A goal for the record books, bilingual eloquence or an admirably firm handle on what she stands for – some things can always be counted on with Raquel Rodríguez. Change, however, came in spades for the Costa Rican international once she arrived in the U.S. five years ago, ably accompanied by tribulation, triumph, precious times of silliness, and of course, a now-synonymous nickname.
Setting the scene and the tempo in the first half of this interview, Raquel Rodríguez sculpted the foundations of her voyage through talk of music, meaning and midfield rhythm. The popular Sky Blue FC performer recounted those seeds being planted as she grew up in Costa Rica, and the same red, blue and white shades to her story are very much present in this second half.
A nod to the blue and white of Penn State is also in order, as even if the building blocks of her playing style, her values and her character were established back home, the tica who arrived in the U.S. to begin college is one quite removed from the 2017 ‘Rocky’ in all sorts of ways. For a start, she was Raquel or ‘Raque’ until she arrived in America, and she explains how a now-Portland Thorns goalkeeper changed that right away.
“For my official visit at Penn State, we were having this like pre-game barbecue, and actually Britt Eckerstrom, she had name tags and she was writing everyone’s name because the recruits were there. She asked my name, she was like, ‘Raquel, how do they call you at home, do you have a nickname?’ and I said, ‘Well, they call me Raque.’
“She said, ‘Rocky?’ so I said ‘Yeah, sure, Rocky.’ So, it’s just kind of how the American accent goes for ‘Raque’ and that’s how it came about, but I love it; I always wanted a nickname and I finally got it.”
With that moniker was a piece of belonging handed to her from the off, though rocky is exactly what the clamber felt as she tried to make her way in the initial stages. Nevertheless, what a beautiful view when she reached her final lookout point.
Just 19 minutes of the 2015 College Cup final were remaining when she intercepted a pass just inside Duke’s half, laid it off and made a purposeful run toward the danger area. For one last telling time in their PSU career together, Rocky’s cries for the ball let Mallory Weber know she was ready, and she produced a deft touch from her co-captain and fellow senior’s subsequent right-wing cross.
Turning swiftly away from her defender, she fired with her left into the far corner to claim a goal that secured the Nittany Lions’ first national title in women’s soccer. It was the picture-perfect way for Rocky to bow out and she seemed to rightly cherish every millisecond of the moment with her teammates in the celebrations as Erica Walsh’s group closed out the NCAA tournament without even conceding.
The scale of the achievement signified a team who’d grown strong enough to reach the summit, and within that, individuals who’d blossomed along their personal paths. When she compares the freshman Rocky to the senior bidding a tearful goodbye to what had become her second home, with that championship they’d dreamed of and so many individual accolades of her own, does she look back and see a big contrast?
“So different, yes. I came to Penn State looking at the future, but very fearful as well; I just knew it was going to be hard, but also good, that was my dream.
“It was super hard, I was terrified. I missed my family a lot; I am a homebody.
“I just was challenged in every way, like culturally; even small things like the way people communicate at home, let alone the language barrier. It was little things like here in America when people leave, they say ‘alright, bye, see you later,’ but at home we hug each other as if we wouldn’t see each other for a while!
“Being outside of my home and my culture, it was just a culture shock, and then the soccer aspect is super different, super challenging. It was definitely hard, I was really homesick the first year; second year also, but not as much.”
A shadow may have been obscuring Rocky’s full personality at first, but one of the eternally magical factors to this game we love is that it offers sanctuary, and the code to toppling the barriers of language, culture and suchlike. That rang true in a freshman season of 2012 which saw Rocky’s efforts earn her a starting spot and the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, as she hit double figures for assists and chipped in with four goals of her own.
On that roster, current Seattle Reign midfielder Christine Nairn was playing out her senior season in Happy Valley, while the junior wearing number 5 happened to be Rocky’s present-day Sky Blue teammate Maya Hayes. The Nittany Lions were shaken out of the dream that year with a dash of cold water to the face, in the form of a 4-1 College Cup final loss to North Carolina, though for Rocky, much could be taken and stored away for the future.
She was a true mainstay in 2013, starting all 23 games, scoring six and topping the team’s assist chart with nine. PSU would find themselves on the sour side of a one-goal encounter with Wake Forest in the NCAA tournament’s second round, but much more significant was how a boulder that Rocky had been pushing with all her might had started to shrink.
“My sophomore year, I remember my teammates saying, ‘Wow, Rocky, you’re talking a little more this year, I like it,’ but it was just because of the language barrier. Sometimes I would have a joke in my head in Spanish that I couldn’t say in English; I just didn’t know how to translate it, it wouldn’t make sense.
“Towards my junior year, I started to really feel like I was at home, and my senior year, it was really rough to leave Penn State. That was my home already, so yeah, I absolutely enjoyed it at the end, but the adjustment was really, really tough.”
Three game-winners in amongst a career-high seven goals, as well as the Big Ten Midfielder of the Year accolade illuminated Rocky’s junior year. Second-seed PSU, though, were denied once more in their pursuit of that first national title, as number-one seed Texas A&M made the quarter-final their last stop on the year.
College soccer has been blessed with so many talented teams, containing future stars of the highest level and genuine chemistry throughout. For so many reasons, however, those noteworthy individual and groups may well end their collegiate career’s quest without ever getting to say ‘we went all the way.’
An unforgettable 2015 propelled Penn State and Rocky beyond that. The College Cup’s Most Outstanding Offensive Player and only the second Nittany Lion (after Christie Welsh in 2001) to receive the prestigious MAC Hermann Trophy – in fact, the accolades that year came in a delightful deluge for her.
The NSCAA Scholar Player of the Year and All-America First Team selection had been on the radar of her coach Erica Walsh (now Erica Dambach) since she first saw her with the national team, and after her World Cup exploits in Canada, she started all 27 games back at Penn State, stepping up with six goals and six assists as a senior. With PSU finally top of the tree that afternoon in Cary, Walsh told with emotional sincerity how Rocky was ‘a blessing’ and an inspiration to her to not be afraid.
At the beginning, she had cried reading letters from home on the plane, as she took her flight into the unknown. Five years on, she pays tribute to those who had a place for her under the wing of the Nittany Lion family.
“Penn State shaped me in so many ways but I just think I learned a lot from my coaches, by observing how they worked, how honest they were and how much they cared about me. (Associate head coach) Ann Cook, she was like my mother, because of the experience that I went through with her, and with my teammates, I just learned about camaraderie.
“I was being challenged a lot, but I think that was necessary for me to grow, and I’m very grateful for my coach first of all to believe in me. She was tough, but I appreciate that, so I think in terms of development as a professional and as a player, I came in I guess timid, straight from one culture to another, and I came out of it with more knowledge and more empowered, but with another family.
“Someone had my back, you know? They took care of me, in every way.
“I felt appreciated because they cared about me, but because they appreciated me, they challenged me and wanted me to be better.”
During those years, Penn State’s video features lifted the lid a little on who their Costa Rican gem was away from Jeffrey Field, with one alongside teammate Anna Witte revealing Rocky’s secret talent of being able to clap with her feet! She also told in one how goalkeeper Meghan Kaminski was her roommate and someone she loved to bring out the dance moves with whenever they listened to music together.
In some way, every collegiate soccer program has its own soundtrack, and not too long after arrival, each player gets left with at least one song they will forever associate with the not-so-comfortable initiation scenario. Rocky is very much included, in that regard.
“I had to sing in front of the team; everyone has to go through that and the song they put on was ‘Danza Kuduro’ by Don Omar (featuring Lucenzo). That was like in away games; we would go on bus rides and this is part of being on the team, like a bonding thing.
“In the locker room, a lot of dancing, and it doesn’t even have to be game day; sometimes after class, I would go to the locker room and there would be some of my teammates in there and we’d be blasting music and dancing and messing around. Then of course, we would also make a warm-up playlist, where someone would ask the players if they wanted a song included, so it’s a way to represent everyone in a playlist.
“That’s for the whole season, so again, it was really cool for me to get in the routine; there’s a couple songs I requested which I loved and got me pumped. Even before starting warm-up, I remember I would juggle and kind of dance with the goalkeeper, Britt Eckerstrom.
“When a song comes up, myself and another teammate have a joke; we look at each other and we both know what we’re talking about without speaking. Sky Blue, it’s super different to college soccer (initiation); it was more like requests of ‘oh, teach me how to dance salsa,’ but I didn’t have to sing or do anything.”
A locker room has been described as a sacred place where people are free to express themselves without being judged, which is probably true for the most part! In recent years especially, teams and players do document a little bit of what goes on in that environment, and Rocky shares here what’s getting most love on the current Sky Blue playlist, as well as which ones on the roster are offering their DJ services.
“Right now, it’s usually Kailen (Sheridan), or I think sometimes Madison Tiernan; last year, sometimes Tasha Kai. ‘Chunky’ is real popular, by Bruno Mars, I guess ‘Wild Thoughts’ (DJ Khaled featuring Rihanna and Bryson Tiller).
“Some of the songs, I don’t know the name but once it comes up I start singing it! Before I get into the locker room and start dancing and singing, I first make sure I’m focused.
“I guess on my way to the field it’s my focus time, but once I get to the locker room, I kind of transition a little bit into the team’s music, instead of my own. If I haven’t had that moment of focus before, I’ll make sure to get it at some point in the locker room, but the dancing and singing, in some sort of way, is also a part of my routine.”
On the subject of the irrepressibly effervescent Natasha Kai, women’s soccer fans were without the Hawaiian forward for almost five years until she returned to the game and to New Jersey with Sky Blue last February. Back with more wisdom, deeper meaning to her story and of course more tattoos, one of the game’s brightest and most recognisable personalities hasn’t lost any of the fun, frankness or expression, and Rocky recalls something the Olympic gold medallist did last season that will remain in her mind long after they’ve played their last game together.
“What I remember about Tash last year when I first came, I remember she came to me and she shook my hand, and then she gave me a big hug and she told me ‘welcome to the team’ and I will never forget that. That was really important for me, coming from her; she’s a big name.
“That meant a lot, and Tash as a person, being around her, you laugh a lot; she just jokes around and makes the environment a good one to be around. She’s big into family as well, so I think I can relate to her about that, and that little gesture she made meant the world to me.
“Now I’m thinking that if I was ever in her position, I would want to do that for someone who was new.”
So we know the characters who are up and at it when the vibe gets going at Sky Blue. With Costa Rica, though, how does it usually go down behind the scenes and how much is music sewn into their team identity?
“In our national team, it’s kind of like Sky Blue in the sense of there’s usually a DJ who’s super-updated on the current songs, and usually there’s requests, so it’s more like spontaneous. I like to joke around with songs.
“I love to sing, more than dancing, and two camps ago, I heard this new song and I really liked it. The last camp, everyone was like, ‘Oh, that’s Rocky’s song!’ so I started to joke around and dance – it was ‘Me Rehúso’ by Danny Ocean.
“That will happen with other songs and teammates, so that’s kind of the dynamic.”
After her famous Spain goal, Rocky featured against South Korea and Brazil, playing every minute of Costa Rica’s inaugural World Cup campaign. The way she’d stepped up to the stage with her 2015 achievements at collegiate and international level had been keenly observed by the women’s soccer community, as well as beyond it, and in June 2016 she was announced as an ESPY (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) Award finalist for Best Female College Athlete of the Year.
The awards took place at the Microsoft Theater in Downtown LA, hosted by John Cena and with presenters including Justin Timberlake, Ciara, Steph Curry and Usher. Rocky had felt great support from Sky Blue and from within the women’s game, carrying with her to Los Angeles a sense of representing her sport and all those dedicated to it.
She was accompanied by her father, Sivianni, and she reiterates her gratitude to the ones who made it possible for the two of them to attend, while she also considers whether the experience and the scale of it changed her in any way.
“Well, to me, that was unexpected, I’m not gonna lie. I don’t want this to come off the wrong way, because I know my value as a soccer player, my virtues and my weaknesses, but the way that me and my father took it was ‘we are very grateful to be here.’
“We just saw it as God’s blessing, because it was really cool, but it wasn’t even in my plans to go, because we were during season, my dad had to work and there would’ve been economic costs. So, me going to LA wasn’t just about going to the ESPYs – I guess this is the frugal and planning person that I am!
“But then my teammates hopped in. Caroline Casey was amazing, and all my teammates, and people were super generous and kind enough to contribute economically, and then Penn State also helped out.
“I think the whole experience changed me because I was able to feel people’s love and support, and more specifically, God’s love to me through other people. We were enjoying every second of it when we were there, and the way I saw it, I was really happy to bring my dad, because he was my first coach, my number one fan.
“He’s a sports and soccer fanatic; a fanatic but he knows the game and he’s on top of everything. I sacrificed a lot for soccer growing up, but so did my dad and my mom, so it was something for us to celebrate and to bond over.”
Rocky likes to stay mainly low-key and take the opportunity to recharge when it arises, with Chipotle and movies among her most valued off-field teammates! As she paints the picture of what life is generally like when the game-day cameras have stopped rolling or training is done for the day, music returns for one last encore in our conversation.
“My teammates make fun of me because they say that I’m a bear and I just go and hibernate in my room and sleep a lot! Some days, I’m gonna be super tired and that’s what I want to do, just rest.
“I’ll try to nap; I’m not successful all the time, so people think I’m taking a nap when I’m just resting, but whatever! I always say I know my limits; I know that I can’t be as active as other people, that’s just who I am.
“Other days, so I’m a frustrated musician, right? I can kind of play the drums a little bit, but the drum set is huge and I can’t just travel with it around, and it’s also really loud, so this past off-season I tried to learn the guitar.
“Sometimes I’ll play the guitar, I’ll FaceTime my family, I’ll cook. Other times, I’ll hang out with teammates, I visit my host family (from last year) here in New Jersey, and I like to read as well.”
While she undertook her internship during the last off-season, Rocky was also working with the strength and conditioning coach back at Penn State. Alongside her unswerving commitment to her soccer story comes recognition of the fact that there is a certain occupational unpredictability involved – as she puts it, ‘one year I’m here, the next I’m not.’
Her value, though, continues to glisten in her second year with the NWSL-playoff-chasing Sky Blue, who are 6th and within four points of the top four with six games still to go. It is a place higher than their 2016 final standing, although head coach Christy Holly stepped down earlier this week, with the Northern Irishman’s tenure closing with three straight losses (Seattle Reign, Washington Spirit, Orlando Pride) in which they had actually scored five times, but conceded 14.
Further twists and turns most likely await before the regular-season conclusion of the league’s fifth edition, but Sky Blue are still very much in the conversation. Rocky, meanwhile, has scored three goals (two more than last year) and figured in all but one of their games, starting 15 and taking up a central role.
Her opportunism was on show back in May when she stabbed home a late winner to sink the Houston Dash at Yurcak Field, while a repeat of last season’s top-corner stunner against Washington would be just the tonic during the final run-in. Championship success has been a long time in the making in NJ, with August 2009’s unexpected WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer) glory against Los Angeles Sol at The Home Depot Center still waiting to be followed up.
The memories from securing the 1-0 win that day in the orange jerseys under the California sun remain strong, and if Rocky could help instigate an NWSL version eight years on, she would cherish her first pro title right alongside anything her career could ever bring her. It’s all there to be earned and created, though the notion that the truest value lies in the personal bonds carved out along the way is not lost on her.
Many who have long since reached their career’s finish line have told how they would perhaps stop to soak up the sights and surroundings that little bit more if they had their time over. Admittedly, that kind of perspective may be hard to find while a player is consistently preoccupied by the next game, the next season or any number of personal factors in their life.
Rocky, however, has been making a concerted effort to appreciate those aspects, and as we discussed the pockets of the globe that capture her imagination, she referred back to a time in Spain with Costa Rica’s Under-20s in which she was somewhat captivated by the culture. As well as hoping to return there one day, she also highlights a touch of fascination felt for Asia.
Interestingly, Rocky doesn’t especially identify as being all that much of a voyager, but soccer’s made her one anyway!
“I don’t consider myself that adventurous, but I do enjoy my job in terms of how we travel, which also can get super tiring, but I don’t lose sight of that this amazing. I’m literally getting to know the world.
“When I was a kid and I came into soccer, besides me having an intrinsic desire of just wanting to play, I remember saying to God, ‘I wanna play soccer to honour you.’ I came in to play soccer with that mindset, but now that I’m playing professionally, I just try to keep that mindset of ‘this is what I was given.’
“In more simple terms, soccer has given me the opportunity to connect with people in more unique ways. There’s nothing more valuable than people and soccer provides me that opportunity to know more people and to connect and to learn from them.
“Soccer has made me better because of the people that I’m surrounded with.”
Rocky once said it will take more than one person and one day to fully establish what she hopes to see for the women’s game back home, but as long as we help prepare women soccer players to thrive in whatever they choose outside soccer, that doesn’t matter. She’s already a success story for the realisation of her own childhood-held ambition, for how she found her way over the hurdles of a foreign culture to make it a second home, but arguably all the more so for what she continues to signify.
To think that there is a girl somewhere today in Costa Rica pulling on their jersey feeling safe in the knowledge that they belong in this sport, and that they have Rocky and her fellow ticas in their corner, should warm the heart of anyone, soccer lover or not. Most often, you will see her in midfield, but her ability, athleticism and all-round perception of the game is such that she will always offer versatility.
You could place Rocky in varying roles, although unquestionably, the area in which she can leave her imprint extends far beyond the field. Nevertheless, we head back there to finish up!
Without the pressure of three points, this scenario just brings that good old competitive fun, which alone will ensure it is more than intense enough! This has been the regular closing question on here over the last few years and it asks the interviewee to step into their imagination and picture themselves in a small-sided game.
Their team is one of five, so who might take up the other four places, from a selection pool of current or former teammates? There is no emphasis on naming any sort of ‘best’ four; just any quartet that would bring some valuable ingredients to the mix.
Rocky did begin mentioning Sky Blue teammates, though she ultimately opted for a La Sele special…
Shirley Cruz – Little surprise that the two-time UEFA Champions League-winning midfielder was first up here. The former Lyon and current Paris Saint-Germain player is Rocky’s captain for the national team.
Mariela Campos – A 26-year-old defender/midfielder, Campos was Rocky’s teammate at both the 2008 FIFA Under-17 World Cup in New Zealand and the Under-20 tournament in Germany in 2010.
Katherine Alvarado – Another 26-year-old, Alvarado sat beside Rocky and Shirley Cruz in that 2015 World Cup midfield, providing the defensive stability for Amelia Valverde’s team.
Gloriana Villalobos – Just 15 when selected for the 2015 World Cup and now starting her collegiate career at Florida State University, midfield prospect ‘Glori’ captained Costa Rica as they hosted the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in 2014, where they played to an opening crowd of 34,000 in San José against Venezuela.
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