Penn State's 'Rocky' Rodriguez A Champion For Costa Rican Girls

Mark Selders/Penn State Athletics

Raquel Rodriguez, who helped lead Penn State to the national title game in 2012 as a freshman, is the engine that makes the team go.

No better story emerged from the most recent World Cup than Costa Rica's surprise run to within a penalty shootout of a place in the semifinals of soccer's biggest spectacle. The outsider in a group that included past champions England, Italy and Uruguay and global superstars like Andrea Pirlo, Wayne Rooney and Luis Suarez, Costa Rica stunned most everyone by finishing atop all three powers and surviving a knockout-round penalty shootout against Greece.

Goals scored in Brazil set off scenes of jubilation on a grand scale in the Costa Rican capital of San Jose. Several thousand miles away, the scale was smaller but the emotions no more restrained as Raquel Rodriguez watched the game against Greece with friends in State College, Pennsylvania, and cried tears of joy. The party would have been bigger, but the two couples with whom she watched were the only other Costa Ricans she knew who were around during the quiet summer months in the college town.

They watched one of the smallest nations in the tournament, its population barely a third that of Pennsylvania, bask in the international spotlight.

"Soccer is the first and almost the only sport at home that people are passionate about," Rodriguez said. "So me, myself, I won when we won against Greece. The way I lived it, it was so intense, it was so emotional."

Mark Selders/Penn State Athletics

Charismatic and talented, Raquel Rodriguez could be the one to transform the soccer culture in her home country of Costa Rica.

A member of the Costa Rican women's national team, as well as the team that represents Penn State, she would like to inspire similar scenes in San Jose, her hometown, with her own play. More than that, she would like to be part of a generation that makes it commonplace for Costa Rican girls to believe the soccer field, and by extension all the possibilities of the world surrounding it, is as much theirs to inhabit as it is anyone else's.

When Penn State puts its perfect start to the new college season on the line against North Carolina (Friday, ESPN3, 5 p.m. ET) and Duke (Sunday, ESPN3, 2:30 p.m. ET) in Durham, North Carolina, Rodriguez, better known by the nickname "Rocky," will be easy to spot.

Two years removed from an appearance in the national championship game, Penn State still relies on key figures from that run such as Kori Chapic, Whitney Church, Emily Hurd and Mallory Weber. All are instrumental in their own ways to the team's success, as is a collection of younger talent. But the metronome that makes the whole composition work is Rodriguez, the Big Ten's best freshman during that College Cup season and now a junior who patrols the middle of the field.

"She basically determines the tempo of the game for us," Penn State coach Erica Walsh said. "She recognizes cues really well. She decides when we press; she decides when we hold. She decides when we go forward quickly; she decides when we slow things down. She decides our tempo on both sides of the ball."

She leads and people follow. Penn State will miss that when it is without her for a few weeks this October. But not nearly as much as Costa Rica will welcome it.

No Central American women's team has ever qualified for the World Cup, the spots allotted to CONCACAF claimed instead by the United States, Canada and sometimes Mexico. But Canada's automatic qualification as host and the expansion of the tournament from 16 to 24 teams all but guarantees either Central America or the Caribbean, and possibly both, will be represented for the first time next summer. Three teams qualify automatically from next month's CONCACAF tournament, which will be played at various sites around the United States, while a fourth will have a chance to qualify through a playoff against a South American team. The United States and Mexico are favorites to earn two of those spots, but Costa Rica is a strong contender for one of its own after it won the Central American qualifying tournament this past May behind a team-best four goals in three games from Rodriguez.

It is an opportunity to raise Costa Rica's profile within women's soccer and raise the profile of women's soccer within Costa Rica. And while not Rodriguez's burden alone to carry, there may be no one better equipped to lead an effort to spend next summer in Canada than someone who traded the familiarity of home for the frigid winters of State College.

"Every time you're around her, she just makes you a better person," said Walsh, not a person prone to effusiveness.

Huge leap of faith

If Walsh was impressed the first time she saw Rodriguez, who was at the time playing for the Costa Rican under-17 national team in a tournament in Florida, she was gobsmacked to find out that the player in question was all of 14 years old. Rodriguez had technical quality beyond her age group, even then able to make the ball do her bidding at her feet and pick out proper passes. The coach filed away the name, and when she lost out on another midfielder in the same recruiting class, she turned her attention to the Costa Rican playmaker.

Rick Stewart/Getty Images

Raquel Rodriguez hopes Costa Rica can earn a chance to take on powers like Abby Wambach and the U.S. at next year's Women's World Cup.

Rodriguez never visited Penn State. Walsh never visited San Jose. But through phone conversations and videos the coach edited (complete with aerial footage of campus conveniently filmed during the snow-free summer), they established a rapport. Attending a university in the United States had long been a goal for Rodriguez, the seed planted by her father, Sivianni Rodriguez, a former professional soccer player in Costa Rica who knew a person's time in the sport wouldn't last forever. Miami and Texas recruited her, but neither could offer the same soccer pedigree as Penn State.

"It was a huge leap of faith on her part, a huge leap of faith," Walsh said. "Obviously knowing her now, understanding how mature she is, it's not a surprise that she had the courage to do something like this, but [at that time], she came from such a different background. I'm so impressed with her courage."

The challenges that awaited were those one might expect. Rodriguez had studied English since she was in kindergarten but found that the speed at which people spoke it in the United States meant she understood only about half the words in any given conversation. More daunting than deciphering lectures or practice commands were the language's nuances in casual settings, the sentences tinged with sarcasm and jokes that are the lingua franca of college students.

At least she could ask questions when she didn't understand something. No amount of effort was going to change the weather. Hurd joked that even now Rodriguez seems to wear one more layer than anyone else, a long-sleeve shirt when others are in tank tops or a sweatshirt and gloves when others are in long-sleeve shirts. Walsh similarly recalled that it seemed she rarely saw Rodriguez without her athletic-issue down "puffy" coat for a stretch of some months during the player's freshman year.

Rodriguez countered that she actually looked forward to experiencing a different kind of winter her first year on campus. But even that adventurousness had its limits.

"The second season, I was not as excited," Rodriguez allowed. "But I still didn't complain."

Rodriguez does not come from abject poverty, but even though Costa Rica is considerably healthier economically than most of the surrounding countries in Central America, its per capita income is still a fraction of that of the United States. Walsh recalled a level of detail in the recruit's questions that American players rarely reached, down to whether or not the scholarship money would cover everyday necessities like toiletries. And when she made the trip from Costa Rica to begin her freshman year, Rodriguez flew as far as New York City and rode the rest of the way, the flight to State College too expensive.

So if the opportunity in front of her meant spending a little extra time translating or picking up sarcasm on the fly or shivering on the walk to class, so be it.

"She doesn't take for granted anything," Hurd said. "Everything that's given to her is like a gift and it's like a blessing. I think that's what makes Rocky really special. That has definitely rubbed off on her teammates, just to be thankful for everything and so gracious and never take anything for granted because you don't know when it could go away."

A chance at a great legacy

In the case of women's soccer in Costa Rica, you never know if there will be anything to go away in the first place. For the longest time, Rodriguez didn't know any other girls who played soccer. She learned the game from her father, the former player who would give lessons to local boys on the weekends. He taught her the technical skills that still impress to this day, but it wasn't until she was 11 that she ever played on a team with girls.

The amount of girls that are playing soccer now, it's more than it used to be when I first started playing. But it's hard because there is no structure. Just in general, there is no structure, there is no support.
Raquel Rodriguez

And even as cultural attitudes slowly shift away from thinking of soccer as the ultimate expression of machismo, an awakening perhaps aided by the country hosting the Under-17 Women's World Cup earlier this year, economic support remains difficult to come by.

"The amount of girls that are playing soccer now, it's more than it used to be when I first started playing," Rodriguez said. "But it's hard because there is no structure. Just in general, there is no structure, there is no support. We have club teams, as well, but the conditions in which these teams play and train, it just is not the best. There's no materials to practice with or just the fields are awful, so it's hard because people are not interested in investing in women's soccer yet."

Most of that last sentence could understandably give birth to bitterness. Rodriguez instead appears to linger on the final word. The interest isn't there -- yet.

Hurd joked that she had never seen Rodriguez as happy as when the Penn State team traveled to the Dominican Republic this past spring, warm weather and beaches replacing the slow thaw back in State College. But that wasn't the only part of the experience she enjoyed. When the players visited local schools and helped teach English to the students, it was Rodriguez who took charge. She was in her element. It's the same connection she wants to make back home when her American sojourn ends.

"She's got an ability to leave an enormous legacy on the entire women's soccer culture in Costa Rica," Walsh said. "She's bright, she's well spoken, she's so charismatic. You put her in front of a group of young children and they'll follow her wherever she takes them."

If even a talent like Marta can over more than a decade of brilliance only partly pull a country like Brazil into the modern world of women's soccer, there are clearly limits on any individual's cultural influence. Rodriguez is a better player for her time at Penn State, the technical ability she brought with her now balanced by the strength and fitness that are hallmarks of the American game. No stranger to international competition, Walsh believes Rodriguez can be the best Costa Rica has produced. But she isn't Marta. And Costa Rica isn't likely to stun the world any time soon.

It just needs to get the attention of people back home to start a conversation.

"If we qualify, I think that for sure will help women's soccer just because we're going to have opportunities to talk, we're going to have interviews," Rodriguez said. "I think a lot of the progress also depends on the message us players give to the country, really, and also to the administrators and decision-makers. I see it as a great opportunity."

Who knows, one day people may gather in San Jose to watch the Women's World Cup. Perhaps they will watch Rodriguez. Perhaps they will watch the generation that looked up to her.

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