Getting your chance, for an attacking player, is only the beginning. You have to take your chance too. Jose Memo Rodriguez, a Homegrown Player with the Houston Dynamo, knows this well. After toiling in obscurity, travelling hard miles and learning his trade as an advanced midfielder, he’s grabbing hold of his chances with both hands and squeezing for all he’s worth.
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“I want to be a starter for the Dynamo,” said Rodriguez, still just 22, a midfielder who keeps close tabs on Andres Iniesta and Philippe Coutinho to glean the secrets of those who work wizardry in tight spaces. “As long as I get my chances and show what I can do when I get out there, I think it can come true.”
(The man in the middle - Rodriguez wearing No8 for Houston Dynamo before the game with NTX Rayados)
Rodriguez is an elegant player. A schemer with a nose for the danger-zone. He’s smooth and smart on the ball and he hardly ever wastes a touch. And while he’s still often on the outside looking in for the first team at the two-time MLS Cup winners, he was expected to lead an extremely young squad in the Fourth Round of the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup – up against amateurs NTX Rayados, a Sunday-league side made up of school teachers and junior college players. “We knew they were going to make it hard on us. That they would sit back and soak up the pressure,” said Rodriguez, of Mexican-American heritage who grew up an hour or so south of Houston. “In the first half, nothing was working for us. None of our crosses or shots were effective and you start to think it’s going to be like that for the whole game. It’s frustrating and requires patience.”
Green in MLS; Leader in Open Cup
The young Dynamo side, with seven players called up from their USL affiliate Rio Grande Valley FC Toros just for that one game vs. Rayados, went into the locker-room at the half tangled at 0-0 against the talented amateurs from Dallas. That’s when Wilmer Cabrera, a former coach of the Toros and the Dynamo’s manager since making the jump up in 2016, dealt firmly with his young guns. “He was very tough with us at the half,” said Rodriguez, who has only the best things to say about his coach and mentor – the man who brought him along to the big club last year and showed him the way before that with the Dynamo Academy and with the Toros. “There was no confusion about what he wanted us to do in the second half. We couldn’t let them pass half-field. We had to be 100 per cent on the same page in our pressing. And you saw what happened. We scored five goals in 45 minutes and won 5-0.”
(Houston Dynamo's Wilmer Cabrera says Rodriguez is always "ready to take his chance."
Two of those goals belonged to Rodriguez himself. He raced in to score the all-important first and then added a third from the spot in the 71st minute. He took his chances and turned what could have been a nervy battle to the bitter end into a comfortable rout. He did it the same way he did last year when he was tapped by Cabrera to enter a tied MLS league game against LA Galaxy and scored the winner in the dying seconds. Rodriguez has learned his lessons well and is now about the business of showing what he can do with the chances coming his way more and more with every passing week.
Born in Wharton, Texas, 70 miles south of Houston, Rodriguez showed, early on, the kind of soft feet that make coaches take notice. When he was still just 12, his mother decided her son’s dreams of being a professional soccer player were worth the efforts necessary to see them realized. “From when I was 12 to 17-years-old, my mom drove me to Houston three hours both ways – sometimes four times a week just for training. And games on the weekends,” said Rodriguez in his soft voice, clearly aware of and grateful for a mother’s sacrifices that helped him get where he is today – a few more taken chances away from being the real deal. He’s the oldest brother of four boys – and he wasn’t his mother’s only concern, but that didn’t stop her. “We knew that if I wanted a chance I had to go somewhere where the talent was – and that was Houston. She made that happen for me.”
(Eye on the prize - Rodriguez was focused against NTX Rayados & scored two goals)
After five years with famed local youth club The Houstonians, Rodriguez entered the Dynamo Academy and the RGV Torros after that. This is where he met another major influence in his life: Cabrera. El Profe. The former Colombian international right-back is a man who makes it his business to recognize rare talent no matter how raw or infant.
“I don’t know how to say how important he’s [Cabrera’s] been in my development,” said Rodriguez, who’s played under Cabrera in three teams now. “He taught me everything I needed to get to where I am today. He gave me my chance. Sure, he was hard on us in the RGV team, but it was always for our own good. We never took it the wrong way. He’s the kind of guy who’ll yell at you in a game, but you know the things he’s yelling at you are right. And it pays off. He makes sure you’re prepared.”
(Memo in action for the Rio Grande Valley Torros - where he was also coached by Cabrera)
When Cabrera signed up as head coach of the full Dynamo side two years ago, one of his first moves was to bring up his young protégé Rodriguez from the Torros where he had a breakout year with six goals and seven assists for the USL second-division pro side. “He’s quiet. But he works all the time and every time he stepped on the field he showed us he had something special during his time at the Torros,” said Cabrera, a former U.S. National Team coach at U-17 and 18 level. “He became the best player for us through that Torros season . When opportunity opens, he’s ready. And that’s the key.”
Making the Most of Opportunity
Being ready is the key. And Cabrera knows it better than anyone, having seen a laundry list of talented players and potential stars choke under the bright lights of a big day and a first chance. Rodriguez has made only a handful of appearances in MLS in the last two seasons, injury slowing his steady progress. Now, though, he’s back and better than ever. And though he’s too humble to say it, he’s ready to take the next step. Don’t be surprised if he’s in the starting line-up again for the Round of 16 Open Cup contest on Monday against fellow MLSers Minnesota United. These are no amateurs mind you, and he’ll need to be ready for a fresh new test.
(Rodriguez, still 22, has dreams of playing for the USA or Mexico at senior national team level)
“For me the Cup is a way to get more big minutes in big games and to feel more courage out there,” said Rodriguez, who has hopes of, one day – with the right chances and the right luck – playing for either the United States or Mexico's senior national team. “Every game is different, but every game in the Cup is tough. You know that going in. A lot of players go out on the field thinking ‘this could be my last game,’ but in the Cup that’s even more of a real feeling, so you want to give it all to win and stay alive.”
It’s clear that Rodriguez is growing into his talent. He’s moving beyond that in-between space where you’re good but not good enough. His speed of play and thought – those professional staples – are increasing. His vision is keen. His coach, a demanding man, has faith in him – although you’d never know it with untrained eyes. “That’s the great thing about Wilmer,” said Rodriguez, a smile growing in his voice talking about the man who showed him the way with a firm hand. The man who gave him that golden chance he’s now doing his best to take. “Senior or junior or academy player, he expects certain things from you. He is who he is all the time an you better be ready to deliver what he wants.