In March of 2004, Amy Rodriguez was with the U.S. Under-17 Women’s National Team at a camp in Bradenton, Fla. At that moment, she had no idea what would transpire over the next 12 months.
How does a player go from the U-17 Women’s National Team, to a part-time player with the U.S. U-19s, to a starting spot in the U-19 FIFA World Championship to the U.S. U-21s to the full National Team, all within a year?
Rodriguez has no idea. And she actually did it.
“Seriously, each new step was a huge surprise, it was crazy,” said Rodriguez. “There’s really no explanation or words I can say to describe the past eight months. Nobody expected this to happen, even me, but it sure has been fun.”
A little more than year ago, Rodriguez was a 16-year-old junior at Santa Margarita High School who was just busy working hard to keep her grades up and trying to focus on picking a college. The goal scoring forward was a regular at U.S. Under-17 camps, but her focus wasn’t on getting a shot with the full National Team. Heck, she wasn’t even focused 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 event, it would be at the FIFA youth tournament in 2006.
That’s still a goal, but now, so is the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Rodriguez got her first two career caps for the U.S. Women’s National Team in at the Algarve Cup in Portugal a few weeks ago, playing against Finland and Denmark, albeit when both games were decided, but it only whetted her appetite for the future.
“The whole experience in Portugal was just amazing because I had never gotten to play at such a high level,” said Rodriguez, who played well in her 60 minutes of total action over the two games in the tournament. “For someone so young, it was an experience of a lifetime. Many soccer players never get to the opportunity to be in that environment, so I feel so fortunate. Being able to work with players with such great talent who have played in World Cups and Olympics, to learn from them and get to know them as people was awesome. Hopefully I can take that experience and grow and get better as a player.”
Still, the 5-foot-4 dynamo knows, even at this young age, of the ills that befall many who get too much, too fast. That’s why she setting realistic goals and taking it slow.
“It’s a long, long road to making a World Cup team,” said Rodriguez, who has shown flashes of the one-v-one dribbling ability that has made stars of numerous U.S. forwards. “Even making the 2006 U-20 World Championship team is going to be very challenging. Even though I have accomplished a lot recently, I know nothing is ever handed to you. I know I have a lot of work to do and many parts of my game that need improvement. The door has been opened for me, but I know it could close at any time, so I am focused on working really hard on continue to develop myself.”
Rodriguez’s ascension to the National Team was so rapid that in August of 2004, she didn’t even think she’d be in Thailand for the 2004 FIFA U-19 World Championship. In fact, she’d never played in a full international match at the U-19 level until the USA’s first game, a resounding 3-0 victory over South Korea.
Rodriguez scored in that game and was an impact player throughout the tournament. That performance earned her a spot in a U.S. U-21 training camp at the beginning of March. She scored goals with the U-21s as well and just a few weeks later, was named to the U.S. roster for the Algarve Cup.
It can happen that quickly for a talented young female player in the United States, and for Rodriguez, affectionately known as A-Rod, it’s been a whirlwind journey.
In 2003, the Lake Forest, Calif., resident had be 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 surprised,” said Rodriguez of her first U-19 call-up. “I told myself that I was going to go come 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, the mobile Rodriguez has a low center of gravity, is explosive, skillful and just a handful for opponents to deal with in the penalty box.
She did not travel with the U-19s to China in early August of 2004, 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 then, in what was really her fourth event with the U-19s, she was starting in a world championship.
“It all happened so fast,” said Rodriguez. “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 that tournament, former U.S. U-19 head coach Mark Krikorian had several spots to fill after selecting the first 19 players, all collegians who would have to miss their college season, after that trip to China. Two spots remained. Rodriguez got one of them.
“She was the missing piece as I saw it,” said Krikorian. “Every player on the team was very talented, but in order for a team to be very successful, we had to have different types of players. She is more a powerful, strong target-type of player and I didn’t really feel we had that until we got her in camp.”
Krikorian’s faith paid off just 17 minutes into the USA’s first game in Phuket, Thailand, against the South Koreans. Rodriguez 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.”
As surreal as playing for the full U.S. Women’s National Team at the age of 18? Rodriguez summed up her first cap experience, which came when she entered the match at halftime against Finland on March 11, with a perfect mixture of teenage charm and wonderment.
“It’s my first cap and I was nervous,” she said. “But once you get out there, after the first five or 10 minutes you get comfortable and get used to it and it’s just like any other soccer game. Except different, totally different.”
Rodriguez hopes that one day the experience of playing for the National Team will be a familiar one, but for now, she’s just enjoying the ride, as wild as it has been.
“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 roster spots affect your performance, anything can happen.”