For me, it was Saturday nights at an indoor soccer field about 15 miles away from where we attended high school. Me and my closest friends (and friends we gained through soccer) would play over an hour from 10:00pm on. When I transport back, those memories become affectionate, filling me with a longing and a stirring of the soul.
We had… incredible fun. Times that bound us forever. And we grew as players as we grew as friends. We were good, pretty darn good. We beat the big clubs in league play, convincing their players to join us. But we didn’t have enough. No parents who played to mentor. No friends to model how or to inspire us to reach the next level.
Sporting Kansas City’s Robert Voloder, I am sure, played a lot of pickup soccer with friends as he grew up more-or-less as an only child – he has an older half-sister – in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Robi, as his teammates call him, benefited from a father who played through his teenage years, who recognized that Robi had the tools to reach a higher level. Voloder had an idol to emulate – center back Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid and the Spanish National Team – and had, no, still harbors, a dream to be a striker.
“I speak for every defender that we sometimes have the urge to show forwards how it’s done,” Voloder said with a laugh during our Tuesday phone interview while Sporting’s preseason camp continued in Arizona for the 21-year-old and his teammates.
Most importantly, though, Voloder has someone who pushes him to reach where his father thought he could go.
“It’s a friend, for three years now. I met him through my dad and my agency. First, he was training with me, doing workouts,” stated Voloder. “But then we evolved our friendship, and now, he is one of my four closest friends. He helped me quite a lot in my soccer journey, my journey as a professional.”
The friendship is helping make Voloder the player he is today.
Six years ago, at age 15, Voloder left home for FC Cologne, eventually making his way on loan to Slovenian powerhouse NK Maribor in June of 2021. There, he helped “The Purples” to the top of the table playing every minute through 20 matches. The left-footed center back netted twice and contributed to 10 shutouts.
Although Maribor triggered the option to sign Voloder permanently that December, Voloder had bigger aspirations, joining Kansas City in January of 2022.
It was not an easy decision leaving friendships Voloder had cultivated, because leaving leads to missing, a fact that was clear in Robi’s offseason activities: “I hung out with my friends a lot, or tried to see as much people as possible that I was missing the first year I was [in Kansas City],” said Voloder. “After a month or so, I traveled to one or two cities, trying to enjoy the time with family and friends because we knew it would be a long time when we don’t see each other. We made the best of it.”
The 6’1”, 174 lbs. center back intimated that movies, too, can reveal his focus on friendship. The last time he cried was “The ending of a show or movie, a bad ending,” he said. “I don’t remember what specific movie I was watching. Sometimes I feel involved in the movie when it’s good. When someone dies, [I feel like], well, I’ve lost a friend.”
Even though Voloder wanted to make the best of his first season at Sporting and was coming off that strong season in Slovenia, he was realistic regarding expectations.
“I knew that I had to adapt to a lot of things coming here: How the league is, if it’s different playing soccer here than in Europe. How people are living in America, if there are different things I need to look out for. To get to know every teammate. To get to know the playing style,” Voloder stated, revealing accumulated wisdom. “There [were] a lot of things that I had to figure out for what it is like to be here.
“As a player, you always want to play as much as possible, but I didn’t have a scenario where I wanted to play, let’s say, 20 games. I just wanted to focus on myself and play as much as possible and the time that I do play that I am performing on my highest level.”
Here, the friendship with Voloder’s new closest buddy pays major dividends.
“It’s mentality; he is a big worker, never sleeps, always wants to improve and be better than his opponent in every way, whether it’s for work or normal life,” Voloder revealed. “He wants to outperform the others. I try to steal that a little bit from him. I’m doing a pretty good job so far.”
Yet, for the driven Voloder, there is lament. (Blame the world soccer calendar. Blame the visa process. Blame the world for not catching up with the MLS way of doing things… or just realize that things don’t always fit as snuggly as your foot in your favorite soccer boot.)
“A part that I wish didn’t happen was the fact that I missed the first couple weeks of [Sporting KC] preseason [in 2022],” he said. “I lost a lot of time adapting.”
It was not until February 3, 2022, that Voloder first appeared in a preseason scrimmage (Sporting’s 3rd such match) last year after arriving at camp sometime after January 29. And it was not until April 23, 2022, that he gained significant time on the pitch, coming on for 85 minutes after center back Nicolas Isimat-Mirin went down with a head injury in a home match versus Columbus Crew.
Overall, Voloder started seven of 12 appearances, scoring one goal in 716 minutes. Yes, he started slowly, but by Week 31, the young German – who holds five appearances with their U-20s – had made the MLS Team of the Week and scored his only goal of the season.
Voloder is learning how to dominate because of friendship, and it fits right in line with one area of needed improvement: “The one part that I could improve the most is winning more battles on the field.”
The second will just take time: “And trying to communicate as much as possible,” he added. “I am not a native English speaker, [so] it is harder to communicate in a different language when you don’t have two seconds to think about [what needs to be said]. It is not as hard as it was when I came here, but I still have to process the sentence for a second, and then tell him what he has to do.”
Sporting parted ways with two center backs in the offseason in Isimat-Mirin and Kaveh Rad. However, there is another on the way according to Sporting Manager Peter Vermes. But Voloder is ahead of the game as he gains his first full preseason to build on what he learned in year one.
I asked: “Currently there are only three center backs on the roster, with rumblings of another signing soon. What are your expectations regarding playing time in year two this season?”
“Definitely improvement. I always want to play every game as long as I am healthy. First of all, stay healthy; then, if I am available, play every game,” Voloder explained. “If I would compare to last season… more minutes than last season.”
I then inquired, “What can we expect from Robi Voloder in 2023?”
“On the field, I will be a calm person and try to play out of the back and play with the team, maybe go forward sometimes, score a couple goals,” he said. “Last year, I managed to score one. Now the goal is to at least score two. On the defensive part, to try to not concede as many goals as last year.”
Voloder knows that although friendships may be ubiquitous in life, they are to be valued. Now, deep friendships have been renewed and fostered, and are growing ever stronger with his teammates. All things seem to be aligning for the “young and wild” Voloder (because he plays video games) to have a strong 2023. And he sees things aligning for his team as well.
“Because we didn’t have a lot of roster changes, and we have [striker] Alan Pulido and [attacking midfielder] Gadi Kinda coming back from injury, we are in a good state. We finished the end of last season pretty good, and we are trying to continue like that. The preseason work, I am pretty happy with. So, I am feeling positive about this upcoming season.”
Voloder’s Quick Hits
What do you do for fun?
Hanging out with teammates and friends, going to dinner. “I am still young and wild, so I enjoy playing video games.” (Whoa, slow down, Robi!) A New Year’s resolution was to read three or four books. Let’s see how I am going to manage that, or when I will start. I have a lot of time left.” Also staying in touch with family and friends in Europe.
Are your parents going to come to Kansas City to visit?
Voloder’s parents have not been able to come to KC; however, plans are there for his parents to come visit. But “the hardest part is to do actually do it.”
What player do you watch and try to emulate?
“A guy that I am always trying to watch is David Oliver because I am a Real Madrid fan, so it’s nice to see him play there. And he is a leftie or has a similar style of play [to me].”
Did you always want to be a forward? “I don’t think I will ever change my position… It goes the opposite, when we mess up, the forwards [say], “We could do better.” I would enjoy playing somewhere else for 15 minutes to see if it’s fun or not.” Vermes does not let them do that in training; that fun is more for offseason pick-up games.
Since you and the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs are staying in the same hotel, have you come across any of the Chiefs’ players as they prepare for Super Bowl LVII? “We saw a couple guys. They have their own area or hotel and a different schedule. They have the biggest game, and we are preparing ourselves for a big season. We will all be cheering for them.”