Sports

On MLS's Most Star-Studded Team, Brian Rowe Is the Last Line of Defense

For most of his career, Brian Rowe was an obscure backup on some star-studded LA Galaxy teams. Now he's their No. 1 goalkeeper as the team seeks to win a sixth MLS Cup.
November 4, 2016, 5:22pm
Photo by Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Galaxy are the Real Madrid of Major League Soccer. The team has a stockpile of stars, at least by MLS standards—no other roster in the league is more likely to inspire "Oh, that guy" from casual fans. Which makes sense, given that the team invented the Designated Player rule when it signed David Beckham in 2007. The new rule allowed teams to sign star players to huge contracts without a crushing effect on their salary caps, and it changed MLS. You don't need to follow the league to understand how this part works.

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The Galaxy have won a record five MLS Cups (three of them since 2007) and are in prime position to claim another this year: they have a goal lead going into the second game of a home-and-home semifinal series with the Colorado Rapids. While the pressure to win a sixth title rests with the team's star-studded lineup—which includes such international stars as Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole, Gyasi Zardes, Landon Donovan, and Giovani Dos Santos—LA's fate will, at some point, fall to the team's unheralded goalkeeper, Brian Rowe.

Almost all championship runs feature a moment when a goalkeeper needs to stand tall and make a pivotal play (just ask the Columbus Crew and Steve Clark). For the Galaxy, that means a longtime backup will have to prove that he's ready to be the last line of defense for a team that features some of the most recognizable names in the sport.

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This was not the plan at the start of the 2016 season. Back in March, Rowe found himself sitting in familiar place: the Los Angeles Galaxy bench. The 27-year-old goalkeeper had spent the past four seasons deputizing, and when the Galaxy brought in veteran goalkeeper Dan Kennedy during the off-season it looked like Rowe would need to wait a little longer for a chance to show he was ready to become a starter.

When Kennedy suffered a torn groin muscle in the first game of the season, however, the timetable on that apprenticeship sped up considerably. Rowe had short stints in the past as the Galaxy's No. 1 but hadn't convinced coach Bruce Arena he was ready to become an everyday goalkeeper at the top level.

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"It's always a tough position as a backup goalie," Galaxy goalkeeping coach and former MLS goalkeeper Matt Reis told VICE Sports. "One of my coaches early on said, 'It's like a prizefighter and it's not OK to just to tie the guy, you really have to knock him out and show that you're hands above.' It takes a while to come into that."

Rowe had to settle quickly. For Galaxy superstars like Gerrard, Cole, Beckham, and Keane, this stint in LA represents their last chance at winning another title; they don't have time to wait for a goalkeeper in search of his game and confidence. Thanks to years of practice with that star-studded cast and the odd start he did get, however, Rowe was ready to step in and hold his own. He was good enough to earn the confidence of his defenders in front of him—even when he made a mistake that cost his team valuable points.

Eye on the ball. Photo by Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It happened on May 13th in Montreal, with the final whistle looming, when Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba stepped up to a free kick a few yards out from the left corner of the Galaxy penalty area. Rowe set his wall for the oncoming free kick, which everyone in the stadium knew was going to be blasted with power—even at 38, Drogba still hasn't lost the ability to send a soccer ball hurtling at unnatural speeds. Rowe, in his green keeper kit, sat deep on his line, knowing his defenders would deal with a cross. Drogba stepped and hurled his right boot through the ball, sending it dipping up and over the wall and right at Rowe. It looked like a routine save, but the ball popped out of his hands, arching over his head and into the back of the net, costing the Galaxy a valuable road point in a league where getting any result on the road is a miracle.

Rowe was devastated. He had waited to get his chance as a starter and now, in early stages of the season, he'd likely blown it. But in his most downtrodden moment, Rowe discovered that the time had finally come for him to be a No. 1 goalkeeper. "I think that was the point where it was like, all right, I have faced the worst a goalie can go through," Rowe said. "The worst sort of game or situation. And the fact they still have confidence in me and still believe in me, just kind of makes you settle down a little bit, if that's the worst that can happen in a game. It sucks, but you have to keep going."

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It's a lesson he learned long before he got to Los Angeles.

Rowe grew up in Eugene, Oregon, in the shadow of the University of Oregon. He started playing soccer at age four. As with most youth soccer teams, players rotated at goalkeeper, but Rowe stood out between the posts. Even though he enjoyed running around the field with his teammates, it quickly became clear that he was the best goalkeeper on the team, and he begrudgingly accepted the role—with some help from his mother.

"I remember being upset right after tournaments or at night and talking to my mom and being like, I don't want to play goalie, I want to play on the field, and she would say, 'You do so well in there and all the guys want you in there.' It was one of those things. You suck it up and it starts getting more and more serious as you start moving up to club and start going to high school."

By the time he was a teenager, Rowe was the best goalkeeper in his age group in the state; college programs across the country tried to recruit him. In the end, Rowe was deciding between Harvard and UCLA. Both schools gave Rowe what he wanted: an education and a scholarship. He chose UCLA, and for his soccer career it was the perfect choice. The Bruins coaching staff included Arena's son, Kenny, and the team was often called in to practice with the Galaxy, pitting its players against the likes of Donovan and Beckham.

He's the one that's allowed to use his hands. Photo by Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Rowe finished his career at UCLA with a 37-8-5 record that included 20 clean sheets, and was chosen 24th in the 2012 MLS Supplemental draft by the now defunct Chivas USA in Los Angeles. Chivas had one of the league's best goalkeepers in Dan Kennedy, which made Rowe a backup and development project from the start, but his stint with the team didn't last long. Chivas released him on the last day of preseason. His career was in limbo before it began.

"The thing with the league back then was when a team drafted you, they owned your rights," Rowe said. "If they release or drop you, they still own your rights. After Chivas released me, they didn't release my rights, so I was kind of bound to Chivas, which meant I couldn't go to any other teams unless they approved of it."

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Rowe decided to stay in the Los Angeles area, training on his own and staying with his girlfriend while living off the generosity of his parents as he tried to figure out what to do next. Finally, the call came. His agent had good and bad news. The good news first: Rowe had a job—he was being signed by MLS as a "pool goalkeeper." He would get paid to train and then fly out to help any team in desperate need of a goalkeeper, whether because of injuries or suspensions. The bad news: he had a ticket that night on a red eye to Toronto, where he'd be expected to be on the bench the next day.

Rowe's time in Toronto lasted six weeks. The team decided to sign another goalkeeper permanently, so he jetted off to Portland to help out and train with his hometown team. A few weeks later, with the Los Angeles Galaxy on their way to town, he got even better news. The Galaxy finalized a deal to sign him permanently as the team's third goalkeeper.

Love too kick. Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Galaxy coach Bruce Arena was content to let Rowe develop his game while backing up the various veteran goaltenders that passed through LA's roster, but the waiting wasn't always as easy for Rowe. He'd walk into Arena's office and tell his coach he was ready, and Arena would quietly tell him that he wasn't, keep practicing. Painful as it must have been, the waiting not only seems to have been good for Rowe—it seems to have been necessary.

There is no position on a soccer field like goalkeeper. The job does not admit prodigies, and the best goalkeepers take years to reach their peak. They don't generally enjoy it for long: a goalie's peak is short-lived, usually in the middle years when the physical aspects of the position are still easy, but the mentality has evolved enough rounding out the rough edges. "A lot of goalkeeping is mental," Reis, the Galaxy's goalkeeping coach, said. "Making mistakes, getting over mistakes, having the confidence to get back out there and do it again."

This year, Rowe has grabbed the opportunity. He's become the reliable No. 1 between the posts for the Galaxy. He finished the season with nine shutouts in 30 starts and third in MLS in saves; he allowed 33 goals on 113 shots, for a 76.4 save percentage, one of the best in the league. The Galaxy finished 12-5-14 and made it to the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs, where they beat Real Salt Lake, 3-1. On Sunday, they look to defeat the Colorado Rapids and reach the finals for the MLS Cup. There are no fears about the inexperienced goalkeeper. Rowe is finally ready, and the job is his alone. Now the challenge is making that wait worthwhile.

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