Real Salt Lake online exclusive: Robbie Findley's journey back to RSL
Tom Smart, Deseret News
As a kid, Robbie Findley promised himself he would play soccer in England if given the chance.
Findley's inspiring humility never allowed him to speculate on the prospects of fulfilling that dream. Throughout the years, his coaches and peers would consistently compliment his talent. Findley took it all in, but needed to continually prove to himself that he was good enough to go to the next level, taking it one day at a time.
Then, the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity showed its face. It came after he began building his professional career with Real Salt Lake, leading the Claret-and-Colbalt to MLS glory in 2009, and was called up to compete with the U.S. Men's National Team at the 2010 World Cup.
When he was heavily recruited by Nottingham Forest of the Championship League, he knew it was time to pack his bags and leave. After nearly four years with Real Salt Lake, Findley walked away to pursue another dream and see through the opportunity that awaited him.
Like most good things that come in life, he would never have seen his successes without sacrifice. Although Findley could not wait to start his new life in England, leaving RSL was anything but easy.
“It was difficult because the group we have here (RSL), it is like family,” Findley said. “Anytime you gotta go away from family, it's always tough.”
Findley and his siblings grew up in Arizona, however his Trinidadian heritage greatly influenced him as a young boy. His roots led him to the beautiful game of soccer, a way of life in the Caribbean country.
From the age of three, Findley was learning to kick a soccer ball. Throughout his childhood, soccer was like the steady beat of a drum. Constantly surrounded by the game, he played on club teams and in Sunday leagues.
Findley said he had a brief affair with basketball, but the essence of the game of soccer hooked him early on and his devotion to the sport grew as the years passed.
“Love for the game, passion (hooked me),” Findley said. “I always had fun while I was out there playing, running around scoring goals.”
Findley humbly credits the supportive upbringing by his family and closest friends with his success. Although every player and coach on his various teams over the years influenced him, he remembers his parents and his faith having the biggest impact along his path to playing professional soccer.
"Everybody's played a role,” Findley reminisced. “But my family has been there all the time. I'd probably say they were the most important.”
Findley gave every game his best, but the day he was invited to the MLS combine was the first time he allowed himself to consider his future as a professional athlete.
“That's when it really set in and let me know that it's about to happen,” he said, as he allowed his mind to travel back to that day.
Drafted by the L.A. Galaxy in 2007, Findley was only in California for about a third of the season before the Galaxy traded him to Real Salt Lake. When he heard the news of the trade, Findley was excited, knowing head coach Jason Kreis' history as a player. He knew Kreis could help him develop and score more goals in the process.
“Jason, he knows how to get things out of the players here,” Findley said. “He knows what fires us up. He knows how we feel.”
In just 16 games for RSL, Findley led the team in scoring with six goals. He became the first rookie in Real Salt Lake history to earn the team's Golden Boot award.
After completing a stellar rookie season, Findley saw his game progress. He continued as a top goal scorer for the team over the next few years.
Findley's highlight season came in 2009, when he started 18 matches and scored 12 goals for Real Salt Lake. He was a key in Real's unexpected playoff run and MLS cup glory. In the final game between the L.A. Galaxy and Real Salt Lake, Findley put away a second half game-tying goal. This would be enough to send the game to a shootout in which Real came out on top.
“We were hot at the time,” Findley said, remembering the dream underdog playoff run. “Everybody was firing and willing to do whatever it took to get to the end, to hold that trophy up. A lot of people didn't think we could do it, but a lot of the guys here knew we could.”
Findley spent two months away from RSL during the following season when he was called up to compete for the U.S. in the FIFA World Cup. Despite the honor just to be competing in a game of that stature, Findley considers it one of the hardest trials in his life.
The United States lost 2-1 to Ghana in the Round of 16 after getting down early and fighting to claw their way back. Findley said he left every ounce of effort he had on the field, but still felt as if he had missed opportunities. He said he beat himself up for awhile, but had to learn how to move on.
Findley recognizes the importance of understanding the mental portion of soccer as well as the physical game. For years he worked with sports psychologists to toughen his mind and claims it “does wonders."
“Lots of times, that's what can win and lose a game,” Findley said. “If you're mentally strong and you get through that little barrier, mistakes don't happen as often. It could determine the outcome of a game, I think.”
Mental strength has always been a part of Findley's game, and he said doing mental exercises helps immensely with eliminating distractions.
“I've always been good at being able to block certain things out when it comes down to playing, distractions,” Findley said.
His mental strength also helped him as he adjusted to play in England, which proved to be the hardest transition he ever faced.
“When I first stepped onto the field, it seemed like things were going 100 miles an hour,” Findley recounted about his first game with Nottingham Forest. “I think the speed of play was very high, also the system they have over there as far as promotion and relegation plays a lot into how things go during the whole season. You're always fighting for something.”
Although he did not know what to expect heading to England, playing under five coaches over two years was not something he could have predicted. The constant change was difficult, and due to the inconsistency, he never found comfort with his team.
Another bump in the road occurred almost immediately after Findley arrived in Europe. Just a couple days into training, he decided to stay after practice for additional workout and pulled a quad muscle. The injury took him off the field for 12 weeks and made it hard to solidify any kind of a spot early on.
“It happened,” Findley said. “I had to go through the rehab and the things I needed to do to get better, just give myself the best chance I had when I got back to be able to hop in and show people what I'm capable of.”
Findley's awareness of his teammates and his own positioning was key. With such a high speed of play, he was forced to be able to read the game more quickly and to have a better first touch.
While he was playing in matches for Nottingham, Findley saw his game develop faster than it had while playing in the MLS. However, in his final year in England, he was not seeing any playing time on the field and was put on loan to another team for two months.
He said at 27 years old, he felt he needed to be playing in games and keeping up his skill level. This ultimately led to his decision to return to the MLS and Real Salt Lake.
“I prayed about it and spoke to my family and friends just to get some input,” Findley explained. “But, at the end of the day, I had to make the decision. I chose to come back because I know what they're about here.”
Findley's agent contacted Real Salt Lake, which was looking for a speedy forward to replace Fabian Espindola, and arranged a deal for Findley's return.
Findley said he would never take back his time in England. All of his trials and experiences made him more of a leader on and off the field.
“Anything in life, with different phases going on, you learn a lot from different people. Kind of take that on to the next chapter and that's what I've done.”
Whitney O'Bannon is currently a new media sports intern for the Deseret News.
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