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Luis Robles goes from MLS player to World Cup travel manager

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Felix Brambilla (left), the CEO of Overseas Network, and Luis Robles, World Cup project manager, during one of their trips to Qatar as they prepare for the 2022 World Cup

Felix Brambilla (left), the CEO of Overseas Network, and Luis Robles, World Cup project manager, during one of their trips to Qatar as they prepare for the 2022 World Cup

Luis Robles

Former Inter Miami goalkeeper and captain Luis Robles dreamed of playing in a World Cup from his days as a youth soccer player in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, to his early pro years in Germany until Jan. 6, 2021, when he announced his retirement after a career-ending arm fracture.

He will finally fulfill his dream – with a twist.

Robles, 37, will be managing visitor hospitality at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which runs from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18.

He landed the dream job last May after several months trying to figure out what to do post-retirement. He considered graduate school. He explored front office jobs with Inter Miami and other MLS clubs. He even delivered groceries for Instacart for a brief period because he was tired of sitting around his Parkland home.

Then, a phone call with former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati led Robles to Felix Brambilla, CEO of Coral Gables-based Overseas Network, the official U.S. agent for MATCH hospitality at the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Overseas is in a joint venture with Premier Partnership and Elevate Sports Ventures and their mission is to provide World Cup visitors with tickets, lodging and unique cultural experiences.

As it happens, Robles’ new office is directly across the street from Inter Miami’s business office.

Robles joined Overseas on May 1, 2021, and has since made multiple trips to Qatar, including a three-week stay during the recent Arab Cup, a test event for the World Cup.

“I always thought as a teenager and professional soccer player that I’d go to the World Cup as a player and instead I am going as a manager in event hospitality,” Robles said. “It’s a dream come true.”

Although he knew nothing about the hospitality industry, Robles earned a Finance degree from the University of Portland and got some business acumen as a longtime executive of the MLS Players Association.

“Even though I was probably underqualified, Felix let me into his ecosystem and has mentored me, corrected me, rebuked me at times, and educated me to reinvent who I am. Now, when I meet people, I don’t introduce myself as Luis Robles former professional soccer player. I introduce myself as Luis Robles, manager of the World Cup project for Overseas.”

Brambilla has been involved in the past seven World Cups. Like many soccer fans around the world, when he heard about Qatar, he had doubts.

“When this opportunity first came up, I was one of the people wondering what was the logic of hosting the World Cup in Qatar,” Brambilla said. “I wouldn’t say I was skeptical, but I wanted answers. It took our first trip last June to get answers.”

Brambilla and Robles are well aware of the ongoing concerns about the Cup host’s human rights history and other humanitarian issues such as anti-homosexuality laws. But they both said their perceptions of the gulf nation changed having spent extended time there.

“Football is going to be able to fill its missions like never before,” Brambilla said. “We’re going to bring together populations that don’t understand each other, that are full of cliches towards each other. When Luis met me there in June, being from a family with military background he was arriving with those apprehensions. Will I be welcome there? Will I be understood?”

The answer is yes, Robles and Brambilla said.

“I was pleasantly surprised because you have preconceived notions about what a place is like,” Robles said. “My brother served in Iraq and Afghanistan. My Dad has this incredibly proud tradition and heritage of military perspective. So that’s where I was coming from.

“So many of us have little exposure to the Middle East and the one thing that really sticks out after being there is the hospitality. They are warm and genuine and that catches you off guard because you’re already formulated this idea of who these people are. The World Cup allows us to share experiences and learn from each other.”

Brambilla added: “We found a country that was more open-minded from what we expected. They want to be a bridge between the Middle East and the rest of the world. This is not propaganda in any way. This is not something that has been fed to us by FIFA or anybody else. This is a human feeling you get when you go there, when you find yourself with Qatari families and ex-pats who are over there.”

They found out that Qatari families like to camp in the desert on weekends and visit sand dunes, so they are incorporating those activities into their travel packages. They are building two Bedouin-inspired camps, one in the southern dunes area and a larger one in the desert that will include entertainment venues and a lighted soccer field. They are offering ATV rides, camel rides and falcon handling experiences.

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Visitors to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be treated to traditional Bedouin meals in campgrounds. Luis Robles

After attending the Arab Cup they both firmly believe the World Cup fan experience will be better than what skeptics fear. The stadiums were full of enthusiastic fans – men, women and children. The eight stadiums are all within driving distance of each other, so fans will be able to see multiple games in a day if they want. And, yes, fans will be allowed to celebrate with alcohol.

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Stadiums were full for the 2021 Arab Cup in Qatar, a test event for the 2022 World Cup Luis Robles

“A lot of people are asking, `Will I be able to celebrate in a Muslim country?’ Yes, you will,” Brambilla said. “The Qatari culture doesn’t involve alcohol, but they are welcoming Western visitors and saying `You can celebrate in the manner you enjoy, but let’s respect each other.’’’

Fans interested in traveling to the Qatar World Cup can get information at https://usa.match-hospitality.com/

IF YOU WANT TO GO…

2022 World Cup

Where: Qatar

When: Nov. 21-Dec. 18, 2022

Teams: 32

Venues: Eight air-conditioned outdoor stadiums

For tickets, lodging, tourist packages: https://usa.match-hospitality.com/

This story was originally published January 14, 2022 8:50 PM.

Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman has covered 14 Olympics, six World Cups, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, NCAA Basketball Tournaments, NBA Playoffs, Super Bowls and has been the soccer writer and University of Miami basketball beat writer for 25 years. She was born in Frederick, Md., and grew up in Miami.





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Canada vs. USA: How to watch and stream, preview of World Cup qualifier

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Both Canada and the US earned victories this past Thursday to keep pace in their bids to reach the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Canada sit atop the eight-team Octagonal standings with 19 points, with the USMNT one point behind (18) and in second place in the race for three automatic World Cup berths.

Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Sunday’s game.





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VfL Wolfsburg swoops for D.C. United homegrown star Kevin Paredes

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D.C. United homegrown Kevin Paredes is making the big move, with VfL Wolfsburg swooping in to bring the Virginia native to the Bundesliga. Terms were not reported by either club, but The Athletic’s Pablo Maurer has reported the German side is putting up $7.35 million in their initial transfer fee, with United getting an additional $500,000 if Paredes meets certain benchmarks relating to appearance totals. The Black-and-Red would also be due 10% of any transfer fee Wolfsburg brings in by selling Paredes’ rights in the future.

“We couldn’t be prouder and happier for Kevin to follow his dreams to compete in a great league like the German Bundesliga,” said Dave Kasper, United’s President of Soccer Operations, in a team press release. “Kevin’s rapid rise from our Academy to a first team starter is a testament to his desire, talent, and commitment, as well as a lot of hard work and support from our great coaches and staff at the club. All of us at the club wish Kevin a very long and successful professional career.”

“We are extremely proud of Kevin and the work that he has done to earn his opportunity to play at the highest level in Europe,” said United GM Lucy Rushton. “As a Homegrown, this transfer reflects the commitment and investment our ownership have made in our Academy infrastructure to prepare Kevin to fulfill his lifelong dream. We want to thank him for representing the club with so much pride and wish him the best of luck in his next chapter in the top flight of European soccer.”

Paredes, 18, made his debut in professional soccer with Loudoun United late in the 2019 USL Championship season, and his rise since then has been remarkable. D.C. United offered him a homegrown contract that winter, and while the MLS season was disrupted by Covid-19, a series of injuries and struggles as a club opened the door for Paredes to show what he could do. After making his debut in the MLS is Back Tournament that summer, Paredes used the next couple of months to assert himself as not just a promising youngster, but a player who was going to be a factor every week.

In 2021, under Hernán Losada, Paredes was first-choice whenever healthy, thriving as the team’s left wingback and quickly becoming a fan favorite thanks to his dribbling ability and high-energy style of play. In the end, Paredes made 41 appearances (28 starts) in his two seasons with United.

United will be able to convert $1.05 million of the fee into General Allocation Money (GAM), which they have stockpiled of late. Paredes’ departure comes two days after United made an MLS-record GAM trade, sending Paul Arriola to FC Dallas in a deal possibly worth up to $2.3 million. However, the club has also moved plenty of GAM in the meantime, sending $750,000 to the Seattle Sounders to acquire Brad Smith — very likely the player who will step into Paredes’ shoes on the left — just yesterday.

It’s been a furious remodel for United lately, who have also announced that they’ve signed Designated Player Taxiarchis Fountas on a pre-contract from Rapid Vienna, and have been strongly linked to a loan move for Toluca and Ecuador striker Michael Estrada.

The news of Paredes moving to Wolfsburg serves on one hand as an example to promising young players that United is capable of bringing a talent along quickly. Paredes went from academy program, to Loudoun, to starting at Audi Field, to the Bundesliga in very little time. Despite a record of giving more minutes to homegrown players than the majority of MLS clubs, United has to some extent had a reputation in youth soccer circles that was not favorable.

The club’s Pathway to Pro program was enacted to help change that, and between teenagers like Paredes, Moses Nyeman, and Griffin Yow getting first-team minutes, and Ryan Martin fielding one of the younger teams in the USL Championship over the last two seasons, there is a clear emphasis on shifting that perception. Paredes moving to the Bundesliga at 18 years old will go a long way on that front.

On the other hand, United’s hopes on the field take a hit with the move. Paredes, along with Andy Najar and Julian Gressel, were the players in 2022 that had to be at their best for United to hit top gear. Losing Paredes’ dribbling ability on the left, even with an experienced and respected replacement already in place, will be an obstacle for Losada and co. on the field this season.





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Report: Toronto FC sign Carlos Salcedo from Tigres UANL as Yeferson Soteldo departs

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The move would give Toronto a backline anchor, with Salcedo’s résumé also including stints in Europe at Fiorentina (Italian Serie A) and Eintracht Frankfurt (German Bundesliga). He originally turned pro in 2013 with Real Salt Lake and has been capped 48 times by Mexico.

Last year, Soteldo had three goals and 10 assists in 24 games (19 starts) for Toronto. He’s been rumored to exit after the Reds finished second-from-bottom in the Eastern Conference last year.

It’s the latest development in Toronto’s DP situation, with striker Jozy Altidore also suspected to depart, possibly via a contract buyout. Alejandro Pozuelo, the 2020 Landon Donovan MLS MVP, projects as a key playmaker under Bradley.

Should the Salcedo/Soteldo swap be completed, Toronto would still need to shed another DP before Insigne arrives in the summer from Napoli. Club president Bill Manning, speaking after signing the Italian national team forward to a long-term deal, has assured that won’t be an issue.





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