Even more than a year later, Raquel Rodriguez says scoring Costa Rica’s first World Cup goal is “a little unreal.” And as Costa Rica prepare to help send the mighty United States off to the Olympics as guests in a Friday night friendly at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, the now 22-year old face of Costa Rican women’s soccer is looking for her team to keep making small steps forward.
Looking back first, it was June 9, 2015 in Montreal. Costa Rica and Spain were squaring off in a Group E match with served as the first World Cup match for both countries. In the 13th minute Spain went ahead.
“Spain had just scored on us and right after their goal I remember we were attacking. I saw that my teammate (Lixy Rodriguez, no relation) was going to go end line and was going to cross me the ball. So I prepared myself to get into the box. She crossed it, it came right to be, and I just pushed it in. After that we were just celebrating.
“I will never forget that moment.”
That match ended 1-1 giving Costa Rica a point. They drew their second match as well, 2-2 against South Korea on an 89th minute equalizer by Karla Villalobos. Next was group powers Brazil, and despite a fine effort, Costa Rica fell 1-0, ending their chances of reaching the knockout stage. (an 1-1 draw would have sent them into a drawing of lots with Sweden for the final Round of 16 berth.)
“It was maybe a successful World Cup, but on the other hand we weren’t satisfied because I believe we could have gone to the next stage,” Rodriguez said. “As an athlete you always strive for more. I think maybe with more preparation or with better resources in general we could have achieved much more. At the same time we cannot forget that it was our first World Cup and everything that happened was historic. It was worth celebrating the achievements we made as a team.”
Preparation and resources. Both were buzz words in Canada last summer as fans watched scores of talented players and wondered, ‘how good could this team be if they actually trained together more?’
Rodriguez says that communication between the players and the Costa Rican federation has improved since the World Cup and she believes there will be more resources invested next time Las Ticas qualifies for a major tournament. How to get to qualifying though is another story. At the Olympic qualifying tournament earlier this year, Costa Rica scored a decisive win over Mexico that booked a ticket to the semifinals and made them CONCACAF’s de facto No. 3 behind the United States and Canada.
But in the qualify-or-die semifinal against Canada, a late Rodriguez penalty was not enough to spak a ccomeback and a late Canada goal made for a 3-1 final. That match was February 19. Friday’s friendly against the United States will be the first time the team has gathered since.
“This year we don’t really have any competitions so it’s understandable that we don’t really have any camps,” she said.
Friday’s match against the United States will be against a side that spends several weeks a year in camp together, sometimes without even preparing for a specific match. That combined with the CONCACAF continuing to use condensed tournaments as qualifiers for major events makes for major stumbling blocks to countries like Costa Rica catching up.
“That’s not the ideal scenario of course,” Rodriguez continued, “but we have to understand that change doesn’t just come after one day. It happens through time. I think it’s getting better.”
If Costa Rica’s win over Mexico in Olympic qualifying was a signal that they have vaulted to No. 3, the 5-0 loss to the United States five days earlier was a stark reminder of how big the climb to the top is (in between, the United States scraped by Mexico 1-0 so not all score lines offer perfect context.) So how do Rodriguez and her teammates approach their 90-minute cameo against the reigning World Cup and Olympic champions?
“For sure we take these games as opportunities to first of all get together and play,” she said. “If we wouldn’t have had this game we wouldn’t even be together playing. I think these are opportunities to grow and to learn. But of course it’s really tough. You wish you would compete under the same conditions. But that’s just not the reality. Our attitude is key. Just going out and learning and taking it as an opportunity to get better and play with each other.”
Qualifying for and playing in the World Cup was part of a very good year for Raquel Rodriguez. When it as over she returned to Penn State where she ushered out her college career by winning both the national championship and the MAC Hermann Trophy as the country’s best player. In January she was the No. 2 pick in the NWSL draft by Sky Blue FC who trade up that morning to grab her.
As for the World Cup, a year later, Rodriguez still holds fond memories. She calls scoring for Costa Rica “a dream come true” and cherishes that so many people she cares about were able to be with her in Canada.
“I remember many, many things,” she said. “Other than the goal, to me personally what was really cool was a lot of friends came over to support me. That meant a lot to me just having people there supporting me physically. I know my family and every person in Costa Rica was supporting us. But having other people physically at the World Cup and visiting at the hotel was really special to me.
“And just the environment in general at the World Cup. The experience in general was really nice.”