(Reuters) - For Major League Soccer's Robbie Rogers, breaking another barrier for gay athletes by becoming the first openly gay male to compete in a major U.S. professional team sport marked the latest step in his long journey.
The Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder was greeted by cheers from a crowd of nearly 25,000 in Carson, California, when he entered Sunday's game as a substitute in the 77th minute with his team leading the visiting Seattle Sounders 4-0.
"Earlier today I was really nervous," Rogers said after the hallmark moment, which came a day after he was introduced as the Galaxy's newest member. "OK, this is a soccer game. I've done this a million times. But then obviously I know, I'm not naive, I know people are watching.
"It was really perfect," added Rogers. "We won, which is most important. My family was here, my friends. My grandparents.
"I've kind of been on this huge journey trying to figure out my life. And now I'm back here. I think I'm kind of where I'm supposed to be."
The 26-year-old Rogers, who was on the U.S. team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, joined the Galaxy less than a month after National Basketball Association veteran Jason Collins became the first active athlete from the major U.S. men's pro sports leagues to come out publicly as gay.
Collins, however, is a free agent and has not played since his announcement after the 2012-13 NBA regular season, leaving it up Rogers to make the on-field breakthrough.
"I won't ever forget tonight! I love my new home," Californian Rogers said on Twitter after Sunday's game.
In February, after parting with second-tier English team Leeds, Rogers posted an emotional letter on his blog page in which he revealed he was gay. He wrote about the emotional toll of keeping his sexual orientation secret and said he would "step away" from soccer.
But Rogers, who had only five touches after being sent in to play, felt no pressure competing professionally for the first time since December, when he played for Stevenage of England's third-tier league while on loan from Leeds.
"No pressure at all," he said, "I got to totally enjoy myself and take it all in."
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said coming back after five months away would test Rogers' commitment to return to his top form.
"In a lot of ways the easy part is over," Arena told reporters. "Now the difficult part remains, which is getting him positioned to play.
"Hopefully, he'll get back to the way we think he can be."
Galaxy team mate Landon Donovan said getting back to the business of soccer was what mattered to Rogers.
"Now, hopefully, the hype about it is over and he can get back to being a soccer player, which is what he wants to do," said Donovan.
The indelible moment of taking his position and breaking another barrier for the gay athlete brought a big smile from Rogers and held special meaning for many.
"Many years from now most people won't remember the score of this game. But they'll remember when he stepped on the field," former Galaxy executive Alexi Lalas, now an ESPN soccer analyst, told the Los Angeles Times.
"That's cool. That's important."
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)