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How Real Salt Lake striker Rubio Rubin found a renewed joy for the game and an even deeper bond with his No. 1 fan and critic

The RSL attacker’s father has always been a driving force in his success on the soccer field.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake forward Rubio Rubin (14) competes in MLS action between Real Salt Lake and Minnesota United FC at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, on Saturday, May 29, 2021.

Rubio Rubin was just a boy, maybe 10 years old, when he saw a man with a running parachute in a television commercial. He had to have one. The contraption expanded behind the man, providing more resistance the faster he ran, making him work harder, and Rubin’s father had always taught him that the only thing more important than working hard was working harder.

“Dad, I want that,” Rubin recalled saying.

“No, you’re not getting that,” his father replied.

”That would make me faster though,” Rubin said.

Rubin’s father then asked him to go to the backyard, grab as many tools as he could, and put them inside a duffel bag. Rubin was confused but did what his father said. The two then went to the soccer field, where his dad tied a rope around him and connected it to the duffel bag filled with tools, then asked him to sprint from one of the fields to the other.

It was one of many teachable moments from father to son. Rubin credits his dad, Ruvio Mendez Osorio, for the soccer player he is today. His father introduced him to soccer at a young age through watching Liga MX teams. The idea of having passion and grit, and making the most of an opportunity, came from his father.

But the joy Rubin has shown on the field this season for Real Salt Lake, the smile on his face as he points to the stands at Rio Tinto Stadium, the goals that have brought his father to tears, took time to rediscover.

Mendez played the forward position at the amateur level in his native Mexico and taught his son to have a killer instinct on the field. Rubin’s youth soccer team subbed players out after scoring two goals in an effort to let everyone play. So 5-year-old Rubio would laugh with unbridled joy after scoring only to find himself on the bench seconds later.

”I would hate it,” Rubin said.

Still, Mendez stayed to make sure his son kept that scorer’s instinct. To this day, Rubin’s father tells him to spend extra time shooting after practice “because that’s how the big players do it — like [Lionel] Messi, like Cristiano Ronaldo,” Mendez said.

Rubin’s relationship with his father has evolved over the years and endured some trials and tribulations. Mendez considers himself Rubin’s No. 1 fan, but also his No. 1 critic. The two used to go back and forth about whether Rubin was training hard enough, eating well enough, eliminating distractions frequently enough.

“In the past, [he] just kind of saw me as a soccer player,” Rubin said. “It was almost too much.”

But through the various stops and people he met during his career before arriving at Real Salt Lake, Rubin developed a harmonious relationship with his father, the sport he loves, and himself.

FAMILY TIES

To tell Rubin’s story, we have to mention another father figure, because Michael Orozco thinks of Rubin as a son.

The former U.S. Men’s National Team member met Rubin in 2015 when the two both made a U.S.A. camp held in Europe. Orozco was 29 and playing for Puebla of Liga MX, and Rubin was playing for FC Utrecht in the Netherlands and had just turned 19.

Orozco remembers Rubin as hungry to be successful and said the two connected quickly over soccer and how much they valued family. He was also privy to Rubin’s struggles as a young player in Europe without the support of those closest to him and said Rubin would describe his days as “cold and dark.”

(Matt Slocum | AP Photo)United States' Rubio Rubin (23) heads the ball past Bolivia's Carlos Anez (2) as Josh Sargent (13) looks on during the first half of an international friendly soccer match, Monday, May 28, 2018, in Chester, Pa.

So when Rubin became a free agent in 2018, Orozco advocated for him with the sporting director at the Tijuana club Xolos. An exceptional performance at a scrimmage, Orozco remembers, led to a contract offer for his friend.

When it became clear Rubin would join Xolos, Orozco offered his home to him. Rubio was surprised, Orozco said, but accepted. He lived in Orozco’s guest house and became one of the family with Orozco’s wife, two daughters, and son.

“We felt in our heart that we had to take him in and make him feel welcome because something was missing in him, and that was a family base,” Orozco said.

Orozco didn’t charge Rubin rent. He let Rubin use his extra car. When the group went out for ice cream, Rubin often didn’t have to pay for his own. He and his wife taught him “what was right and wrong” so he could make sound decisions.

Orozco said he’s met Rubin’s parents and siblings and invites them to his Orange County SC games whenever the team travels to Portland. The two families joke that they should have a reality show called “The Orozcos and Rubios,” he said.

“We became one big family,” Orozco said.

And Rubin learned lessons from this family, too.

On April 13, 2018, Rubin came home and was ready to go to bed.

It didn’t matter that earlier that night he had scored what eventually became his only goal with the Club Tijuana Xolos. It didn’t matter that Orozco had popped open a bottle of wine. The team had training early the next morning, and for Rubin, that meant he had to get as much rest as possible.

Orozco spoke up and told Rubin he needed to relax. After all, Rubin had played five games and started two for his new team before finally breaking through with a goal.

At that moment, Rubin realized he had never really allowed himself to enjoy the moments. Since becoming a professional at 18 and leaving his hometown of Beaverton, Oregon, to play in Europe, he had struggled with isolation from his family, a lack of playing time, injuries, and the hard reality that he was no longer the best player on his teams.

Rubin dealt with all of it by retreating into the game.

“I used to train too much,” Rubin said. “I think at the beginning it was almost like an obsession. So it was almost like a mindset that was damaging to me.”

But that night with Orozco was different. Rubin had dinner and drank two glasses of wine with his friend, stayed up until about 1 a.m. and still had one of his best training sessions the next morning. It was the beginning of a more balanced and joyful Rubin.

GLUE GUY

Rubin, 25, was born to a Mexican father and Guatemalan mother. He played for two Liga MX teams in Xolos and second-division Dorados de Sinaloa.

It was during his time in Mexico that Rubin learned the value of hanging out with teammates off the field and the camaraderie that fostered. He learned it was OK to train hard every day but also enjoy an asado, or barbecue, once a week where he’d listen to music, play cards, have some laughs, and dance with the club staff and his teammates.

And Rubin has taken those lessons and applied them to his teams in the U.S. — first with the San Diego Loyal of the USL Championship and then with RSL. Loyal co-founder, vice president and coach Landon Donovan said Rubin carried water bottles on his first day in San Diego and helped with luggage on his first road trip.

“He was just a member of the team like anyone else,” Donovan said. “It didn’t matter to him that he played for the national team or played in Liga MX or Europe. He just does things the right way.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Real Salt Lake forward Rubio Rubin (14) celebrates with Real Salt Lake defender Andrew Brody (2) after scoring his second goal of the day, in MLS action between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City at Rio Tinto Stadium, on Saturday, May 1, 2021.

RSL coach Freddy Juarez said when the forward arrived at Salt Lake, he was seen talking to a group of young players one day, then veterans the next, then the Spanish-speaking players after that.

“I think everyone respects him for that,” RSL defender Aaron Herrera said.

Rubin said he likes to talk basketball with Albert Rusnák and Damir Kreilach. He also regularly goes out to drink mate, a traditional South American tea, on mornings before training with Pablo Ruiz, Marcello Silva, and Douglas Martinez.

Rubio said the way he interacts with teammates is to make sure everyone knows he’s a person they can go to with whatever they need, which he believes translates to connection on the field. He looks at that aspect of his personality with some self-deprecating humor.

“I kind of just show up and just want to talk to everyone,” Rubin said. “I guess I can get annoying sometimes.”

San Diego Loyal defender Elijah Martin has known Rubin since the two were teenagers at the U-14 level of the USMNT. The two roomed together in the U-17 residency program in Florida and also during Rubin’s short stint with the Loyal.

Martin said Rubin has exactly the same demeanor now that he did during his teen years.

“He’s just always making jokes and he’s just always smiling, always in a good mood,” Martin said. “That’s teenage Rubio, I’m pretty sure that was baby Rubio and that’s current Rubio.”

Even as a teenager in Florida, Rubin was inclined to quickly ingratiate with the group.

“As much as he was an attacker and wanted to score goals, he wanted the team to do better,” said Richie Williams, his coach at the time. “He wanted to have good relationships with everybody on the team. I just I think it goes back to that smile, the joy, the happiness of Rubio.”

STAYING POWER

Rubio Rubin hit rock bottom.

There he was: a striker in his mid-20s who had played professional soccer in Europe and Mexico, appeared for the USMNT senior team, competed in an under-20 World Cup, earned Young Male Athlete of the Year honors from U.S. Soccer and been coached by legend Diego Maradona.

But after terminating his contract with Dorados last summer after COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the Mexican second division’s spring season, his agent put out feelers to Major League Soccer teams. At the time, MLS was getting ready to play in the Orlando bubble, and teams showed virtually no interest in him other than the occasional six-month contract offer.

When interest came from Donovan’s San Diego Loyal, Rubin still had some doubts.

“There was a point where I was like, man, if it doesn’t go well, retirement is around the corner,” Rubin said.

When soccer wasn’t going well for him, Rubin enrolled in online classes at Portland Community College, taking one class per term in business administration and preparing for the worst. But once he arrived in San Diego, Donovan instilled a confidence within him he hadn’t felt in quite some time.

Rubio admitted that it was “a hard pill to swallow” when presented with the opportunity to play for San Diego. The gut check, he said, was needed. And ever since then, he’s played with a chip on his shoulder.

That translated to the forward shining with the Loyal and later signing a one-year contract with Real Salt Lake worth more than $150,000 in guaranteed salary, per the MLS Players Association.

Rubin has started in 10 games for RSL this season and tallied four goals and two assists. But his impact in just six short months has been felt up and down the organization.

“He’s absolutely come in and done everything that we could that we could ask for and more,” General Manager Elliot Fall said. “So I absolutely would say that Rubio is a guy that we would like in this organization certainly far beyond this year and for years to come.”

Now he’s not taking any opportunity for granted. He’s still taking college classes, but his outlook now is he’ll play 10 more years and by then, he’ll have a bachelor’s degree.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake forward Rubio Rubin (14) kicks the ball past Sporting Kansas City goalkeeper John Pulskamp (1) for a Real Salt Lake goal in MLS action between Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City at Rio Tinto Stadium, on Saturday, May 1, 2021.


REDISCOVERING JOY

Several members of Rubin’s family and some friends drove the 13 hours from Beaverton, Ore., to Salt Lake City.

They were tired, but that didn’t matter.

Other than the brief stint in San Diego, Rubin had spent his entire professional career in either Europe or Mexico. So there was no way those closest to Rubin would miss his home opener.

”If it’s 13 hours, if it’s 30 hours, we’re going to get there because we want to see him play,” Mendez said.

On May 1, Rubin put away his first two MLS goals in a 3-1 win over Sporting Kansas City. Mendez said he was overwhelmed with emotion and pride, and cried when he saw his son score. Since then, Rubin’s family has seen him play in Seattle and a group of friends saw him play in Utah against Vancouver.

Rubin remembers when the relationship with his father flipped. During a lunch with his parents on one of his trips home, he fielded question after question about soccer. Finally, he decided to stand up for himself and have a heart-to-heart with them. That conversation brought an epiphany to Mendez.

Rubin said his father needed to get to a point where he didn’t see his son as “almost like this prodigy” and come to him as a father first.

“When he criticizes me, it’s a good criticism because it’s coming from someone who has been there since Day 1,” Rubin said. “So it took some time. But at the same time, I think he’s more understanding now and he gets it.”

”I always put a lot of pressure on him and sometimes he didn’t perform well because sometimes I put a lot of pressure on him,” Mendez said. “But I’ve realized that when he enjoys soccer, that is when he plays better.”

Osorio said there was definitely a time Rubin didn’t enjoy life as a soccer player. But, thanks to more hard work, that has changed.

“He enjoys it more now because we’re here with him, we’re going to see him live and we support him,” Mendez said.

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