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The USA's A-Rod Makes the Most of Her Opportunity

A year ago, Amy Rodriguez was a 16-year-old junior at Santa Margarita High School working hard to keep her grades up and trying to focus on picking a college.  She was a regular at U.S. Under-17 camps, but her focus wasn't on the 2004 U-19 World Championship.  She figured if she were going to get a shot at playing for her country in a world championship event, it would be at the 2006 U-19 tournament.

Heck, even four months ago she didn't think she would be in Thailand.

Yet last Thursday, she was starting, and scoring, in the FIFA Under-19 World Championship 2004 as the USA opened the tournament with a resounding 3-0 victory over South Korea.  It can happen that quickly for a talented young female player in the United States, and for the 5-foot-4 Rodriguez, it has been a whirlwind ride.

In 2003, the Lake Forest, Calif., resident had been asked to play in a few scrimmages with the U-19s due to the large number of training camps held by the U.S. youth teams in Southern California, but it was always drive up, play, go home.

She must have made an impression during those few games as she was invited by then U-19 head coach Tracey Leone to her first official U-19 camp in October of 2003, but the fall camp consisted only of high school-aged players. 

"I was nervous and surprised," said Rodriguez of her first U-19 call-up.  "I told myself that I was going to go in and work hard, but I was really never expecting to earn a spot on the World Cup roster."

With the regulars in the player pool returning to training after the college season, Rodriguez was sent back to the U-17s, which suited her just fine.  She enjoyed her time with the U-19s and figured it would be a great experience to build on.  And build she did.

Possessing some Tiffeny Milbrett-esque characteristics (she evens wears Milbrett's #16), the mobile Rodriguez has a low center of gravity, is explosive, skillful and a handful for opponents to deal with in the penalty box.

She did not travel with the U-19s to China in early August, but was invited to the next camp in Carson, Calif., later that month.  She performed well, got invited to the following camps in Florida and back in California, and now, in what is really her fourth event with the U-19s, she is starting in a world championship.

"It all happened so fast," said Rodriguez, known affectionately as A-Rod to her teammates.  "From my perspective, I really didn't think the coaches were looking at me for one of the spots on the team. I was just there trying to make myself better."

With a 21-player roster for this tournament -- up from 18 that participated in the 2004 event -- U.S. head coach Mark Krikorian had several spots to fill.   He had told the first 19 players of their selection after that trip to China.  Two spots remained.  Rodriguez got one of them.

"I was at a physical therapy place at home doing some strengthening on my ankle and was on the phone with Holmesy (Meagan Holmes, who would get the other spot) when Mark beeped in on my cell," said Rodriguez.  "I was like, 'oh my gosh, hold on, Mark is on the other line.'  I clicked over to Mark and told him I was talking to Holmesy.  He asked for Holmesy's cell, so I clicked back, got her cell, clicked back and gave it to Mark.  He then said, 'A-Rod, I just wanted to be the first one to tell you that you made the final roster.'  Then I fell off the training table."

"She was the missing piece as I saw it," said Krikorian. "Every player on the team is very talented, but in order for a team to be very successful, we have to have different types of players.  She is a more powerful, strong target-type of player and I didn't really feel we had that until we got her in camp."

Krikorian hung up with Rodriguez, called Holmes to tell her that she too had made the roster, and Holmes immediately called Rodriguez back to give her the news. Both, admittedly, were giddy.

"I was around a bunch of people at the physical therapy place and I'm sure they were wondering what was wrong me, but I didn't care," said Rodriguez, whose blond hair and green eyes belie her Cuban descent on her dad's side.  "It was an awesome moment."

An even "awesomer" moment came just 17 minutes into the USA's first game in Phuket against South Korea, when Rodriguez, who had never before played a full international with the U-19s, ran onto a perfect through ball from Megan Rapinoe, put a five-yard gap between her and her defender and then stuffed the ball through the legs of the Korean 'keeper to make it 2-0 in front of almost 10,000 boisterous fans.

"I turned around and started screaming," said A-Rod.  "I saw Megan's face and all these thoughts came rushing in my mind.  We were both so worried that we would never be here, and then it was happening and I was scoring.  It was just so surreal."

Rodriguez and her teammates still have much work to do as they continue Group C play against Russia on Sunday.  A 4-1 upset winner over Spain, the Russians will be primed and ready to face the United States.  Rodriguez, who admits to still being somewhat of a rookie, is relishing the opportunity.

"You never know when you are going to get a chance like this, so I am just going to enjoy every minute," said Rodriguez, who is headed to the University of Southern California next fall.  "I guess it goes to show that if you keep working hard, believe in yourself and don't let the stress of competing for a roster spot effect your performance, anything can happen."