By CAITLIN MURRAY
A-Rod is back.
U.S. National Team forward Amy Rodriguez has been away from soccer for a year, but the surest sign that her comeback has begun is all in a name.
“It actually is nice to be called A-Rod again,” Rodriguez told SBI last month from her first camp back with the USWNT in California. “I was going by my married name for the last nine months because I wasn’t playing soccer. Now that I’m back on the field and I’m here and the girls call me A-Rod, it feels good. It feels like I’m back to my old playing days.”
But things have changed while Rodriguez was away having her first child: The USWNT’s coach is Tom Sermanni; there is a fresh batch of new recruits trying to break into the national team; and the year-old National Women’s Soccer League is introducing a new class of household names to women’s soccer.
But don’t expect any of that to change a thing for Rodriguez.
“I never wanted to hang up my cleats,” said Rodriguez, whose married name is Shilling but still goes by Rodriguez in soccer. “I’ve always wanted to keep playing.”
Starting a family happened sooner than expected, but Rodriguez never considered calling her soccer career quits. If anything, her cheering section has just expanded by one.
“My husband and I are super blessed to have our son and I’m happy that right now I’m able to do both,” she said. “I just hope that can continue and keep developing my game so that I can play on this (national) team. And also, my little son Ryan can come along with us too.”
The plan was to wage her comeback with the Seattle Reign. She had been allocated to the team by the NWSL shortly before learning she was pregnant. But as the past year for Rodriguez has shown, plans can change quickly.
“I was very surprised when I got the phone call from Kansas City – they gave me a phone call one day very randomly and said that they were interested in me and were considering a trade option with Seattle,” she said. “They asked me my thoughts and I told them that, from a soccer standpoint, I loved their team, I loved their system and their style of play and I’d feel very fortunate to play on a team like theirs.”
“Within a few hours I got the call saying a trade had been finalized and I was part of FC Kansas City. I was super shocked. I did not see it coming but I’m really excited.”
On the face of it, it was surprising simply because Rodriguez hadn’t played competitively in nearly a year by November, when the trade was announced. While Rodriguez, 26, had already begun training and expects to be ready for the preseason, FC Kansas City didn’t know exactly what they were getting.
But Kansas City’s two leading scorers last season – Lauren Holiday and Erika Tymrak – came from the midfield. Ever since trading Renee Cuellar away, they’ve lacked a marquee striker. It seems like the right spot for Rodriguez to fill.
Known for her pace, Rodriguez has 26 goals in 102 appearances for the USWNT, including scoring five goals as a second-half sub against the Dominican Republic in 2012 Olympic qualifiers and a goal in 2011 World Cup qualifying to lift the U.S. over Italy.
Rodriguez said she followed the NWSL’s inaugural season, but from the perspective of a Seattle Reign player.
“My focus was on Seattle for the season because that was the team I was going to play with,” she said. “I had met with the Seattle coaches a month prior to the trade. I had gotten Ryan a little Seattle Reign onesie. Basically, my bags were packed for Seattle.”
The NWSL has managed to shine a spotlight on some new talent – notably Rodriguez’s new Kansas City teammate Tymrak, NWSL’s first Rookie of the Year – but there’s little doubt Rodriguez has the potential to be a top NWSL player.
But the aim, she said, is fight her way back to the top of the USWNT for the next World Cup and Olympics coming in 2015 and 2016.
She’s not there yet. Exactly six weeks and one day after Ryan was born in August, she began training in with youth clubs, both boys and girls. She has about three months of training behind her and it’s a work in progress, but a vast improvement over the early stages of her return.
“When I first started, I felt super awkward. Things felt really out of place,” said Rodriguez, a Lake Forest, Calif. native. “I had to really focus on getting my touch back. Still now, I’m working on fully recovering and getting my game back to where it was because my goal is that fairly soon, I can start feeling like my old self again and being able to play like I used to, if not better than I used to.”
The last time Rodriguez played for the USWNT was Dec. 15, 2012, when Pia Sundhage was still at the helm. With a new coach to win over – a coach who has given a slew of new and previously overlooked players chances in his first year – Rodriguez also needs to figure out where she fits into the USWNT now.
With Sermanni in charge, the vibe is different in camp, she said. But she’ll return to her second camp under Sermanni this week, where she can continue to make her case.
“Being in camp and playing under him has been really fun and really interesting. I love his coaching style and I think that I can learn a lot from him,” she said. “I haven’t played any games under him, obviously, so I’m hoping to learn more about him and learn his style of play and hopefully try to do the best I can to be one of his roster players.”
But with all the changes the USWNT has gone through in Rodriguez’s absence, she’s finding that camp, in some ways, is just how she remembers it.
“It has been quite some time since I stepped on the field with this team and I’ve realized now how much I missed them,” she said. “I realized that I missed playing with this team and I missed being with these girls because, for so many years, this team was my life and they’ve been such a big part of my life.”