Wilf Thorne/Houston Dynamo

Houston Dynamo rookie Rob Lovejoy makes MLS debut but is ready for more against LA Galaxy

Rob Lovejoy barely had time to register the significance of the moment when he made his first MLS appearance against Orlando City SC last week.

“It didn’t really hit me until after the game that I’d just gotten my professional debut. It was zero to 100 just like that, with the snap of a finger, so it’s a learning opportunity for me to know what to expect the next time that happens if called upon,” the attacking midfielder told HoustonDynamo.com.

The 23-year-old came off the bench for the last seven minutes of the game and was thrust straight into an urgent situation, with the Dynamo 1-0 down and chasing an equalizer that ultimately eluded them. Now he is hoping for another opportunity on Saturday night as Houston face the LA Galaxy at the StubHub Center (9:30 p.m. CT, ROOT SPORTS).

“It was exciting, a little nerves going out there for the first time in front of people. Obviously disappointed we didn’t come out on top, a little bit frustrated, but it’s been a good week of practice, we’re looking forward to getting to LA,” he said.

When head coach Owen Coyle gave him his debut at BBVA Compass Stadium, Lovejoy said he was told to “pretty much just get the ball in wide areas, take guys one on one, get in for a shot or a cross, just try to bring a little spark to the attack. I felt I never really settled in 100%, it’s a hard thing to do in seven minutes, but it was a a great learning experience for me, I soaked in all in, I learned from it and I’ll do better next time.”

A North Carolina native, Lovejoy attended the University of North Carolina and was selected by the Dynamo in the second round of the 2015 MLS SuperDraft (36th overall). He primarily plays on the left side, and has plenty of experienced role models on the roster to help him develop.

“I’m learning every day still, having a ton of fun here learning from the veterans – Brad Davis, Corey Ashe, DaMarcus Beasley, all the left-sided players especially have been very good at directing me where to be on the field positionally. It’s a different game than the college game, more tactical awareness is required, but I think I am continuing to adjust. Obviously there’s a lot of room for improvement but hoping to continue down this road,” he said.

Another high-caliber player who’s often found on the wing will be on the other side on Saturday. The Galaxy’s Robbie Keane is the reigning MLS MVP, and Coyle – a one-time Ireland international himself – is not surprised the 34-year-old Irish star has flourished in North America.

“Robbie Keane was a top Premier League striker, in the best league in the world. So whatever league he went to, wherever league he played, Robbie Keane was always going to score goals. He’s somebody that I know personally as well, somebody I’ve got a lot of time for. He’s a fantastic man and he’s such a talented player. He’s charismatic, he’s a leader, he cares and he’s everything that any coach – you ask Bruce [Arena] – would want in a club. And he epitomizes I think the spirit and everything about LA Galaxy and that’s something we’re going to have to be very wary of,” Coyle told reporters.

But he said that the Dynamo will approach the task of keeping Keane quiet without any fear, having already kept dangerous players including Kaka, Kei Kamara and Federico Higuain relatively quiet during the first two matches of the season. “We’ll obviously have our game plan that we’ll look to put in place, and equally we want to be expressive when we get the ball as well, we’re not going there to sit and make up the numbers, to sit back. We’re going there to make a real game of it and try and exploit LA if we can,” he said.

The Dynamo enter the game with only center back Raul Rodriguez doubtful to take part, according to the official injury report, and the player with the number three on his back will hope to get his second run-out of the season at the home of the 2014 MLS champions.

Lovejoy wears the number in tribute to a Tar Heels teammate and good friend who also made it to MLS, Kirk Urso, who played for Columbus Crew SC and tragically died aged 22 in 2012 from a rare genetic heart condition.

“I’d kept up with him until he passed away, I was very sad, we knew his family pretty well so I was looking around the locker room one day and realized that no one had taken the number three. They started assigning numbers out to the rookies and I didn’t get number three at first. I asked Oumar Ballo who it was assigned to originally if I could wear it and he said ‘yeah of course’,” Lovejoy said.

Vice-president/general manager Matt Jordan gave the go-ahead and Lovejoy then “reached out to Kirk’s mom to make sure she was OK with it, and she obviously was. It was a special time actually because Kirk’s birthday [would have been the next day] so it was a good time and I’m glad to be able to honor him like that. I still think of him every day, he’s a huge source of inspiration to me.

“He captained us to our program’s second national championship. He was just a special guy, everyone who knew him would tell you the same thing. He just made a huge impact in Chapel Hill, he was quite a guy.”

Tom Dart is a contributing writer to HoustonDynamo.com and HoustonDashSoccer.com. Former editor and reporter for The Times of London and reporter for SI.com, Dart currently freelances for The Guardian.