Keyworth’s Wizard: The Fall & Rise of Detroit City’s Maxi Rodriguez

It was no smooth ride to USL Championship icon-status for Detroit City FC’s Maxi Rodriguez -- digs deep on his long and bumpy road to Keyworth.
By: Luis Leyva
Maxi Rodriguez passes a ball during a Detroit City FC match
Maxi Rodriguez passes a ball during a Detroit City FC match

He always looks comfortable in the role of hero at his beloved Detroit City.

Maxi Rodriguez’s equalizer, late in what became an epic Round of 32 win on the road over MLS powers and 2023 Open Cup Champs Houston Dynamo, was just the most recent in a string of heroic moments for a player who’s become very much The Man at the Hamtramck-based USL Championship club.

So you might be surprised to learn that this midfield schemer, who makes it all look so preposterously easy out there, almost saw his pro career crumble before it got started.

In 2016, Rodriguez was preparing for his final year at UNC Charlotte when he was blindsided by a knee injury. He worked his way back to the pitch, but the setback saw him miss out on the MLS SuperDraft. Instead, he signed a professional contract with his hometown USL Championship club, San Antonio FC, ahead of the 2017 season.

Happy to Be There

“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 – in the U.S. second division. “I kind of fell into a hole of complacency like, ‘Ok, I’m not playing much, but I’m a pro in my home city and this is amazing.’”

Without much playing time that year, Rodriguez realized he needed a change of mentality. He needed to take things more seriously. But with the typical high turnover in USL squads, new talent was brought in ahead of the 2018 season and Rodriguez quickly discovered he was in for a challenge.

Maxi Rodriguez (back) nabbed a late winner in the 2024 Third Round at Keyworth

“I remember having a really good preseason, but then we brought in guys with MLS experience who were really competitive,” he 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.”

It was bittersweet for Rodriguez when he decided to leave home, after learning he wasn’t in the plans as a key piece in San Antonio FC’s future.

When another offer finally came, 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 in his midfield services and creativity.

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” somewhere – and this was his chance.

By the start of the 2019 season, Rodriguez had earned the captain’s armband. He made 23 appearances for the Kickers while scoring one goal (in his debut). Collectively, however, the team struggled, finishing ninth place in a 10-team league.

Keyworth Stadium and Maxi Rodriguez are a matched pair

“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.

“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?’,” he said.

When the 2020 season began, Rodriguez was still without a team.

Attitude Adjustment

“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.’”

While balancing part-time jobs as a Door Dash and UPS driver, Rodriguez committed to a new routine during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. He woke up at 6 a.m., trained for two or three hours, worked a shift at one of his jobs, took a nap, trained again. It became a habit, repeated day after day.

DCFC fans enjoy the 2024 Open Cup win over Michigan Stars

He made use of a friend’s home gym during the Covid lockdowns and bought a few soccer balls on Amazon to keep his skills sharp. Even his parents’ backyard became part of his interval training regime.

“Some days I would wake up feeling positive that something was going to happen,” said Rodriguez, who was in the best physical shape of his life. “I 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.”

Detroit Calling

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. Then-DCFC coach Trevor James invited Rodriguez to fly out to Detroit for a trial and to see if he liked the club and the city. After just three days, he earned a contract for the 2021 season.

Maxi celebrates the 2022 Open Cup win over Columbus Crew Jon DeBoer / DCFC

The rest, as they say, is history.

For James, it was exactly the traits that Rodriguez had been quietly displaying that made him an asset. “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 his desire 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. “Being back in a team, 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 NISA that final year, winning four trophies including the Spring and Fall season championships. Rodriguez finished the year with a team-leading seven-goal haul and started every game but one.

Full Circle & Open Cup Glory

There was a big shift on the horizon for DCFC at the start of 2022 – as the club was about to officially transition up from NISA to the USL Championship.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Rodriguez, now playing for coach Danny Dichio, who has the club off to a hot start in the league (in third place as of May 13th). “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 the new league just as Rodriguez knew they would – like they belonged there. They reached the playoffs, eventually losing out to Louisville City in the conference semifinals.

In the 2022 U.S. Open Cup, Rodriguez was at the heart of an historic run.

He scored the winner against eventual Major League Soccer (MLS) champions Columbus Crew in the Third Round in front of a raucous crowd at Keyworth Stadium. And it was in that same riot of a venue that he was at it again this year – scoring a late winner to see off old NISA rivals the Michigan Stars and send Detroit City through to the Round of 32.

“Our fans are amazing,” said Rodriguez who contributed on the road in Houston in the last round – a come-from-behind Detroit City win that ranks among the biggest upsets in U.S. Open Cup history. “On gamedays, home or away, 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 in Hamtramck. “It’s awesome.”

Up next for Detroit City is another away day. They’ll play on Wednesday, May 22nd at IUPUI Michael A. Carroll Stadium against fellow USL Championship side Indy Eleven. Rodriguez and Co won’t have that unrivaled home energy to lean on, but there’s still the motivation of keeping up a run that’s soaked in pixie dust – and trying for a place in the rare air of a Quarterfinal.

Should Detroit City FC reach that Quarterfinals stage, it would be a first for the club and the talismanic Rodriguez. And, looking out further into the world of possibilities, should it be drawn at Keyworth Stadium, well, then, look out for some serious fireworks.

Luis Leyva is a senior contributor for