Analysis

History tells us to never count out Amy Rodriguez

ISI Photos-Amy Kontras

A-Rod's comeback lasted less than an hour for FC Kansas City this season, but a circuitous path to the top offers hope of a return.

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I don’t think of her runs through the defense, as unparalleled as they are. I don’t think of a work ethic that, with time, has come to rival any player’s in the United States women’s national team’s pool.

No, when I think of Amy Rodriguez, the first thing that comes to mind is reading a text in 2013 telling me the then-Seattle Reign striker was pregnant.

I didn’t know what to do. Pregnancy is a private thing; I froze. Was this a place for privacy, or was it a place for news? Given the Reign was set to announce not only the news but, soon after, a trade trying to compensate for her loss, I eventually reported the story, though that didn’t eliminate all doubts. You never truly know if you’re doing right by somebody when you have to make that call.

I had to grow up a little bit that night. You can say I grew up with, or thanks to, “A-Rod.” For a lot of women’s soccer journalists you read, though, that’s probably not uncommon. So many of my peers came into their careers over the last 12 years, during the time Rodriguez and her peers came into theirs.

On Tuesday, Rodriguez’s current team, FC Kansas City, confirmed what many of us suspected since Sunday, when the 130-time U.S. international was stretchered from her team’s season opener shortly into the second half. This time, there was no debate. Until the diagnosis was official, there was no reason to break the news.

Unfortunately, the worst was true. Rodriguez had suffered a torn left ACL. For the third time in five campaigns, she will miss an NWSL season, only unlike her absences with recent pregnancies, some may wonder if the 30-year-old will come back at all.

Given what she’s already fought through, however, it would be silly to assume Rodriguez is done. She already stated her intent to return in 2018, and her history of perseverance tells us that those aren’t empty words.

This is a person who, in the old days of Women’s Professional Soccer, was given up on by her first team and returned from international play “destroyed,” in the words of her coach, with her second. This is a striker who’d lost her place in the national team only to eventually reclaim it, and, at the 2015 World Cup, won the only team honor that had failed to adorn her mantle. This is a player who, traded from the Reign before ever playing a game in Seattle, returned to the field to spearhead FC Kansas City to consecutive NWSL crowns.

Go ahead and count out Amy Rodriguez. She’s come back before, doing so three times over. If she plays again for FC Kansas City, it will be another in a series of dramatic turns – changes that, for better or worse, remind us how wrong we always are.

Once 'destroyed' and twice a conqueror

Lauren Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Lauren Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The first surprise from Rodriguez also primed her stardom, with two senior-team caps as a high school senior putting her on our radars in 2005. Three more caps the next year, then none in the 2007 World Cup year, augured her big break out, when she made 28 appearances and won an Olympic gold medal in 2008. The next year, when she was the first overall pick in the initial WPS college draft, her ascent was complete. The Boston Breakers and their World Cup-winning coach, Tony DiCicco, immediately had the league’s best young attacking talent.

This was a time when, along with Tobin Heath and Lauren Cheney (nee Holiday), Rodriguez was one of the “New Kids” U.S. Soccer seemed eager to promote. Yet, like Heath and Holiday, she wasn’t an immediate hit as a professional. After one year in Boston, she was traded to the expansion Philadelphia Independence, with the Breakers electing to give up on their prize selection to go back in the draft. Holiday, it turned out, would be asked to provide what Rodriguez could not.

That move proved the start of a pattern, one that saw Rodriguez rise from each of her falls. Responding to a one-goal year between club and country, A-Rod revitalized her career in Philadelphia, repaying head coach Paul Riley’s seemingly blind confidence with a 13-goal season and WPS Best XI honors. Her seven goals for the national team - seven more than she scored in 2009 - proved she wasn’t quite aimless as we’d thought, and the Independence’s unlikely run to that year’s WPS final proved that a contender could be built around Rodriguez’s talents.

The next year, though, she was down again, returning from a World Cup in Germany where, despite the United States’ runner-up finish, Rodriguez descended to a new low.

“She has no confidence whatsoever. Not in practice. Not in games,” Riley proclaimed, with then U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage subbing Alex Morgan for A-Rod four times during that summer’s finals. “I think Pia’s destroyed her, absolutely destroyed her.”

Over the next two years, Rodriguez’s descent continued. Her national team starts went from 18 to five between 2011 and 2012, and by the time U.S. Soccer allocated players to NWSL teams in 2013, there were doubts about Rodriguez’s future. When news broke she would sit out the league’s inaugural season, a national team featuring Morgan, Abby Wambach, Sydney Leroux and Christen Press seemed to be moving beyond her. And when Laura Harvey, having added general manager to her head coach’s role in Seattle, dealt her to Kansas City, Rodriguez’s route to irrelevance seemed charted.

Even more than the psychological trials Rodriguez went through in WPS, her comeback in Kansas City reminds us: A-Rod has become somebody that’s beyond giving up on. After two years without league play, Rodriguez returned in 2014 better than we’d ever seen her before. She was not only an along-the-line run-maker that could tie a center backs in knots; she had become a clinical finisher, scoring 13 times in 22 games to be the league’s most prolific forward.

Teamed with Holiday, the friend who had replaced her in Boston, Rodriguez delivered the title she came just short of claiming in Philadelphia. One year after stepping away from the game, Rodriguez had become the most productive striker in the U.S. pool.

That form earned her redemption - a spot on the 2015 World Cup roster. When, later that year, Rodriguez helped guide Kansas City to second straight title, scoring her third championship-game goal in two years, she was at her professional apex. A few months later, when her second pregnancy was announced, there was no doubt Rodriguez could return.

Sunday was that return. Unfortunately, it lasted less than an hour, but even during that time, Rodriguez reminded us of her value, scoring Kansas City’s second goal and serving as a focal point for a team that had lost its identity with Holiday’s retirement the year before.

Although Rodriguez was forced from the game shortly after scoring, we have been down this path with her before. Too many times, we’ve been given reason to doubt A-Rod’s future. And too many times, she’s proven us wrong.

Tuesday’s news was demoralizing, and for those of us who’ve come into our soccer maturity with Rodriguez, there’s a sobriety that comes with an injury to someone so familiar. But that familiarity also tells us A-Rod should never be written off. If history tells us anything, it’s that Rodriguez will respond.

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Richard Farley is the deputy editor of FourFourTwo USA. Follow him on Twitter @richardfarley.