Isabel Rodriguez didn’t believe she could ever be more excited than she was before the 2015 CONCACAF Women’s U-17 Championship and the ensuing 2016 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan. Youth World Cups represent the culmination of two-year cycles of hard work. Now in preparation for the 2018 CONCACAF Women’s U-20 Championship in Trinidad &Tobago, Rodriguez has reached a new level of anticipation.
While she spent her youth club career playing all over the field, she has now cemented her status as one of the USA’s top left outside backs. The natural left-footer is uniquely suited to the position, and a full fall season as Ohio State’s starter in that position has Rodriguez rearing to go in Couva.
“I would normally play outside back with the U-17s but I definitely wasn’t as comfortable because I was playing other positions with my youth club,” Rodriguez said. “Now I feel a lot more confident. Ultimately, it helped playing there in college and getting a lot of experience.”
The position of outside back has rapidly evolved to require an exceptionally versatile set of skills. With the U-20s, Rodriguez takes on the role of a wing back. While still primarily a defender on the back line, there’s more two-way responsibility. She’ll swing up to make overlapping runs on the attack with forwards and provides an important passing option while still able to quickly transition to defense.
“It’s developed into an awesome position now,” Rodriguez said. “Outside backs get forward a lot. It’s not like you’re just a defender, you’re just an attacker, you get a little bit of both. You’ve got to be strong and you have to have a good personality.”
Rodriguez, known as Izzy to her teammates, stands out as one of the only left-footed outside backs in the current U-20 player pool. When U-20 WNT head coach Jitka Klimkova took the reins of the program in April 2017, that fact -- coupled with her unique skillset -- made her a tantalizing prospect at the spot.
“We don’t have many left footed wing backs, that’s special and unique. She had everything we needed, we just needed her to play more games,” Klimkova said. “She’s amazing with attack. She’s grown to understand defending responsibilities much better. It’s a lot of decisions she needs to make, even in the defensive phase.”
But at Klimkova’s first camp in charge that April, Rodriguez still didn’t have a locked-in position. Even though she had played outside back with the U-17 squad, as one of the best players at her youth club, she was still accustomed to being utilized in multiple positions. Her club coaches wanted to get her more touches on the ball, and usually played her in the midfield.
That back-and-forth with club and country made it difficult for Rodriguez to get comfortable in any position at times during National Team camps. With college at Ohio State on the horizon that spring, Klimkova recommended that she make the switch full-time to outside back.
“In the younger age group, it’s really good to have more positions to get comfortable with the ball and with decision-making,” Klimkova said. “When you’re older, you should start to specify because you should understand the position 100 percent. If you want to really play well at this position, you need to play the games there. You can watch the games, you can watch the best wing backs, but when you play, that’s the best teacher.”
The results have paid dividends. Though OSU head coach Lori Walker recruited Rodriguez as a midfielder, she afforded Rodriguez the flexibility to switch. This season, Rodriguez started every game for the Buckeyes at left back and earned Big Ten All-Freshman team honors as the team won the conference title. Beyond the on-field results, an entire season playing consistently at one position has raised Rodriguez’s confidence and comfort.
“I definitely got more comfortable because I played in so many more games,” Rodriguez said. “Knowing when to go, when to stay back and even taking more risks now. I developed new techniques. I used to only do one thing and now I can do multiple.”
That experience has Rodriguez set to lock down the left side in Trinidad. While she’s zeroed in on her specialized position, she can continue to impact the entire field. The versatility of Rodriguez’s development grants a keen on-field vision that raises the level of the players around her.
“My play can help others,” Rodriguez said. “I know what their position is and what they do at that position. I can help them with my pass to them or telling them where they need to be. it’s a good quality to have experience with other positions to help you with outside back.”
Rodriguez and twelve others on the roster have experience navigating the CONCACAF gauntlet. On the precipice of her second qualifying tournament, Rodriguez has arrived in Trinidad more confident- and more excited- than ever.
“I want to start the games as soon as possible,” Rodriguez said. “Every opportunity is awesome. I’m definitely a lot more confident and ready to go than the last time around.”
A year ago, Walker Zimmerman was just completing the initial week of his first U.S. Men’s National Team camp. A month of hard work eventually led to the rising center back earning his first MNT cap, going the full 90 minutes and looking comfortable in a 1-0 win against Jamaica.
“I think just realizing that you belong at this level is the main [takeaway],” he said after that game. “Training with all these amazing players in camp, performing well in camp and in the game, all you can do is put your best foot forward and put the effort in and the rest is up to the coaching staff.”
One metric for success in January Camp – perhaps the only one for first timers - is whether or not a player is included on future rosters. It’s not always easy to break into a well-established group of players, and in the case of last year especially one trying to qualify for the World Cup. But Zimmerman was one of a few players to earn another call, joining the MNT for its crucial set of World Cup Qualifying matches during the March window, and though he didn’t play in either game, his presence was instructive that perhaps we’d see him again in the future.
Arriving back in January Camp this year, Zimmerman is part of a group pushing the MNT forward after the team’s narrow miss on qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. At 24, he’s at the exact median of age for the roster, but is no longer the fresh face in camp. Though he only has one cap, it’s one more than 15 of the 29 players on the roster.
“It’s definitely a different dynamic, not only for myself, but for the group,” Zimmerman told ussoccer.com. “There’s a lot of young guys here and I think it presents an opportunity for me to step up and become more of a leader and in a sense a veteran presence. My mentality has been pretty similar to last year. Come in, stay humble, work hard and embrace the grind of January Camp for all that it is.”
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The camp will also allow him to get an early adjustment to his new home, with FC Dallas trading the center back to MLS expansion side LAFC last month. Zimmerman said he was excited to get to work with former U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Bob Bradley and be part of a new team with a fresh slate.
“I got to meet Bob last month and obviously he has a ton of experience and insight from being all over the world. He’s a manager I definitely respect and I know I can learn a lot from him and his staff. I’m sure the things I learn with my club can help me on the international level as well. There’s a lot of appeal right now with LAFC, and I definitely think there will be some carry-over and positive effects that can translate from LAFC to the National Team.”
Along with approaching January Camp the right way, the new LAFC center back has goals, beginning with trying to make the starting XI for the MNT’s end-of-camp friendly on January 28 against Bosnia and Herzegovina.
From there, he wants consistency for himself on the international level.
“I don’t want to set any goal too low. I want to make it attainable, but something that I’m chasing on an individual level would be getting called in each and every camp. It’s about not only being in and out, but trying to become a staple here. I’m trying to take every opportunity seriously and knowing how much that can do for your career.”
And aside from the personal goals, Zimmerman wants to be part of the group that pushes the program past the disappointment of missing the World Cup and towards qualification for 2022.
“There’s a lot of motivation from a lot of players – myself included – to make sure this doesn’t happen again. We can become a team that sticks together and we can approach 2022 from this day right here. We don’t want to start getting serious come qualifying time. We want to set the tone now, set the tone for the group for years to come and hopefully just continue to create the culture and pride that we know we have in this country. I’m proud to play for this team each and every time.”Read more