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Raquel Rodríguez interview (Part One): Soul, goals and how the Raque began to roll – A personal play of Pura Vida for Costa Rica’s history-maker

 

At each of her significant junctures, it seems Sky Blue FC midfielder Raquel Rodríguez manages to find an opportune moment to sign her name over a little pocket of history. A national championship-winning Penn State University career helped make her the adopted American she is, but her Costa Rican pride beats in time with all she does, and it was right there when her most treasured elements came together in a blissful crescendo, one June day, two years ago.

For its various plus points and areas undoubtedly still to refine, one especially illuminating characteristic of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is how sparkling talents from all over the globe can be seen dotted around each game week. The domestic core is considerable in America’s third and most successful pro women’s league, but the personalities from Brazil and Argentina, to Norway, Nigeria, New Zealand and more in between make it the kind of style and culture clash to relish.

When it comes to the league’s sole Costa Rican player, Raquel Rodríguez Cedeño, she is a little more accustomed to the American way than most. Concluding her Penn State career with a national title and the prestigious MAC Hermann Trophy for herself in 2015, the coveted midfield/forward prospect was headed for New Jersey as Sky Blue took her at number two in last year’s College Draft.

Nobody else has embarked upon quite the same path as the 23-year-old, with the very nature of that trail making her the unique NWSL ingredient she is. Setting benchmarks is something she does well, from pouncing to settle the College Cup final with Duke two years ago, to notching NWSL Rookie of the Year last season.

This June, she even stole in to strike the fastest goal in the NWSL’s five-season history, dispatching Sam Kerr’s pass with a low finish at Portland Thorns’ Providence Park after only 24.76 seconds. As her articulate and expressive manner always hints at, though, there is a world or two more behind her character, and appreciating what matters most in her life is a pretty good starting point to understanding that.

The San José native felt the glow of those most cherished fundamentals more than she ever had, as she delivered Costa Rica’s very first FIFA Women’s World Cup goal in June 2015. That close-range effort in a 1-1 draw came after great work from Lixy Rodríguez down the left and immediately cancelled out Spain’s early lead in Montreal, though the grip of the euphoria would be felt for some time after the final whistle.

Love of her country, connection to her faith, momentous on-field happiness her family could share, and then music to let her live it all on another level in her own private corner after the game. ‘Rocky’ recalls exactly why that day brought the shivers reserved only for songs that strike us in the rawest, most powerful way, when it feels as if the world is on pause for a moment.

“I remember after our first game against Spain, I scored the goal and it was like a dream come true. It meant a lot to me and I remember on the way back to the hotel I was crying, because I just felt very grateful to God.

“I was listening to a Marcos Vidal (Spanish Christian singer) song that talks about ‘as long as I live, I will talk about him and sing his name’ etc.”

A student of International Christian School in Heredia, Rocky’s academic focus and English proficiency were every bit as key as her soccer ability in earning her a spot at Penn State. She speaks her second language with such fluency and confidence now that it would be easy to believe she’d grown up in the U.S. That isn’t quite the case, although she did have some American tutors to help her once upon a time…five of them, in fact.

“I actually remember we didn’t buy the CD but a family member gave it to us, and it was Backstreet Boys. I remember me and my brother loved it; my brother’s three years older than me, and it’s just us two.

“I think I was eight or nine, and I remember I would play that CD like a thousand times and sing to the songs all the time, in the house by myself or with my mother, whatever.

“It’s funny, around that age we were learning English but we couldn’t talk it fluently yet, so we’d mess around and pretend we knew and make these sounds that sounded like English, but we had no idea what we were talking about. With the songs, it was similar; I’d make the sounds like how it sounded, and I’d get ‘Backstreet’s back…alright!’ but not the other lyrics!”

 

Before her World Cup moment of history as number 11, Rocky was number 9 in Costa Rican colours, as she cheered on the men’s national team with her older brother, Sivianni.

 

Music was a bridge of sorts as Rocky started to join the dots in understanding English, while it was also a very visible fibre in her native culture. The Latin rhythms are of course guaranteed a place in the three-time CONCACAF Female Player of the Year nominee’s collection today.

“It’s a huge part of the culture. My mom used to work when I was a kid but she also used to work in the house, so when she’d clean the house or on a Saturday morning, she would blast that music up.

“She was also like a gym instructor, so she would give spinning lessons or aerobics, and in the house, she would have to make the routines, so of course music was there. I also grew up listening to Christian songs because my mom would play it all the time, and in parties, you know, it’s not a party without music.

“I believe that’s true for many cultures, but in our case, it’s a lot of salsa, merengue, and then when you go on a trip, like family vacation, if you went to the beach or the river, music is always there. It’s a huge part of everyday life.

“I enjoy pretty much everything except bachata, if we’re talking about genres, which is weird because I’m Hispanic, but there’s some of us who don’t like bachata! I guess heavy metal rock and rap, there’s only so much I can take, but other than that I like everything really.

“I love Hillsong United, for example, and I also love Bruno Mars, Justin Bieber, kind of the popular songs that come up. I love Daddy Yankee, Kim Walker-Smith – she’s a Christian singer – Rihanna.

“I also love 70s and 80s music; Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire.”

Although we can turn to music for a flood of different reasons – when seeking nostalgia, strength or release, in solitude and in the best times with people – some of our habits and choices related to it can say so much. Rocky loves to dance and sing when she’s around her team and the mood takes her, but as she reveals, it takes decidedly more than just something catchy to really resonate with her.

“In soccer and outside of soccer as well, Christian music just really helps me; it’s a huge part for me. If I had to pick a genre, it would probably be the most important, just because of my values and my beliefs.

“Whether it’s on a game day or a day off, Christian music is present for me most of the time, because of the lyrics but also the meaning of the songs. I’m an emotional person, so the kind of songs that I would listen to, to get motivated, are not necessarily upbeat; most people classify them as sad songs but they get me going because of the meaning.

“That’s powerful to me, so there’s this singer called Marcos Vidal, he’s Spanish, he’s Christian, but his songs are like very classical. I do have more modern, upbeat Christian songs; there’s one that’s called ‘In the River’ by (Jesus Culture featuring) Kim Walker-Smith.

“Then on the playlist there’s ones like Justin Bieber ‘What Do You Mean?’, Bruno Mars ‘Chunky’ – that’s a great one.”

That kind of fun feel wouldn’t take you all day to find at Sky Blue, and back at Penn State, it was pivotal in ensuring Rocky could start to feel at home and able to thrive. Going off to college isn’t all moments of enjoyment and immense freedom; it can feel enough of an obstacle for anyone, let alone somebody thrown into a new culture bearing both sharp and subtle differences.

Suddenly needing to converse daily in a language she wasn’t yet entirely confident in, Rocky needed time to come out of her shell, as she’ll recount in much more detail in the second half of this interview. Crucially, she was welcomed by staff and counterparts, making a sizeable freshman impact on the field as she scored four and registered a career-best ten assists on her way to appearing in the Nittany Lions’ 2012 College Cup final loss to North Carolina.

For all the driven focus an athlete has, a support system means the world. Having the environment to free up any anxiousness is huge, and Rocky describes how music has always helped amplify that since she first arrived in America.

“From Penn State, Britt Eckerstrom dances, Ellie Jean can sing and dance, and Maddie Elliston can definitely sing. From Sky Blue, Tash (Kai), she’s a great dancer, and singer, actually.

“Kailen Sheridan, Domi Richardson, there’s so many at Sky Blue. Kailen and Domi, they’re great dancers, we dance all the time, we joke all the time, and Caroline Casey dances sometimes.”

When she was a kid, Rocky would close her eyes and dream of playing at packed stadiums, before swiftly feeling an overwhelming angst at how it just didn’t seem something she could live out for real. There were 14,287 there at Portland’s Providence Park to see her and Tasha Kai bring out the Hawaiian dance after Kai’s opener against the Thorns last July, while 16,736 at the same venue saw Rocky’s league-record-setting opener this season.

It would be easy to assume that someone so regularly called upon to perform in front of audiences in the thousands would quite favour that sort of setting in their free time, too. For Rocky, though, it’s actually a little different, as she highlights when discussing her live music experiences.

“I can’t think of like a big concert that I’ve gone to – I’m not crazy about going to events with huge crowds – but when I was at Penn State, there’s this annual concert called Winter Jam, so they bring in several Christian artists. That was really cool, that was an indoor arena.

“If you go to a smaller scale I guess, I have a cousin in Costa Rica, so I’ve seen them play live. Music is huge in my family; on my mom’s side, my grandfather was a composer and one of my cousins from that side of the family plays bass in the band and his sister sings, like on the radio.

“I don’t go crazy about going to concerts; I can go and I can enjoy them, but I can also live without them! Now that I think about it, I would love to see Hillsong United live, like in a huge crowd, because it would end up a huge worship concert, which I would enjoy so much.

“Number one would be that one, number two would be probably Bruno Mars or Justin Bieber.”

As Rocky has garnered wider attention in the past couple of years, she has often been asked about the barriers she faced as a girl in Costa Rica who just wanted to play soccer. Even from family members, there was considerable scepticism as people told her it held no future for her and that it would make much more sense to direct her focus elsewhere.

One voice she could always hear in her corner was that of her father, Sivianni, himself once a national team player. Long-time Paris Saint-Germain midfielder and current captain of Las Ticas, Shirley Cruz, was an inspiration she would be able to look to as a teen, and today, the 31-year-old former Lyon player is a valued friend as well as a teammate.

Nevertheless, the childhood Rocky with Costa Rican blue, white and red painted proudly on her face knew of only a men’s national team to idolise, and she and her older brother (also named Sivianni) passionately supported them in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. Alongside a Brazilian who mesmerised and enchanted in his years at the top in the mid-2000s, Rocky’s favourite player was a braided winger who led a nomadic club career while figuring alongside premier Costa Rican names like Paulo Wanchope, Walter Centeno and Rónald Gómez at international level.

“I remember at the time, Ronaldinho was my idol, for sure. There was also this national team player, his name was William Sunsing; not that it isn’t now, but that was a great national team at the time.”

Back then, a girl growing up in Costa Rica didn’t have a Shirley Cruz or a Raquel Rodríguez to show just how much the game was hers to play, too. Just seven years ago, the women’s national team was FIFA-ranked as low as 106th, whereas now, they sit 75 places higher.

 

Rocky (right) with her international teammate, Paris Saint-Germain midfielder and Costa Rica captain Shirley Cruz. instagram.com/raque_rocky

 

Going along with her brother as a four-year-old to the Saturday soccer sessions their dad ran for local kids, Rocky had a successful tryout at 11 for the women’s team of a notable men’s club, despite Under-15 being their youngest age group. Her dad once played for the top-flight C.S. Herediano in Costa Rica, a club currently coached by another of that men’s national team generation Rocky used to look up to, former forward Hernán Medford.

Sivianni was chief conductor as his daughter was allowed to fall freely in love with the game while having some expert guidance.

“I just think I had two types of coaching, if that makes sense. The former one was with my dad and it was very technical; he made sure that I would practice with both feet, whatever I did with my right I had to do with my left.

“It was very technical with touches on the ball, how you hit the ball, how you make a pass. It was very small things, like little details, but then I also used to play in my school, on the playground, or on vacations I would play in my neighbourhood.

“We would put two rocks on each side and there were no rules, so I think I was able to put into practice what I was subconsciously learning, because I was just a kid, I was following instructions. Whatever my dad told me, I would do, but then when I would play in the neighbourhood or in the school, it was also a kind of training that I didn’t realise.

“There were no rules so you had to be kind of savvy; you had to be creative and find ways to score. That was so much fun but I think it also had to do with how I was shaped as a soccer player, the skills that I have.”

Playing for her high school team while still an elementary student, Rocky would eventually have to put the school team aside to focus on her progress with the youth national setup. She had only just turned 15 when she flew over 7,000 miles to New Zealand to play at the inaugural FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup in 2008.

There she would face Germany stars of the future like Dzsenifer Marozsán, Tabea Kemme and Alexandra Popp, before scoring Costa Rica’s only goal of the tournament, against North Korea in Christchurch. Two years later, she represented the Under-20s at the World Cup in Germany, breaking through with the senior team during the 2010 CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup in Mexico, where La Sele finished fourth.

In that 2011 World Cup qualifying tournament, Rocky had not long turned 17 as she competed for Randall Chacón’s team against a U.S. side including Lauren Cheney, Abby Wambach and someone she now knows well, Sky Blue captain Christie Pearce. The Rocky of today is naturally more of an all-round player, with a steel to go with the silkiness, as well as a grasp on how to balance her midfield responsibilities going both ways.

So many greats of the game learned the tools of their trade from kicking a ball around every minute they could growing up. There’s the back yard, the street, a playground or patch of grass at school, and who hasn’t watched nervously as a ball they kicked in the house whistled past (if you were lucky) something fragile?

There’s a strong argument that the love affair we strike up with the game as kids has been compromised in recent times, with young players perhaps not given the freedom to just play for fun and learn naturally, particularly those placed in academies so young. It can vary to quite a large extent depending on your surroundings, but when you’re competing against other players as a child and into your teen years, you develop so much in how to perceive the game, with the physical element of course included.

Taking her time with how she described this, Rocky articulates her feelings on whether there was a need to be able to handle herself when she played back then.

“To some extent, yes. When I played in my neighbourhood, because I was a girl, I feel like they would be careful with me until I started to beat them!

“Then they would be like ‘heck no, she’s a girl, she’s not beating me.’ I remember also in elementary school, the kids didn’t like that I beat them, so they would come in hard.

“I don’t know to what level other players have had to avoid getting injured, but I definitely had those moments. If I had the ball, I knew they were coming in hard, so I had to move the ball or make a pass quickly and get it again, whatever it was.

“I mean I have scars on my shins, but I’m sure that if I would get beat, I wouldn’t like that and so I’d go in hard as well. Definitely I would get hits, but I would hit hard sometimes, I’m not gonna lie.

“As much as I hate to say that, that’s what it was.”

As current and former student athletes from far and wide will confirm, it’s a long way from easy to complete a season of college soccer, with academic expectations and the social side to add in on top of it all. Stepping up to play pro understandably represents another level up, from the pre-season to the real thing of game days, and the schedule lasts for considerably longer of course.

As you’ll find out in part two of this, Rocky knows the importance of when to rest…and she quite likes it! Once a Real Madrid lover before a Ronaldinho-inspired switch to Barcelona, she will find time to watch both men’s and women’s soccer these days if she has a TV or her iPad close by, while some Sky Blue teammates will get together on occasions if a game is on.

Back home, Rocky follows the 33-time champions of Costa Rica, Deportivo Saprissa (aka El Monstruo Morado or The Purple Monster), based in San Juan de Tibás, San José. In college, she majored in Recreation, Park and Tourism Management and had an internship to undertake this past off-season as part of completing that degree.

Something she has carried with her throughout those college years and through to now is the desire to fulfil a wider purpose through her career and to help change the landscape for women’s soccer in Costa Rica. The support Rocky was afforded from staff at Penn State left a lasting impression on her and she has spoken before about some of her initial ideas on what she could help to implement back home one day, in terms of a program or structure.

The fact that she holds that so strongly in her thoughts at 23, and while she balances being a professional and international athlete with trying to make the most of her young-adult life and the places and people it brings, says much about her. She admits to fretting a little previously about what will be her plan beyond playing, though she is learning to trust that it will all come together in its own time.

“I think by the time I finish soccer, I will have a better idea of how it would look like, because I still am very interested in inspiring girls to chase their dreams. It gets tricky because I want to play professional soccer as much as I can, and actually in this off-season I was finishing school and doing my internship and everything.

“I was feeling stressed because I don’t know what I want to do after soccer; I have an idea what I like, what I don’t like, but I don’t know what shape it will take, me inspiring little girls. As of right now, I don’t know how that’s going to look, but yes, I’m still interested in promoting women’s soccer in Costa Rica, it just seems so far at the moment and I don’t have much detail.

“I think as a soccer player right now, what I can do is be the best role model I can be. That’s the conclusion I got to for now – what can I do as a soccer player, how am I making this useful?”

For all she’s achieving and striving for, the example she sets and the voice she is for others through media channels, Rocky can rest easy knowing that she is already making a marked impact. Of the many things still to come in part two, there is her assertion that she’s ‘a frustrated musician’, so we blow the whistle on the first half on that very note!

There is actually a singer today who shares the name Raquel Rodríguez, but what if Sky Blue and Costa Rica’s Raque was the one recording? More specifically, if Rocky and one or more of her career teammates covered a song…well, what kind of form would that take?!

“I’m sure I’ve thought about this before, I know I have, give me just a second. From the national team, her name’s Katherine Alvarado (midfielder), because she’s a great singer and we actually sang karaoke together before, or in the bus.

“If she would speak English…(thinking of a song they would cover)…’Beauty and the Beast’, but the new one, John Legend and Ariana Grande! I love John Legend, by the way, and Sam Smith.”

Still to come in part two, the official birth of her ‘Rocky’ nickname, hopes and fears as she moved to America, why she’ll one day remember to welcome a young player like Tasha Kai welcomed her, and much more of music, teammates and the person to get to know behind that number 11 jersey.

To catch part two of this, and each music interview with the players, you can follow me: @chris_brookes

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