it that much, the business side of really having to perform as a striker. I'm still young but I'm not 17 or 18 anymore. There's not as many chances; it's now or never. Back when you're 18, you can mess up a couple of times."
Armed with that knowledge, Rubin appears to have done well during his time with the U.S. In the 0-0 draw with Bosnia, Rubin played only seven minutes as a substitute but still caught the eye with some direct, effective runs on the dribble and adding some dynamism to the U.S. attack. All that remains now is to prove himself back on his home continent.
"Now I'm ready for the next adventure." It's hard to argue with him.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.