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Raquel Rodriguez's journey to the NWSL anything but typical

The Costa Rican international’s career took her around the world before landing her in New Jersey

Trey Madara (Brotherly Game)

For many professional athletes in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), growing up playing soccer meant playing on club teams starting in elementary or even preschool. For some it meant playing on elite travel teams or Olympic Development Program teams, while for almost all it meant playing for high school and collegiate teams around the country.

But for Raquel Rodriguez, the journey to the NWSL was anything but typical.

Rodriguez, 22, was born in San Jose, Costa Rica. Her father, Sivianno Rodriguez, was a professional soccer player for both Club Sport Herediano and the Costa Rican National Team.

Growing up with a professional soccer player for a father, it was only natural that Rocky, as many fans know her best, would play the game as well.

At just four years old, Rodriguez began tagging along with her brother to the soccer lessons her father taught every Saturday to the local kids. Before long, she was taking the skills she picked up in those lessons and putting them to use whenever she got the chance.

"For like the whole day, that’s what I actually did. I played soccer. I played and played," Rodriguez said.

Growing up in Costa Rica though, there were few opportunities for girls like Rodriguez to play soccer, especially competitively. Even the teams that her father coached did not compete; instead, the kids practiced their new skills against each other as part of their soccer lessons.

"My dad taught me like different techniques and more formally, but I would play at my elementary school and in my neighborhood more informally," she said. "I wasn’t even on a team until I was 11 years old because we didn’t know there were women’s teams back then."

So instead of playing against other girls on rec or club teams, Rodriguez grew up playing soccer against the boys in her neighborhood or at her elementary school during breaks. Being one of only a few girls playing the game, Rodriguez felt the desire to be the best, to prove to the boys that she was more than capable of playing with them.

"A lot of the boys would kind of get mad because a girl was maybe better than them sometimes. Kids wouldn’t like the fact that a girl was maybe better than them, but I don’t know. I just got used to it and I loved it," Rodriguez said, a laugh to her voice. "I just loved competing in that sense of, ‘Well, let’s play soccer and see who’s better.’"

When Rodriguez was 11, her cousin saw a newspaper advertising one of the big men's club teams holding tryouts for a women’s team. Rodriguez went to the tryouts and, despite the youngest age group being an Under-15 team, Rodriguez soon found herself on her first competitive women’s team.

Thanks to her father’s training, her competitiveness and the many hours spent playing the game she loved so much, Rodriguez was always able to play up several years competitively. The one year she played for her high school, International Christian School (ICS), she was still in elementary school.

Rodriguez’s time with her high school team was limited because, as she continued to play competitively for her club teams, she soon gained the attention of the Costa Rican national teams. As she began playing for some of the youth national teams, she found she was unable to play for both her school and her country because of the travel requirements of playing with the national teams. Deciding to follow her dream of playing on the senior national team, Rodriguez quit her school team to focus on playing for Costa Rica.

In 2008, Rodriguez played on Costa Rica’s U-17 team and competed in the first ever FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in New Zealand, where she scored the only goal for Costa Rica in the tournament. She then went on to compete with the U-20 team in the 2010 U-20 Women’s World Cup in Germany.

That same year, Rodriguez also achieved her dreams of making the senior Costa Rican Women’s National Team roster. She played in the 2010 CONCACAF Women’s World Cup Qualifying tournament, scoring two goals to help Las Ticas make it to the third-place game of the tournament. However, their dreams of playing in a World Cup tournament ended with a 3-0 loss to the United States.

Rodriguez really began gaining attention in 2012 when she helped lead Costa Rica to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying tournament. The team made it to the semifinals, but once again lost 3-0 to the United States.

Although her time away from school prevented her from playing competitively for her high school team, it did not prevent her from maintaining her grades. Rodriguez was raised to value her education, and maintaining her grades was necessary to keep the scholarship she had to her school. It was that emphasis on academics, as well as the opportunities offered at ICS and her time playing on the national team, that opened the door to Penn State for Rodriguez.

"If I wouldn’t have made my academics a priority and if I wouldn’t have known English, I don’t know if I would have been able to go to Penn State," Rodriguez said. "Our coach, Erica Walsh, she saw me play with the national team, so I think several factors just worked together. I was honestly waiting for the opportunity to come to the States. When it did, I couldn’t be happier."

In her first three years at Penn State, Rodriguez was a staple in the midfield. She started in 63 of 66 games played, scored 17 goals and had 22 assists, all the while maintaining her academics and playing for Costa Rica.

In the summer before her senior year at Penn State, Rodriguez traveled with Costa Rica to Canada to compete, for Las Ticas’ first time ever, in the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

"Since I was a little girl and knew there were Women’s World Cups, I wanted to be a part of that," Rodriguez said. "As I grew up and in that generation, we really wanted to go to a World cup because we had never been to a Women’s World Cup. The fact that I was a part of that team that represented our country for the first time ever and just being a part of a great group and generation of soccer players was, first of all, a huge honor. The fact of being there meant the world to me."

Costa Rica faced the national teams of Spain, Korea Republic and Brazil in the group stage of the tournament. While competing with her team in the World Cup was momentous in and of itself for Rodriguez, she also had another goal in mind: scoring the first goal ever for Costa Rica in a Women’s World Cup.

"I just wanted to score the first goal just because it’s the first goal. It’s historic," she said. "I just saw it as an opportunity. That’s really cool, to be the first woman to score [for Costa Rica]. I want to do that, why not? If it didn’t happen, that’s fine, but if it did, I’m up for it."

In the team’s opening game of the tournament, Spain came out and scored in the 13th minute. Just a minute later, Rodriguez easily one-touched the ball into the back of the net to score Costa Rica's very first goal in a Women’s World Cup, equalizing the score in a game that would eventually end in a 1-1 draw.

"Any of the players deserve to score and, you know, it happened in my life and I was able to score there, so that was just a dream come true. That’s just the best way to explain it," she said.

Although Costa Rica failed to advance out of the group stage, Rodriguez’s stellar year did not end there.

Returning to Penn State for her senior year, Rodriguez co-captained the team as she started all 27 matches. She recorded six goals and assists on the season, but it is probably the last goal of her collegiate career that stands out the most to her.

On Dec. 6, Penn State faced off against Duke University in the NCAA College Cup championship match. In the 72nd minute, Rodriguez settled a cross before turning and launching a shot past Duke’s goalkeeper. Her goal would be the championship winner, giving Penn State their first ever women’s soccer national title.

"It was a dream come true because I had imagined that several times. But one thing is imagination, and the other thing is reality, so the fact that it actually happened, I couldn’t believe it. I’m just so grateful and, I mean, that’s something that I will never forget, of course," Rodriguez said of the goal. "It’s really symbolic to me, the fact that I was able to kind of give back to a school and a team that means so much to me."

Rodriguez finished out her college career with the Nittany Lions with 93 games played, 90 starts, 23 goals and 28 assists. Her senior year performance was enough to earn a litany of awards, most notably the Missouri Athletic Club (MAC) Hermann trophy, the award for best collegiate player in the country.

Needing to complete an internship in order to graduate and wanting to stay in the United States where she already knew the language and the culture, Rodriguez officially declared for the 2016 NWSL collegiate draft in January.

On the morning of the draft, a surprising announcement was made that Sky Blue FC had traded Danish-international Nadia Nadim to the Portland Thorns FC in exchange for the second overall draft pick. With that pick, Sky Blue Head Coach Christy Holly drafted Rodriguez.

"Rocky is a very special player on so many levels. She has a tremendous amount of experience under her belt, having already competed in a World Cup for Costa Rica and winning a national championship for Penn State, as well as winning the MAC Hermann trophy. She has a very bright future ahead of her and has a fantastic attitude towards learning. We are excited to see her continue developing as she takes the next steps in her career, and we are beyond ecstatic to have her with us here at Sky Blue FC," Holly said.

And while Rodriguez sees her experience at the international level as helping to prepare her to compete against some of the world’s top players in the NWSL, she also realizes she has a long way to go.

"Of course, there’s some things that I’m getting used to and it’s an adjustment, but in terms of the soccer level, it’s not that new because I’ve been exposed to it a little more than I guess other players have," Rodriguez said. "I know a little bit of what I was going to get, but still, I’m also aware that I’m also developing as a soccer player and I’m just starting. I’m just a rookie, too."

At this point in her career, Rodriguez has no clue where soccer might take her. She does know, though, that she wants to help the game continue to grow around the world, especially in Costa Rica, so that girls have more of an opportunity to play the sport that she loves so much.

"I grew up with, I’d say frustrations because, like I said, women’s soccer wasn’t really developed at all yet when I was a girl. I wish things had been a little different and maybe that’s the reason why I want to, after soccer, kind of help with that development for new generations," she said, "not just in Costa Rica but in other countries. I just don’t know how or what role that will take in my case or how I will achieve that goal."

Regardless of what the future holds for Rodriguez, one thing is certain: soccer will always be a constant in her life.

"I think that’s something that I was born with and just being passionate about, just loving the game, I guess," she said. "That’s the English, typical phrase that people say, but that’s it for me."