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Amy Rodriguez Leads By Example with U-20 WNT

U.S. forward Amy Rodriguez is one of six players on the USA’s team in Russia who played in the 2004 FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship in Thailand. It was a whirlwind experience for the Southern California product, who in the past two years has seen her herself grow by leaps and bounds as a person and a player. The sun-drenched blonde striker has been compared to former U.S. star Tiffeny Milbrett, both are small in stature, but big in speed, strength and goal scoring. Someday, Rodriguez hopes to step atop a medal stand for the USA, just at Milbrett did.

You can’t really say Amy Rodriguez is all grown up. She still has the cherubic smile, the infectious laugh and a mischievous gleam in her eye. When she’s hanging out with her 11-year-old sister Lauren, sometimes you can’t be sure who is in sixth grade and who is the college sophomore.

But the A-Rod of 2006 is a whole different Rodriguez than the one who burst onto the international stage two years ago at the 2004 FIFA U-19 World Championship in Thailand, scoring in the USA’s first match – her first international game – and becoming one of the young stars of the U.S. Women’s National Team program.

When that tournament started, she had been training with the U-19s only for a couple of months after having started that year competing with the U.S. U-17s. Truth be told, she was one of the final players chosen for then head coach Mark Krikorian’s squad in Thailand. She was wide-eyed, naïve and frankly, just happy to be there.

The A-Rod of 2006 has five full international caps on her soccer resume. She has trained consistently with the full Women’s National Team, was a member of U.S. head coach Greg Ryan’s Residency Training Camp program this summer in Los Angeles and has played in a slew of U-20 internationals. She has a year of college soccer under her belt, in which she led USC in scoring and was named Pac-10 Rookie of the Year, and has 10 career goals in youth international matches.

“I think I’ve definitely matured over the last two years,” said Rodriguez, who played in the USA’s first game of the 2006 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Championship against the DR Congo, scoring on a penalty kick. “I’ve been able to experience a lot of high level competition, which has helped me develop as a player. Playing at a high level has opened doors for me to expand my game and that has been really exciting. I’ve become more knowledgeable about the game, smarter on the field and more tactically aware. Those are things that help you a lot on the soccer field because you don’t have to always rely on your athleticism to get things done.”

As a youth player, athleticism did get it done for Rodriguez, who is generously listed at 5-foot-4, but who has the acceleration and cornering power of a high-performance sports car. When she started getting call-ups to the full Women’s National Team, and its stable of stud defenders, she quickly realized that her speed alone wasn’t going to get it done.

“Playing with Kristine Lilly and Abby Wambach and the other players on the national team has definitely been a motivational tool and a great learning experience because they are so talented and experienced themselves,” said Rodriguez, who earned her five caps at the 2005 and 2006 Algarve Cups in Portugal. “I have been able to watch them and try to mimic the things they do. Kristine Lilly’s creativity on the ball makes me want to broaden my game and learn how to beat players through deception as well as speed. Abby, with her physical presence and dominating attitude, has pushed me to have more of that in my game, to become more mentally and physically tough.”

While the USA did not win the title in Thailand, a disappointment Rodriguez says she still carries with her, it was an extremely energizing tournament for her. She became aware of a whole new level of a play, a whole new set of goals to shoot for and milestones to achieve. For a competitive person like Rodriguez, it was like opening the best gift ever.

“Thailand was my first real national team experience overseas against international competition,” said Rodriguez, who was 17 at the time. “It was an eye-opener, with how tough the games were and how all the other teams wanted to win as badly as us. I was just young, so I just didn’t know about that level of soccer, but it was a great experience because I got to step up and show that even though I was a little baby, I could still keep up with the big girls. It was just good to get those kind of games when I was so young. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am in my development right now if it wasn’t for that experience. It really showed me that there were higher levels to aspire to.”

Rodriguez took that experience into her freshman year at USC where she started 20 matches and led the Trojans in scoring with nine goals and seven assists. She was named a NSCAA Third-Team All-American and had four-game winning goals. She also got a taste of the rude treatment that can greet young stars in the college game in the form of kicks to her ankles, shins and thighs.

“Definitely the physicality of the game that college soccer brings has helped me,” she said. “In addition, the pace of the college game has forced me to think faster as well. It was also a positive to jump in and play with a new team and new players, even when you don’t have that chemistry yet. You have to work really hard and stay patient until every one gets used to each other. Being able to play with a different variety of players is valuable, especially when you are coming in and out of the national teams.”

In Russia, A-Rod has certainly not forgotten her two weeks of doe-eyed wonder in Southeast Asia and has endeavored to make it just a little bit easier for the USA’s younger players this time around.

“My roommate has been Casey Nogueira (17 years old), and I have sat down and talked with her about being the youngest but still being able to make a difference and an impact on this team,” said A-Rod, herself a veteran at 19-years-old. “(U.S. head coach) Tim (Schulz) has made it clear that age doesn’t matter. Casey, Kelly (O’Hara, 18) and Tobin (Heath, 18) have enough confidence and definitely enough ability to perform at this international level. Because our younger players are mostly offensive players, I’ve been able to help them with some little technical issues, on finishing and learning how to make runs, and as well as keeping calm under pressure. I am trying to help them in the same way Lilly and Abby have tried to help me.”

Speaking of Lilly and Abby, they will be in China in 2007 for the next FIFA Women’s World Cup, provided that the senior team navigates the relatively docile waters of CONCACAF qualifying later this fall. But will A-Rod? That is her goal and her passion, but not her current focus. She will have a year to show Ryan that she is worthy of a coveted roster spot on the Women’s World Cup Team.

“I want to be able to someday say that I’ve been a part of a world championship with the full team,” said Rodriguez. “That’s always been my goal, and I’m not too far from it, but I am far enough away that I still need improvement in a lot of areas. I hope I can make the 2007 World Cup Team, and like all the other young players, that is my goal. But if I don’t, I‘m still young, and there are more world championships to come, so I just want to try to get as much experience as I can in Russia to help us win here and help my development for the future.”

And if that future goes as she hopes, come 2007, she will be the baby again.