It’s easy to overlook the work that leads to a final product.
Maxi Rodriguez looked comfortable in the role of hero when he scored twice to lift Detroit City FC over MLS’ Columbus Crew in a comeback win on April 19 in the Third Round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It was arguably the biggest win in club history, and, on a personal level, it was a huge moment for a player who’s fought adversity for far too long.
In 2016, he was preparing for his final year at UNC Charlotte -- hoping for a standout season that would see him enter the MLS SuperDraft. Then, during preseason, he was blindsided by a knee injury. He worked his way back to the pitch that year, but his level of play and consistency were not up to his own high standards.
He went undrafted. But through hard work and the relationships he’d established while growing up in San Antonio, Texas, he earned a professional contract with his hometown club San Antonio FC (USL Championship) ahead of the 2017 season.
JUST HAPPY TO BE HERE
“My first year as a pro, I was kind of like ‘I’m just happy to be here,’” he said of his first season – surrounded by friends and family. “I kind of fell into a hole of complacency and thinking, ‘Ok, I’m not playing much, but I’m a pro in my home city and this is amazing.’”
After limited minutes that year, he realized he needed a change of mentality. He needed to take things more seriously. But with the typical high turnover in USL teams, new talent was brought in ahead of the 2018 season and Rodriguez quickly discovered he was in for a challenge.
“I remember having a really good preseason, but then we brought in guys with MLS experience who were really competitive,” Rodriguez said. “It elevated my game, but it put me in that situation where it was tough to be a younger guy who thought he should be starting.”
Rodriguez received frustrating news at the season’s end: despite noticeable improvement, he wasn’t going to be considered a key cog in the upcoming season.
It was bittersweet for Rodriguez when he decided to leave his hometown. He hoped to land with another USL Championship side but as the weeks wore on, the offers didn’t come. And when one finally did, just days before the start of preseason, it was from a team in the next tier down. The Richmond Kickers, who were set to be one of the clubs competing in the new USL League One beginning in 2019, were interested.
The move wasn’t ideal. He was stepping down the U.S. Soccer pyramid. But his goal in leaving his former club was to earn more minutes and be “the guy,” and here was a chance.
By the start of the 2019 season, Rodriguez had earned the captain’s armband. He started all but a handful of games, making 23 appearances for the Kickers while scoring one goal (in his debut). Collectively, however, the team struggled, finishing the year in ninth place in a 10-team league.
“Ultimately, the same thing happened again,” Rodriguez said of his push to return to the USL Championship. “Teams weren’t fully convinced, especially at the Championship level. The season was about to start. Still no club.”
Rodriguez recalled the anxiety of getting questions from friends, teammates and family – all asking his about his next destination. “It deters you,” Rodriguez admitted. “I was waking up every morning and wondering, ‘What am I training for? There’s no club asking for me. Am I done? Am I hanging them up?’”
When the 2020 season began, Rodriguez was still without a team.
“My dad spoke with me and asked if I had a back-up plan,” said Rodriguez, who was facing a crossroads and asking hard questions of himself. “He was like, ‘we know you want to do this, and we want you to do this, but you have to look at your future and what’s going on.’”
After a few weeks of considering what his post-playing career would look like, the sports world was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. There were rumors that the season would be canceled entirely and no one was playing games domestically.
“COVID hit, and it was obviously awful, but I saw an opportunity,” Rodriguez said. “I thought, no one’s training, so let me get as fit as possible, let me train every day, and let me grind.”
While balancing part-time jobs as a DoorDash and UPS driver, Rodriguez committed to a new routine. He would wake up at 6 a.m. every day, train for two or three hours, go work a shift at one of his jobs, take a nap, train again, and repeat the same process the following day.
He made use of a friend’s home gym during lockdown and bought a few soccer balls on Amazon to keep his skills sharp. Even his parents’ backyard became part of his high intensity interval training regime.
“Some days I would wake up feeling very positive that something was going to happen,” said Rodriguez, who was in the best physical shape of his life. “I would train and was feeling super fit and amazing. But then some days I would wake up wondering, ‘Why am I training? There’s no point in what I’m doing.’ So I had to fight that rollercoaster of emotions.”
JUST ENJOY IT
One day, in 2021, it finally happened. Rodriguez got a text from his agent that there was interest from Detroit City FC, then in the third-tier National Independent Soccer Association (NISA).
The club was looking for a central midfielder. Coach Trevor James invited Rodriguez to fly out to Detroit for a trial and see if he liked the club and the city. After just three days on trial, he earned a contract for the 2021 season.
For James, it was exactly the traits that Rodriguez had been quietly displaying that made him an asset to his squad. “Maxi’s desire to want to do well [is one of his greatest attributes],” the coach said. “He’s put a lot of pressure on himself to do well, and in doing so I think his desire to perform well makes him do everything else well.”
“I remember telling myself to just enjoy it,” said Rodriguez, determined to not let his new opportunity slip away. “Just enjoy being back in a team environment, being a professional, waking up and doing what you love every day.”
The more he enjoyed it, the better he played. Detroit City FC dominated the league that year, winning four NISA trophies including the Spring and Fall season championships. Rodriguez finished the year with a team-leading seven goals and started every game but one.
Full Circle & Open Cup Glory
There was a big shift on the horizon for DCFC as the club was about to officially transition up from NISA to the USL Championship. Rodriguez was elated to find out he was in James’ plans as the coach focused on building the roster for the upcoming season in a new league.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Rodriguez said. “I went to NISA thinking it was one of my last years, to just enjoy it, but my focus was Detroit City and repaying them for the opportunity they gave me.”
The team stepped into their new league just as Rodriguez knew they would – like they belonged there. Eight matches into the season, the team is second in the eastern conference and have lost just one match.
It’s been a journey of redemption for Rodriguez returning to the league where it all started for him. “He came in much better prepared for the season,” said James, noting the changes Rodriguez had worked so hard at. “He really wants to prove that he can not only play at this level but be one of the better players at this level.”
In the Open Cup, the team opened their run with a 3-0 win against local NISA rivals Michigan Stars before drawing what looked like a death sentence in MLS’ Columbus Crew. But Rodriguez and the team were equipped with a secret weapon: their fanbase.
“Our fans are amazing,” Rodriguez said. “On gamedays I wake up to 40+ tweet mentions and good luck messages, it’s just incredible. Sometimes it even feels fake when you’re out there,” he added, still disbelieving of the matchday atmosphere. “It’s awesome.”
Rodriguez recalls the team going into the game against Columbus with one goal in mind, which was to compete. In just the seventh minute, however, they gave up a penalty kick which Gyasi Zardes converted to earn the visitors the lead, which they carried into halftime.
After battling hard in the second half, Antoine Hoppenot dribbled his way out of trouble and sent a cross into the box, which Rodriguez buried with a header to draw level in the 64th minute.
“As soon as I scored that first goal, I don’t think anyone on our team had a doubt that we were going to win,” Rodriguez said. “I think this squad is just special. As soon as we had the 1-1, we had the fans going insane and it was like, ‘ok, we’re going to win this.’”
And it came to pass. With just four minutes left, Detroit City were awarded a penalty. It was Rodriguez who stepped up to the spot. He took a breath, fired low and to his left, and after a slight deflection off the goalkeeper’s fingertips onto the post, the ball slowly rolled across the goal line and into the opposite side netting.
The following moments were euphoric as the players gathered in front of their fans for a full team celebration. Rodriguez kissed the DCFC crest on his jersey before turning his attention back to the game. The team bunkered down for the remaining minutes and while it was a huge win for the club, it also felt like Rodriguez found a poetic moment of closure in his long journey.
“I’m not going to lie, in that moment I got a few tears in my eyes just thinking of the situation and what I had been through, most importantly my dad and my mom, and everything they’ve done for me,” he said, his voice shaking with emotion, looking ahead to a Round of 32 test against Louisville City -- yet another chance to keep proving his now-obvious worth. “Honestly without them I couldn’t have done it.”