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Penn State hero Rodriguez: Costa Rica’s next pioneer

Raquel Rodriguez lifted Penn State to its first national title on Sunday. The future is bright for her playing for Costa Rica and wherever she plays professionally.

Raquel Rodriguez lifted Penn State to its first national title on Sunday. The future is bright for her playing for Costa Rica and wherever she plays professionally.

CARY, N.C. — Raquel Rodriguez’s 72nd-minute goal was all that separated Penn State and Duke on Sunday in the College Cup final.

The goal itself was a beautiful piece of attacking brilliance in a game largely dominated by top-notch defending. The midfielder received the ball around the six-yard box, made a half-spin and released a left-footed shot as she fell to the ground.

The goal was as beautiful as it was big.

It was certainly huge for Penn State, helping to deliver the prominent program’s first national title, but the impact could also be felt some 2,000 miles away in Rodriguez’s homeland of Costa Rica.

[MORE: Penn State wins NCAA title for first time behind Rodriguez goal]

By the time she came into the postgame press conference, still carrying the Costa Rican flag she draped over her shoulders following the final whistle, a GIF of her goal was already making rounds in the Costa Rican press.

When asked about her accomplishments this year — which also included scoring Costa Rica’s first-ever goal in a Women’s World Cup — and what it means on a macro level, the composed manner in which she answered was rivaled only by her composure on the field.

“It has been amazing. I would never imagine that it would be this cool,” Rodriguez said. “I also understand that as a women’s soccer player from Costa Rica there is a certain responsibility, and I know and hope that with this and the opportunity to speak with the media, to keep the game growing. I know that it is still growing in Costa Rica and I think there is a lot of talent, but there is not much awareness. I hope to be that advocate and contribute to change at home and in general with women’s soccer.”

Rodriguez admits that although she knew the College Cup existed as a kid, she really only had vague knowledge of it. Now, with the advent of social media and Rodriguez’s highlight reel goal, perhaps young girls in Costa Rica and other parts of the world where women’s soccer isn’t as readily received will learn about the college game and the NCAA tournament. Perhaps they’ll even dream of one day being in Rodriguez’s cleats.

Accomplishing any worthy goal or dream requires some measure of risk. Rodriguez is a perfect example of this tenet. Rewind to four years prior: The skillful, creative player took a huge risk when she moved from her native Costa Rica to play soccer for the Nittany Lions in rural Pennsylvania.

Although Rodriguez, who goes by the nickname “Rocky,” wasn’t the first Costa Rican to play collegiate women’s soccer in the U.S., she’s the first to play at such a preeminent program and find so much success. It’s hard to not draw parallels between Rodriguez and Shirley Cruz, captain of the Costa Rican national team and the only Costa Rica National Team member currently playing professionally abroad.

Much like Rodriguez, Cruz took a massive risk when she left home at the age of 20 to play for Lyon in France. Leaving family and familiar settings to live in an unfamiliar environment half a world away is certainly an arduous undertaking.

But the parallels don’t stop there. Both are attacking midfielders who have taken on leadership roles with their respective teams. Cruz is the vice-captain of PSG and Rodriguez is a captain at Penn State. Most importantly, the two are incredibly talented.

Cruz is undoubtedly the most accomplished Costa Rican female soccer player to date. She’s played for two of the top clubs in Europe, having won the coveted Championship League trophy with Lyon in 2011 and 2012 and a handful of French league titles.

The PSG midfielder who turned 30 this year has led the way for women’s soccer in Costa Rica and while she could have plenty of soccer left in her, Rodriguez, 22, represents the next generation.

[KASSOUF: Shirley Cruz a pioneer for Costa Rica women’s soccer]

This year, in addition to scoring those two very important goals, Rodriguez was named a first team All-American and a MAC Hermann trophy semifinalist, the award given to the best college soccer player in the country. After last weekend’s performance, few would be surprised if her name was announced as the winner come Jan. 8.

Either way, Cruz and Rodriguez represent the very best of Costa Rican and Central American women’s soccer. They’ve shown what is possible and also brought much-needed attention to the sport.

Fittingly, it may not be too long before people are discussing another special Costa Rican midfielder, Gloriana Villalobos. The 16-year-old was the youngest player at the Women’s World Cup this summer. In the 2014 U-17 Women’s World Cup, she dazzled crowds on home soil, earning the nickname “little giant.” While it’s hard to say what the future holds especially for someone as young as Villalobos, it’s an exciting time for Costa Rican soccer.

In the postgame press conference following Penn State’s victory Sunday, Rodriguez was asked an impossible question: Which goal was more special, the goal in the World Cup or the goal to win the national title? Shaking her head laughing, Rodriguez answered the question diplomatically.

“No, I think that every goal is special and those two you just cannot compare either of them…It is another dream come true,” she said. “Those dreams aren’t more or less, they are all special and that’s why they are dreams.”

With the dream of a national title accomplished, she’ll now start to think about the next one – playing professional soccer. The star midfielder says she’s open to where she’ll play next, stating that the NWSL is a possible destination. No matter where she ends up, it looks like she’s just getting started scoring special goals.


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