Commentary

Rodriguez looks to add Olympic gold to NCAA championship

Originally Published: August 6, 2008
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

The downpour that soaked College Station, Texas, in the moments after last December's NCAA championship game turned out to be the first thing all weekend that successfully hemmed in USC striker Amy Rodriguez. Taking refuge under an awning next to the building in which she had just wrapped up the postmatch press conference after a 2-0 win against Florida State, Rodriguez waited out the deluge with her cell phone, laughing in amazement at the number of voice messages and text messages already flooding in.

[+] EnlargeAmy Rodriguez
AP Photo/Matt SlocumAmy Rodriguez was a key cog in helping USC claim its first women's soccer title.

Hopefully, her plan comes with international coverage.

Rodriguez was on top of the college soccer world after leading USC, a program previously known mostly for rarely living up to expectations, to its first national title. But eight months later, the map has expanded, and she finds herself taking on a wider world as one of the youngest members of the United States Olympic women's soccer team.

A little less than a year ago, Rodriguez picked up an assist in USC's game against Long Beach State, a day after the U.S. dropped out of World Cup contention with a disheartening 4-0 loss against Brazil several time zones away in China. Now, in the wake of the broken leg that knocked American star Abby Wambach out of the Olympics, she is suddenly one of the keys to the national team's attempt to reclaim its place atop the sport.

"I was totally not expecting the call for this team," Rodriguez said. "I just came off a really good college season and got a call-up in January, got invited to one of the camps out in California and ended up performing pretty well and kept getting the call back. … The coaches were really, really positive and really willing to invest in me and had a lot of faith in me. So I was really thankful that they were willing to take a chance and give me the look for this team."

Rodriguez actually played her first game for the national team during the 2006 Algarve Cup, an annual tournament in Portugal, but she never really figured in former coach Greg Ryan's short-term plans after that debut (Stephanie Cox -- then Stephanie Lopez -- was the only college-eligible player to make Ryan's roster for the World Cup). Even so, the experience two years ago in Portugal and the training camps surrounding the trip helped Rodriguez hit the ground running when new coach Pia Sundhage, who was in attendance at the College Cup last fall, called her name over the winter.

"This time around when I came in, I knew the girls," Rodriguez said. "I didn't have to re-meet all the same girls, so that was an easy transition for me. My biggest goal this time around was to get good chemistry on the field, so that when I play with them, we're playing together and looking good and playing as a team."

Finding herself in the starting lineup for the national team's first game of the year during the Four Nations tournament in China in January, Rodriguez scored a goal in the 51st minute against Canada, added another 14 minutes later and finished off her day with an assist on Lindsay Tarpley's goal in a 4-0 win. In 16 appearances this year, mostly coming on as a second-half substitute, she has four goals and four assists. And with Wambach out of the mix for the Olympics, Rodriguez appears likely to inherit a substantial role, whether it's in the starting 11 or as the primary offensive spark off the bench.

No player in the world can replicate exactly what Wambach brings as a target player at the top of an attack, and at 5-foot-4, Rodriguez won't be asked to try. But blessed with world-class quickness and the kind of strength and balance wrestlers in Beijing will show off, she's no small challenge for defenders caught in one-on-one battles.

[+] EnlargeAmy Rodriguez
Robert Benson/US PresswireRodriguez is one of the youngest members of this year's U.S. Olympic women's soccer team.

"I think her experience over the past couple of years at college has helped her grow a lot as a player," current Olympic teammate and former Pac-10 rival Nicole Barnhart said. "She's changed her style of game. She's very strong, very physical, and I think that's one of the things we're going to really need up front -- someone that can hold onto the ball but has the quickness and speed she has as well to take people on and get around them. She's shown that over the past few games."

Along with North Carolina junior Tobin Heath and UCLA junior Lauren Cheney, Rodriguez is one of three college-eligible players on the Olympic roster (and one of five players who played in college last fall, when former Stanford star Rachel Buehler and former Portland standout Cox are added to the list). All are part of a youth movement asked to step into the breach following Kristine Lilly's retirement and injuries to Wambach, Leslie Osborne and Cat Whitehill, but it's not just Rodriguez's potentially prominent place in the lineup that makes her the current face of the next generation.

"She is just a hilarious person and I love being around because I can't stop laughing," Buehler said. "I think us younger girls, we kind of developed a bond here, being a little bit younger and having played together on the youth teams. So it's cool to have that."

Of course, the U.S. colors aren't the only ones Rodriguez will wear this year. She sat out the spring season at USC, and took the semester off academically, in order to train and travel with the national team as it crisscrossed the globe from China to Sweden, but her senior year awaits her return in a few weeks. And after losing just two players from the team that raced through the postseason with a stingy defense and a diverse attack fronted by its multitasking star striker, USC has every reason to believe it can become just the fourth program to win multiple national titles in women's soccer.

It's nice to see that my team is behind me, especially when I decided to take a semester off of school to go chase down a dream of my own. It's really nice to have my teammates back at home supporting me.

-- USC striker Amy Rodriguez

The Women of Troy will need their senior striker to do so, but they didn't mind loaning her out for the spring and summer.

"My teammates are really supportive; I'm getting a lot of phone calls and text messages from them," Rodriguez said. "It's nice to see that my team is behind me, especially when I decided to take a semester off of school to go chase down a dream of my own. It's really nice to have my teammates back at home supporting me."

And so instead of strictly suffering through the drudgery of preseason conditioning, USC's players are all spending part of August experiencing the Olympics.

Even if it's only a vicarious experience for all but one of their number.

"We are so excited," goalkeeper Kristen Olsen said. "It's one thing to watch the Olympics and root for your country and one thing to win and all, but to actually know the person who is playing and to really have that relationship with that person is so cool and we're so excited for her."

Imagine how her phone will light up if she brings home another championship.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.