Raquel Rodriguez was just 10 years old, growing up in Costa Rica, when she was first told that her childhood dream was silly. Trying to become a women’s professional soccer player, people said, was a waste of her time.
“You will never play in a full stadium because no one wants to watch you play,” they told her. “No one cares about women’s soccer.”
These comments are difficult for Rodriguez to forget, even 13 years later after she’s accomplished so much of what she set out to do. Last year, Rodriguez became a women’s professional soccer player when she was selected second overall by Sky Blue FC at the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) draft. Prior to that, she helped Penn State win a NCAA national title and was awarded the Mac Herman Trophy.
This past Sunday, Rodriguez proved she even has more fire going into her second season when the midfielder scored the late game-winning goal for Sky Blue FC against Kansas City to win the home opener and earn Player of the Match honors.
— Sky Blue FC (@SkyBlueFC) May 1, 2017
[More from Excelle Sports: Sky Blue FC midfielder Raquel Rodriguez earns NWSL Rookie of the Year]
But even after all this, Rodriguez still has to dream. And she’d tell anyone else that the successes she’s enjoyed to date all started because she was willing to fight for that dream.
“When I heard those things, I would get very mad and argue back,” Rodriguez, who grew up in San Jose, Costa Rica, told Excelle Sports. “It was frustrating. I would get very mad because I wanted to play professionally.”
Sadly, Rodriguez soon learned there was some truth in what she was being told.
“When I was a kid, I remember hearing about Mia Hamm and then Abby Wambach, but I didn’t know about any Costa Rican [women players],” she said. “No one really cared about women’s soccer [in Costa Rica]. It was not popular at all.
“It was frustrating to see that my dreams were not going to be possible, at least in my home country. That’s why I was willing to leave my country and go for it.”
Rodriguez took a major step in 2012 when Penn State’s coaching staff saw her play on the Costa Rican youth national team and offered her what she calls “an amazing opportunity” to come to the U.S. The Nittany Lions were one of a handful of colleges that recruited her.
At the same time, Rodriguez continued to compete for Costa Rica, becoming the centerpiece of the country’s national team in 2015 after she scored three goals in the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Footbal’s (CONCACAF) qualifying tournament to help Las Ticas advance to its first-ever World Cup.
Costa Rica’s World Cup appearance transformed women’s soccer at home and brought new notoriety to Rodriguez, who scored the country’s first-ever World Cup goal in the 14th minute of the opener against Spain, one minute after Spain had taken the lead. Costa Rica notched another draw to highly respected North Korea before being eliminated by Brazil 1-0 on an 83rd-minute goal.
“The World Cup in 2015 was an end to an era of when women’s soccer was not accepted [in Costa Rica],” she said. “Now the players on the national team are role models for the kids who are coming next. That in itself is a huge difference.”
After the World Cup, Rodriguez continued to impress as senior captain of the Penn State team, leading the Nittany Lions to the 2015 NCAA title months later by scoring the game-winning goal in the final against Duke. Her performance earned her the Mac Hermann trophy. That spring, she began her first pro season with Sky Blue FC.
— Tom Slater (@TomSlater18) January 15, 2016
[More from Excelle Sports: Raquel Rodriguez: Rookie for club, veteran for country]
“My career at Penn State was an absolute dream, but playing professionally was almost like starting all over again,” said Rodriguez, who started in 17 of the 18 games she played for Sky Blue FC last season. “It was like one chapter closed, all the accolades were done, and I had to earn a spot on the team.”
Rodriguez’s rookie season marked a critical step in her career, she says.
“I had to learn about all the little things professional athletes have to do—taking care of your body, planning trips, the food you are eating, when to rest,” she said. “Last year, I didn’t know how to handle it, but this year I do.”
Yet it had been difficult at first for Rodriguez to figure out what she needed to do. She was surrounded by seasoned pros, so she watched, listened and asked questions.
“I was really observing everyone,” she said. “You hear conversations, you see what other players do and you learn from them. I learned a lot of things from Sarah Killion, but I would also ask questions of Christie Rampone or Kelley O’Hara—everyone really. They have many years of playing elite soccer. It’s smart to pay attention and ask questions.”
A year of learning has also paid off in Costa Rica, where many, including her parents, now follow Sky Blue FC on the Internet. And while Rodriguez is ready to immerse herself in her second pro season, she says she’ll also keep a close eye on the progress of women’s soccer back home.
Costa Rican soccer star Raquel Rodríguez: It's time to talk about equal pay https://t.co/YOpTpAs5lJ
— Miguel Ayala (@ayalamiguel24) May 12, 2016
“I feel it’s very important for me to promote women’s soccer in Costa Rica,” she said. “I try to use social media as much as I can. I’m very interested in being the best example I can be and performing to the best of my ability.’
If Rodriguez has her way, every Costa Rican girl with an aspiration to be pro player won’t be told that no one cares about their passion or that they need to find a new dream.
“It’s very personal,” she said. “I want to be model of someone who made it. It’s important for kids to see that and to be encouraged. I just try to keep in mind that I have little girls watching me. There are people of every age watching, but the little ones are the most important target. They are watching us. I want to be a good influence for them, even though I don’t know them.”
Rodriguez is also committed to advancing equality for her country’s national team. Since living in the U.S., she’s continued to challenge the Costa Rican Federation for back pay and help work toward improving conditions for the women’s team. Things are getting better, too, with many Costa Rican national players now competing in Europe and South America.
“We broke barriers and stigmas,” said Rodriguez. “We still have a long way to go to reach a time when we have professional soccer. But some professional clubs in Costa Rican are investing in women’s soccer now. Hopefully, we qualify for another World Cup and we bring more attention to our sport. Then maybe we can ask for more.”
Turns out the dreams of a 10-year-old weren’t all that silly after all.