CHICAGO (Jan. 26, 2010) -- Two-thousand and nine was a bit of a strange year for U.S. forward Amy Rodriguez, especially when you compare it to the years that preceded it.
Consider that this is a player who worked her way from the U.S. U-17s to the U-19s to the U-21s to the full WNT over the course of a year from March of 2004 to March of 2005. In 2005, she won a U-18 youth national championship with her club team, the Laguna Hills Eclipse. This is a player who put the USC Trojans on her back and led them to an improbable NCAA title in 2007. This is a player who made a strong run to earn a spot on the 2008 Olympic Team, coming off the bench in the first game and then starting the next five matches as the USA won the gold medal. She played in 26 games for the national team in 2008 and scored her first six international goals, including two game-winners in friendly matches against Brazil.
A youth national championship, a college national championship and an Olympic gold medal, all within four years? A rare accomplishment indeed.
Then in January of 2009, she was chosen first in the inaugural Women’s Professional Soccer Draft by the Boston Breakers. The world, seemingly, was her soccer oyster.
Blessed with tremendous speed and strength as well as a low center of gravity that allows her to turn corners on defenders like a cheetah chasing an antelope, Rodriguez had caused fits for defenses since she first pulled on her cleats (with oversized shinguards) for the Little Rascals at the age of five on the fields of Lake Forest, Calif.
But the first season of WPS was anything but storybook, the first big bump in the road on a charmed soccer journey. She scored just one goal for the Breakers (although it was a game-winner) and saw her playing time diminish towards the end of the season. Then at the end of September, she was traded to the expansion Philadelphia Independence in exchange for both of Philly’s 2010 first round draft picks.
WELCOME TO THE PROS
Rodriguez was certainly not alone in her rookie struggles, as every college draft pick found the goings tough at some point during the season, but as the league’s top pick, she was more in the spotlight. Many a coach has said that the true test of an athlete is how you react when you’ve been knocked down. A-Rod has been knocked down. Still, like the proverbial weeble, she may have wobbled, but she’s back up and ready for the next challenges. Heck, she’s just 23 years old.
“Ultimately, I got better from my first year in the WPS, despite not getting the results that I wanted for my team or myself,” said Rodriguez. “With ‘keepers like Hope (Solo), Barnie (Nicole Barnhart), (Jenny) Branam, Karina (LeBlanc), and (Erin) McLeod in that league, it makes it extremely tough to score. I’m not using that as excuse, but it’s clear that I have to raise my level as far as finishing. Despite that, I really did have a blast. I had so much fun being a player in the first year of the league. I really enjoyed Boston and getting the experience of living in a new city. It was really competitive and challenged me as a player.”
While she kept a positive attitude during the season, Rodriguez learned some valuable (i.e. painful) lessons during her first year as a true professional. It’s a sad truth that losing can cause more pain than winning can cause pleasure, especially when you have become used to the kind of soccer success Rodriguez has enjoyed in her young career.
“Losing and not playing were both feelings I was not used to,” said Rodriguez. “I was not used to not playing, not scoring and not winning, but I think it’s important for athletes to experience those feelings in their careers because it’s an opportunity to grow and learn. I was able to know what that feeling is like, which will motivate me in the future.”
NEW SEASON, NEW OPPORTUNITIES
The future for Rodriguez includes trying to solidify a starting spot on the U.S. National Team as well as performing well for the Independence. She’ll have some top-class assistance in Philadelphia with U.S. teammates Heather Mitts and Lori Lindsey, as well as former Los Angeles Sol players and U.S. U-23 players Allison Falk and goalkeeper Val Henderson, recent WNT call-up Nikki Krzysik, English internationals Lianne Sanderson and Fara Williams and Swedish internationals Caroline Seger and Charlotte Rohlin.
But Rodriguez is not kidding herself. She knows the spotlight will be on her to score goals. After some serious self-evaluation during the off-season, she’s excited to attack the second WPS campaign.
“I think I would be stupid not to learn from my first year,” said Rodriguez. “I’m excited for a fresh start with Philly and to take what I learned in Boston and make my new team and myself more successful. I think I need go to Philly with a clear understanding of the role they want me to play and really connect with my midfielders and the other forwards.”
Rodriguez says she pushed hard in Boston to get out of her scoring funk. She went to training early with the goalkeepers and tried to work hard in every practice. But when it came to games, she just wasn’t meshing well with the team, the on-field chemistry didn’t quite click, and that made it even harder to perform.
“As long as the team was doing well, I was happy,” said Rodriguez. “It’s not always about scoring as long as my teams wins, but when the team wasn’t winning and I wasn’t scoring, that was bad. It was a lot pressure, a lot of frustration.”
Thus is the life of a forward.
Rodriguez didn’t score for the USA in seven matches in 2009 but played well in several international games and scored twice in a closed door scrimmage against Canada. The role of a national team player is often very different on her club, where she’s not surrounded by world class players at every position. She’s often asked to take on more of a burden of leadership and productivity, but Rodriguez used her play with the national team during the WPS season to bolster her belief that she could still get the job done.
“I had a conversation with Pia and each time I came into the national team, Pia was pleased with how I was playing,” said Rodriguez. “I knew I still had it in me even though I wasn’t producing for the Breakers. I still had my confidence, and sometimes that’s the most important part for your performance.”
“The experience she had last year will make her a better player in the future, but she has a choice of not letting that happen to her again,” said Sundhage. “To be a good player, it’s not only about your team, your coach or your environment; it’s also about you and what you can control. I asked her to answer the question to herself about what she could have done differently and take that to prepare for 2010. We also talked about how life as a soccer player has its ups and downs. If you can deal with the hard days, push through, and find the good parts, and she had good parts in Boston, then you can bring that to the next place.”
One constant in this game of soccer is that everywhere in the world at any given time a forward is being pilloried for not producing enough goals. You can also be sure that the same player will turn from goat to hero with one swing of the leg, if only for one match. That is why the world’s greatest players, the richest and the most famous, all share one characteristic: consistency. A-Rod wants to find that level this year for Philly and the national team, and she’s willing to put in the work to make it happen.
“Being a professional can be a tough job,” said Rodriguez. “It’s performance-based every time you hit the field. You either do what you have to do or someone will come and take your spot. You have to be willing to work on your own. Being a professional means going out to practice early, or staying late, shooting at the net, getting the repetitions, so when you get those chances in the game, it will be natural.”
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
Rodriguez has six career goals in 38 caps. Legendary U.S. striker Tiffeny Milbrett, a player who shares some characteristics with Rodriguez (not tall, but super fast with scary acceleration and a penchant for buzzing around the goal), also started her international goal scoring account relatively slowly before scorching opponents for about a decade. Milbrett’s 100 career goals make her one of the world’s all-time greatest goal scorers, but through her first 38 caps she had scored 12 goals.
Rodriguez is not sweating the stats at this point. She knows the life of a pro, and especially a forward, is marked by ebbs and flows, goals and misses, wins and losses. Right now, she is focusing on next year and trying to recapture the form that will allow her to either score or create goals for her teams.
“The near future is about getting my body right, taking care of lingering injuries, and also clearing my head and preparing mentally for 2010,” said Rodriguez. “On the soccer side, I want to improve my attacking game and work on my accuracy in shooting. When I start up with Philly, I want to paint a different picture from last year. I don’t think that was a good representation of the player that I am. I really, honestly believe that I will be a much more effective player.”
After initially being a bit surprised that she was traded to Philadelphia, Rodriguez has embraced the chance to start fresh. Her first-ever trip to the “City of Brotherly Love” was for the WPS Draft in January. The visit stoked her excitement to be playing for the Independence, and she feels they have the potential to be a quality team. She is also looking forward to learning about a new part of the country and its culinary traditions. You see, there’s one thing she needs to take care of on her first day of pre-season.
“Yeah, I’ve never had a cheesesteak,” she said.
Grill one up for A-Rod with Cheeze Whiz and onions. Philly could be her kind of town.