Theirs was an unlikely union, lasting for just a year until his visa renewal was turned down. The image-conscious New York Red Bulls, their corporate hearts set on continental dominance, and Luke Rodgers, an English lower league trawler and 5-foot-7 brawler from Birmingham whose menace to defenses as a striker was equal to the one he at times posed to society away from the field.
Plucked from fourth tier obscurity – although he did accrue some infamy for his various well-publicized off-field altercations and incidents – Rodgers was plugged into a striking partnership with the best Premier League striker of all time, Thierry Henry, ahead of the 2011 season. A career lower leaguer – who had spent 12 seasons with Shrewsbury Town, Port Vale and Notts County and scored 106 league goals over that span – had fallen up to the limelight, even if it was in America, defying the gravitational laws of professional soccer. And as it turned out, he was a perplexingly good match for Henry and the Red Bulls.
Rodgers scored nine goals in 23 games in Major League Soccer but enabled untold more. When he was on the pitch, he pushed back defenses with his speed, made the long ball a viable option against cluttered midfields and gave Henry the room he needed to operate in between the lines for the playmaker role he had reinvented himself for. When he wasn't on the field because of one of the injuries he suffered, the Red Bulls were packed closely together and easy to defend.
"We were very good with him and without him we weren't very good," said midfielder Dax McCarty. "Luke was a guy that brings a different dimension to the team. He's a guy who makes great runs, who's always busy, always active, always being a pest for the opposing team and around the goal he's a clinical finisher. He's a guy that will be missed."
"You need pace in this league and without Luke we don't have that pace anymore," added Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe, who had first coached Rodgers with Notts County.
New York and Luke Rodgers suited each other. He even told the Stoke Evening Sentinel back home: "This is the happiest I've been in football."
Rodgers was embraced for who he was: short on length and talent but long on desire, a man who didn't mind running down every hopeless ball and crashing into goal posts. The shimmery t-shirts and white tennis shoes adorned with metal spikes he wore off the field complemented the sheen of his buffed dome and endeared him to the Big Apple. Teammates cherished his Midlands accent. They bought him a Mini Me doll from the Austin Powers movies and marveled at the resemblance. It sat above his locker.
"He's a great guy for the locker room," reminisced McCarty. "He's always laughing, always joking around, certainly brings a little bit of a different accent to the locker room, one we didn't have yet."
Rodgers had had visa issues throughout his time with the Red Bulls. Hans Backe badly wanted to reunite with the striker in the summer of 2010. An initial application was turned down. Rodgers had given up on coming to America. But an appeal was successful, allowing for a move in January 2011. This off-season, his renewal was rejected. Some say he overstayed his visa. Others that he was less than accurate on his application the year before. Either way, his past criminal record had likely haunted him.
"We're not very happy," said Red Bulls sporting director Erik Soler. "But we're not giving up, we'll continue to try. We'll do whatever we can to get a better outcome next time. We're hopeful that we can get him back."
Rodgers has since been released from his contract and signed with Lillestrom in Norway, apparently in concert with the Red Bulls, who retain a first right of refusal to Rodgers in MLS.
The club remains remarkably loyal to a 30-year-old striker. It will plead with U.S. immigration authorities that Rodgers had been a model citizen while in America. Off the field, that is. On it, he stood up to American soccer demi-God Landon Donovan and didn't mind reiterating his salty take on him to the press afterwards, forever winning the adoration of the long-suffering Red Bulls fan base.
At last they had a real hero. Not one like Henry, who lobbed insults at them when they did anything but worship him for his every ounce of exertion. Or Rafa Marquez, who didn't care to acknowledge their cheers or taunts. Who didn't seem to care at all, in fact. A proper hero, who realized he was lucky to be playing in front of them and have them on his side. They came up with a song for him, an honor in MLS, where many club chants are essentially adapted versions of the same songs.
The ingredients to cult heroism seem to be an improbable background; a short, unexpected burst of excellence; an element of eccentricity; and an unexpected, premature departure. Rodgers ticked off all the boxes.
"He'll definitely have a cult following," said Dan Feuerstein, who picks apart the Red Bulls' performance every week on his internet radio show, Feuerstein's Fire. "I think he resonated very well with New York Red Bulls fans because of the way he worked and the way he spoke. Who speaks up against Landon Donovan the way he did? And he was so proud to wear the shirt, he seemed like he was living out a dream."
Rodgers overturned fans' expectations, and endeared himself to them with his hard-nosed style, which matched the mindset they like to see.
"We all thought that he was a League Two striker and kind of a diminutive guy and he had the criminal past and a lot of fans thought he wouldn't do well," said Brent Gamit, who has been part of the Red Bulls' fanatical Empire Supporters Club since 1997. "But when he started to play hard and well and started to score goals, he really, really launched himself from someone who was semi-reviled, or at least an acquisition we were skeptical of, to a gritty, fiery, feisty player. He won us over almost instantaneously. I guess in America sometimes people do get a second chance."
Whether Rodgers will be back is in doubt. Whether he has been woven into the fabric of the club is not.