Jose Guillermo ‘Memo’ Rodriguez knows the power of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
From his start in the Houston Dynamo youth academy to his professional debut in 2015, and winning the tournament as a player in 2018, the Open Cup and the opportunities it creates have been seminal to Rodriguez’s life and career.
Now 27, he’s scoring crucial goals for LA Galaxy and providing offense and insight for his new team heading into this week’s Quarterfinal matchup against Real Salt Lake on Wednesday night (LIVE on the B/R App and B/R Football YouTube.
Always around the ball
His mother, Velia, drove more than an hour each way from their home in El Campo, Texas, into Houston for a decade-plus so young Memo could play at a higher level.
He served as a ball boy (pictured below) for the Dynamo in the Open Cup – “I didn’t even know that picture existed!” – and in 2014 was the sixth homegrown signing in the club’s history.
Loaned to then USL Championship affiliate Charleston Battery in 2015, Rodriguez had a goal and an assist in his first 17 professional appearances in the second division.
“I did the whole process, even to the point where I got waived for the year and I had to go to RGV (Rio Grande Valley FC to prove myself again and gain a first-team contract again,” said Rodriguez, who totaled six goals in 30 appearances for Championship side RGVFC in 2016.
“It’s something that I think everyone in their career has – ups-and-downs and you just have to stay mentally strong,” Rodriguez said. “It was the support system that I had that made me keep going to keep making my way up to the first team again.”
Reconnecting with former Dynamo academy coach Wilmer Cabrera, Rodriguez returned to Houston in 2017, scoring his debut goal for the first team in extra-time to beat second-tier North Carolina FC 3-2 in the Quarterfinal round of that year’s Open Cup.
Though opportunities for playing time were few and far between to start 2018, Rodriguez helped beat LA Galaxy in league play with a 90th-minute header in early May, then scored twice in a 5-0 win over amateur Cinderellas NTX Rayados in an Open Cup match in June.
As the Dynamo went on to win a first major trophy that year – beating current MLS champion Los Angeles FC in a shootout after an Open Cup Semifinal thriller – Rodriguez played in every game and finished with three goals and an assist to his name.“It was such a special moment in time,” said Rodriguez, who was named Dynamo Young Player of the Year for 2019 after doing so much to contribute to the 2018 Open Cup-winning campaign.
“Any professional in their career wants to win trophies and we had the possibility to win it that year,” Rodriguez said, thinking back to the 2018 Final in Houston when he and the home side finished 3-0 over Philadelphia Union on a muggy night in late September.
“It was a big point in my career because you dream of winning championships, and…doing that at home, it was something very special that I cherish,” said Rodriguez. “I had friends, family and people that are really close to me go to the game.”
He played more than 130 games in six seasons for the Dynamo – who are still alive in the current Open Cup (facing a Quarterfinal on the road against four-time champions Chicago Fire) and a potential opponent for Rodriguez’s LA Galaxy in the Semifinal or Final.
Despite the Open Cup success in 2018, Houston failed to qualify for the MLS playoffs that year and won just 10 of 34 league matches. It was the third-worst total in MLS’s Western Conference.
‘There are similarities’
LA Galaxy’s tumultuous start to 2023 contrasted against a so-far successful Open Cup campaign has reminded Rodriguez, signed by the Galaxy ahead of the season, of his 2018 in Houston.
“In certain ways there are similarities. Obviously, we’re not having a great season this year but I think we can turn it around,” he said. “This can be the turning-point, for us to make a run in the Cup, and then make a run in [MLS].
“You get a couple of wins in league play and you’re back above the playoff line,” he said.
Following the recent shakeup in the front office and the departure of president Chris Klein, LA Galaxy (3-9-3 overall) currently sit last in MLS, seven points below the playoff cut-off in the Western Conference with just 13 goals and a minus-13 goal differential.
“We know the difficult situation we’re in,” Rodriguez said. “We haven’t had that great a start to the season. We’ve lacked for goals as a team and we’ve been saying it since starting this losing streak, or this bad start to the season, that we’re taking it one game at a time.
“No matter what happens we’ve had that same mentality before and we have that same mentality now,” he said.
Rodriguez scored a long-range equalizer against Real Salt Lake as LA Galaxy came from behind to win 3-2 last Wednesday in league play. It earned him his second career MLS Goal of the Week award (the first was in 2019 with Houston).
Hitting the target
His first two goals this season came as a surprise to nearly everyone but Memo after he came on as a second-half substitute in LA Galaxy’s 3-1 win over Seattle Sounders in the Round of 32.“Scoring the first Open Cup goal has given me confidence and given the team confidence that we can really have facilitators for goals and assists,” he said. “It just gives an overall confidence boost to everybody.”
Deployed in his preferred wide position, Rodriguez brings fresh legs and consistent attacking play (10 shots in 11 league appearance) in a growing role in manager Greg Vanney’s game-plan.
“Coaches really know my potential in my shot and they always say, ‘Hit the target and anything can happen,’ and I think that goes for anybody on the team,” Rodriguez said. “If we can hit the target then anything is possible.”
Three wins away from a major trophy isn’t a bad place to be for a team with only three league wins. And Rodriguez’s most-recent goal is one that might have special meaning, coming, as it did, in a win at America First Stadium in Sandy, Utah – the venue of this week’s Quarterfinal (again against RSL).
“We just have to give it our all every single game and it starts with the next game in front of us,” said Rodriguez, a man who knows the way to Cup glory. “The next game is in the Cup game and we’re trying to go all the way.”
Dennis Pope writes about local sports for the SoCal Newspaper Group and serves in a communications role for both NISA Nation and the Southwest Premier League. Follow him at @DennisPope on Twitter.