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For Orlando City goalkeeper Brian Rowe, long wait to become a starter has been worth it

Brian Rowe thought his MLS career was over after the 2018 season. Now he’s savoring every minute of his second chance leading the Orlando City defense.

Orlando City goalkeeper Brian Rowe (left) and Greg Ranjitsingh (right) talk on the pitch before a match against the Los Angeles Galaxy at Exploria Stadium. (Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)

Brian Rowe knew Orlando City might be his last chance.

In November, after seven years of fighting for a starting spot in MLS, Rowe was released by the Vancouver Whitecaps. As weeks passed without an offer, he realized his time in the league might be up.

When Rowe earned a trial with Orlando City, he felt energized. If this was his last chance to play in MLS, he was going to enjoy it. Whatever came next, Rowe decided, he would feel like he had always given his all.

Now, as the Lions’ starting goalkeeper, it’s sometimes hard for Rowe to believe that less than a year ago, he was at peace with the idea of walking away from soccer.

“I don’t know exactly how to describe it,” Rowe said. “It’s been an adventure. I was always striving for this, and there were a lot of doubts along the way. To finally have a team give me a chance to be a starter for a club like Orlando, in a city like Orlando — I don’t think I could be more fortunate.”

This season has arguably been the best of Rowe’s career. With 95 saves, Rowe is in second place for single-season saves in club history, tying the club shutout record in August with his seventh clean sheet.

Between the posts, Rowe isn’t flashy, sticking close to goal. When he comes off his line, it’s a calculated risk. Goalkeeper coach Thabane Sutu says that Rowe excels at preventing shots from even happening, snagging crosses to smother set plays.

Orlando City SC goalkeeper Brian Rowe (23) breaks up a shot by Los Angeles FC forward Adrien Perez (26) earlier this season at Exploria Stadium. (Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

That presence has made a difference for Orlando City as it chases the first playoff berth in club history. The Lions finished last in the league defensively last year, allowing 74 goals with a -31 goal differential. This season, defense has become a strong suit for the Lions.

Rowe and Sutu both acknowledge the goalkeeper is never solely responsible for a team’s defense; the goalkeeper is simply the final wall. But for Orlando City, Rowe’s presence brings a calming energy.

“You just have faith when he’s behind you,” Orlando City forward Tesho Akindele said. “You know he’s not gonna freak out in the big moments. He’s gonna be back there doing his job.”

In the stands of Avaya Stadium, Paul and Myrna Rowe didn’t exactly look like fans, much less the parents of one of the starters on the field.

Tucked among a small contingent of purple cheering on the Lions as they faced the San Jose Earthquakes, Paul wore a tan sport coat over a red polo. Myrna sat next to him in a grey tank top, a white sweater thrown over one shoulder.

They shrug it off — wearing gear in opposing stadiums simply isn’t their style.

“We’re away,” Paul said. “We don’t need to confront the visiting team.”

“We cheer for Orlando, but we want to be in the background,” Myrna added. “We just do our jobs and cheer for who we’re here to cheer for.”

From the start, Rowe took to the keeper position for the same reason — it kept him out of the spotlight. Never one for attention, his parents describe their son as easy-going and self-assured. That exterior calm can obscure the underlying fire of intense competitiveness that keeps Rowe sharp.

Growing up, soccer was just one item in a long list of activities for Rowe — golf, mountain biking, kayaking, gymnastics, rock climbing, skiing. He grew up an active kid in Eugene, Ore., and didn’t focus intensely on soccer until high school, when he began to understand his potential.

Even then, Rowe kept playing sports for the fun of it, winning districts in high jump and javelin, kicking for the football team as a senior.

After a successful soccer career at UCLA, where he started for two years and notched 20 clean sheets, Rowe felt he had proven he could play competitively. Besides ceding only eight losses in goal at UCLA, he had played against some of the best in the game — an AC Milan U-23 team in high school; Inter Milan, Bayern Munich and the Los Angeles Galaxy in college.

But after graduation, Rowe didn’t have a set path into the league. He was released by Chivas USA and couldn’t find a fit with a USL team. Undeterred, he entered the MLS goalkeeper pool, a group of unpaid goalkeepers ready to step in for a club on an emergency basis.

Orlando City goalkeeper Brian Rowe (23) celebrates after earning a shutout against the Columbus Crew SC at MAPFRE Stadium. (Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports)

“As long as it was a chance to get into the league, I didn’t care what the label was or that I wasn’t attached to a team,” Rowe said. “That’s how I saw it, just an opportunity to get into the league. It was tough, but I knew I just needed a shot.”

Entering the goalkeeper pool meant accepting a transient lifestyle. In March 2012, he called his then-girlfriend — now his wife — to inform her that he’d been called to step in for Toronto FC. He left on a red-eye flight that night for a game the next day. Rowe ended up staying in Toronto for less than a month, then bounced through several teams shortly before being called in for the Galaxy.

This time, the gig stuck. Rowe signed in June and went on to play six seasons with the club. After four years as a third-string backup, both the first- and second-string keepers suffered injuries in 2016, lifting Rowe into the starting position.

Rowe recorded 113 saves that season, but it didn’t last long. He battled for the starting position for the next year before getting traded to Vancouver, where he played backup again before being released at the end of the 2018 season.

At that point, Rowe had played seven professional seasons without earning a full season as a starter. Still, he felt assured in his own ability, even after he was released. He knew that he was learning and improving each season, even if he wasn’t seeing the minutes on the field.

Eventually, Rowe felt that his chance would come.

“He’s very patient,” Paul Rowe said. “He’s able to take a lot of stuff and just absorb it, and then let it go. When he walks off the field, all of that frustration or disappointment stays on the field. He knows that if he puts the work in, it will happen and if he really gets the opportunity he’ll be able to seize it.”

Paul paused, turning back to the field — San Jose set up for a free kick just outside the top of the box. Myrna clasped her hands to her chest when Brian snagged a strike, which curled right into his torso.

The Rowes are proud parents, but they don’t like to brag and they see that same quality in their son. Through it all, Paul said the most important thing to know about Brian is that he laughs a lot, never one to take life too seriously.

“His life outlook is that, if he can actually affect it, he’ll do all that he can,” Myrna said. “But if he can’t control it, he’ll let it go. It doesn’t eat him up. It’s a great way to live.”

On a sunny morning at Lake Sylvan Park, none of the Orlando City goalkeepers can finish a drill on the first try. It’s simple — jump backward over a hurdle, then catch the ball — but challenging. Brian Rowe trips once, then twice.

“I’ve got this,” he says loudly. Fellow keeper Adam Grinwis nods sarcastically in response. Rowe jumps and lands hard on the hurdle, planting his gloves on his knees as Grinwis and keeper Greg Ranjitsingh roar with laughter.

“It’s okay,” Ranjitsingh teases, patting his back affectionately. On the next rep, Rowe finally clears the hurdle, still grinning.

All three players and Sutu agree — this trio of keepers is different. Their relationship is tight and supportive, cracking jokes throughout each training. Grinwis calls them the “Goalkeeper Union,” and the nickname reflects their unity on and off the pitch.

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Grinwis and Ranjitsingh often bring an over-eager energy into training, ready to push their bodies to the limit. But in his eighth year as a professional athlete, Rowe has learned how to manage his training to preserve his health.

Rowe emphasizes quality over quantity, taking fewer reps to hone his focus and decrease physical strain. Each morning, he’s typically the first to arrive to training, warming up in the weight room while teammates straggle in. By the time he hits the pitch, he’s ready to work.

This extra layer of professionalism has changed the way that the group approaches training, maximizing every minute on the field.

“Goalkeeper is a position of perfection,” Rowe said. “You have a limited amount of touches in the game and you’re trying to be perfect for every single one of those. So I’m always thinking about what I can do [and] what other guys are doing right now that I’m not doing. I strive to always hold myself accountable.”

From the start of the season, both Ranjitsingh and Grinwis looked up to Rowe.

Grinwis didn’t understand the scope of his teammate’s unconditional support, however, until U.S. Open Cup.

When O’Connor named Grinwis the starter for the tournament, Grinwis expected Rowe to be understandably frustrated or disappointed. Instead, Rowe was immediately supportive, the first from the team to approach Grinwis and offer both praise and advice.

Rowe was also the first to sprint off the sidelines when Grinwis batted away the final penalty kick to send Orlando City to the Cup semifinals, diving and tumbling over the dogpile to get a hand on his fellow keeper.

“He was nothing short of incredible during that time,” Grinwis said. “I know that’s a difficult position to be in. You have to be very self assured, you have to be confident in your own ability. That’s Brian. No matter what role he’s been in, he’s been the same.”

Sutu noticed Rowe’s warm personality as a teammate during his first trial training. He already knew that Rowe was a technically proficient goalkeeper, unflappable and experienced in high-profile games.

But one moment at that first session stuck out even more to Sutu. On the way to training, Rowe picked up the team water bottle caddies, carrying them out to the field.

The task was previously handled by Mason Stajduhar, one of the club’s youngest players. Rowe was a seven-year veteran of the league, but he took the task on without complaint. It struck Sutu, who points the moment out to this day as one of the many reasons Rowe became the starter.

“You could tell that we had something special with him,” Sutu said. “It was just in the way he was integrating with the group. I could tell within a week or two that he was a proper fit for what we were looking for.”

Orlando City head coach James O’Connor is quick to echo this sentiment, saying Rowe’s impact on the team is characterized more by his actions off the field than in between the posts.

Sometimes, it’s just little details. Rowe arrived at the stadium early for a meeting one day during the team’s annual push for season ticket renewals. Nonchalantly, he asked if he could help out, then ended up sitting in a cubicle to make calls.

Fans on the phone were surprised, then delighted to hear who was calling — plus, it was hard to turn down the starting goalkeeper’s request to renew for next season.

“When you’re trying to change a culture like we have been, you also have to make sure that the personalities that you want to drive the culture are in place,” O’Connor said. “Brian is one of those guys. He’s a great representation of what we’re trying to build here.”

Even now, Rowe knows soccer is a fleeting thing. He’s spent enough time in this league to know how careers can fluctuate, even after a stellar season.

This year could be the start of a long career with Orlando City or a burst at the end of his career. That only gives Rowe a stronger drive to prove himself each match, approaching each training session with the same sharp intensity.

And if it all ends after this season? Rowe thinks he’ll be happy all the same. Either way, he’s giving his most to his second chance.

“Last year, I really felt like if that was the end of the career, that was the end of my career,” Rowe said. “Now I’m in a place where I play more freely than I did before. I’m at a point where I’m just going to enjoy this because I’ve got nothing to lose.”

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