When Real Salt Lake General Manager Elliot Fall called Rubio Rubin to his office at the Zions Bank Training Center recently, he didn’t know what to expect. His trepidation wasn’t quelled when Assistant GM Tony Beltran and Technical Director Kurt Schmid joined them.
“Did I do something wrong?” Rubin remembers thinking.
What they would tell him would leave him speechless. After playing for six teams in the previous four years, bouncing from one side of the globe to the other, Rubin could finally feel the comfort of setting down some roots in Salt Lake City as the recipient of a long-term contract extension.
“I was at a loss for words. I was emotional. At the end of the day, my hard work and abilities on the field were paying off,” he said. “I can finally have stability and just focus on soccer. That is important to being able to enjoy the game. Knowing that this is going to be home for me for the next four years is going to help me be happy on the field and off the field.”
Prior to his arrival in Utah, the 25-year-old Rubin had become something of a soccer vagabond. He started his professional career in Holland with FC Utrecht. After being released in 2016 at just 20 years old, he had stints in Denmark and Norway before coming back to North America to play for Club Tijuana in Liga MX and Dorados in Mexico’s second division. His contract expired just as the world was stricken with a global pandemic, limiting his options in a growingly uncertain world.
After landing with San Diego Loyal to close out the 2020 season, he proved himself enough to earn a contract from Real Salt Lake. With uncertainty surrounding his long-term future, the one-year contract with the MLS club was more than enough to motivate him to come in and show what he could contribute.
Two goals and two assists in the club’s first two matches of the 2021 season – victories over Minnesota United and Sporting Kansas City – turned some heads. A stunning bicycle kick goal against the San Jose Earthquakes drew some headlines. Finally, a stellar individual effort on a goal against FC Dallas cemented for Real Salt Lake that he was a player the club could build around.
“The way that Rubio was able to create the space and the turn and then the finish … I remember calling some of our guys and saying that Rubio is better than we thought he was going to be,” Fall said. “And we thought he was going to be good.”
That successful start of four goals and two assists through five matches brought a needed confidence boost for Rubin. A promising young player and the 2012 U.S. Soccer Young Player of the Year, he had struggled to find his footing with each stop along his professional career. Now he was a central figure in RSL’s surprising start to the season and quickly became a fan-favorite – his jovial nature, stunning abilities and bilingual background providing a relatable athlete that fans from all backgrounds could support.
“The past 10 months had been crazy. I could finally breath,” Rubin said of his instant success with RSL. “I believed in my abilities and I believed that I could do it, but actually doing it … that was such a great feeling for me and my family.”
While his on-field production helped earn his long-term contract extension, his impact has come far beyond goals and assists.
“He has come in and done well, getting on the scoresheet and provided some spectacular goals, but the real motivation and the real impetus behind approaching him to make this a long-term home was everything else he did for the group,” Fall said. “In a really short period of time, Rubio established himself as one of the leaders. He’s led by example and he’s led through his play and he’s led through the way he carries himself day in and day out. It all played a massive role in it. Certainly the production is huge and important, but it’s only a small part of it.”
Just 12 games into his first season at RSL, Rubin’s work is far from over.
He joins a group of established leaders in the locker room and a crowded group of attacking options for Head Coach Freddy Juarez as RSL looks to build on its 4-4-4 record to start the season. And while the focus is on upcoming matches at Rio Tinto Stadium against the LA Galaxy on Wednesday and the Colorado Rapids on Saturday, those are just benchmarks along his long-term path that he hopes will lead to much bigger goals.
With the newfound permanence of a long-term contract, Rubin now feels like a greater part of reaching those aspirations.
“Ultimately, the goal has always been winning a championship. Something I strive for is lifting a trophy for this club, but also for myself,” he said. “This stability helps me to see the process of developing every year and what I can bring individually to this team collectively that can one day help us lift that trophy. I want to be able to lift a trophy with this club.”