USWNT Wins In Rout, But Raquel Rodriguez, Costa Rica Steal Show
FRISCO, Texas -- Fans who showed up for only the second game of the night at Toyota Stadium left satisfied.
Why wouldn't they? They saw the United States rout Puerto Rico 10-0 to complete a first-place group finish that was a foregone conclusion. If they saw Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and other regulars only in cameos, well, they saw goals aplenty, including five by Crystal Dunn, which tied a national team record accomplished six times before and doubled her career total.
The fans got the first extended look at Mallory Pugh, the 17-year-old wunderkind who might one day be the star people come to see -- and further evidence of why she carries such expectations.
Plenty of fans made that choice. Even on a holiday, perhaps other obligations made it difficult to catch the first game of an Olympic qualifying doubleheader between Costa Rica and Mexico. In the end, those fans got what they came for.
But they missed the best show of the day. They missed Raquel Rodriguez.
The U.S. could turn things over to its youngsters on Monday because it had almost nothing to play for. Costa Rica turned to its young star because it had everything to play for.
With a win, Costa Rica moved on to the semifinals and a game, likely against Canada, for a place in the Olympics. A loss or draw would've meant an exit. Without a win, Costa Rica would wait three years for the next major event and three years for the next opportunity to matter at home.
Rodriguez scored twice, her fourth and fifth goals of the group stage, and Costa Rica held on for dear life to beat Mexico 2-1 and advance to the semifinal Friday in Houston. It was a result even Costa Rican coach Amelia Valverde described as an upset but one the team celebrated quietly on the field. Then it made way for the main attraction to take the field and warm up.
"We're very happy that we're in the semis, but I think the true joy would come if we qualify to the Olympics," Rodriguez said. "Maybe that's why we didn't express that much joy, because it was a tough win, first of all, but also that's not where we're aiming for."
Where Rodriguez can take Costa Rica is remarkable to consider.
Rodriguez and many of her young U.S. national team peers have as much in common as not. The Hermann Trophy winner as college soccer's best player the past season at Penn State, Rodriguez was picked second in the recent NWSL draft, one spot behind Emily Sonnett, the defender who made her first competitive start for the U.S. women against Puerto Rico. Rodriguez is almost exactly a year younger than Sam Mewis, who scored her first U.S. goal on Monday.
But Rodriguez and the Americans exist in very different worlds. Whenever this tournament ends for Costa Rica, Rodriguez will prepare to report to Sky Blue FC. Her teammate Shirley Cruz will make her way make to Paris Saint-Germain, and a handful of others will return to professional clubs in Spain. The rest will go back to being part-time soccer players.
Costa Rica qualified for last year's World Cup. It is one game away from the Olympics. It is fast becoming no worse than the third-best program in CONCACAF and at least a competitive world entity. It is also a team of players who hold other jobs to pay the bills or attend school.
To get even a taste of what American players enjoy their whole lives, as Rodriguez did in four years at Penn State, sets her apart.
"It's part of the things I wish would change right away," Rodriguez said of the lack of full-time Costa Rican players. "It is tough. I think it's getting better, a little better now. A couple of other players are now in Spain -- they're playing in Europe. But it's part of the [problem].
"As soccer players, one would wish that we all would be professionals. But I think it's just growing. The more time that passes by, maybe the more normal it is that players get out of the country. That's what we're aiming for. It doesn't have to be the best league, but as long as they leave and they're only playing, I think that's baby steps that is only going to improve our game."
Every time the Costa Rican players take the field is an opportunity to move the goalposts forward. But for that to be true, the reverse must also be true. When Rodriguez slid a shot between two defenders for the opening goal or stared in from the penalty spot after a foul in the box that preceded the second goal, the health of a national program rested on what she did next. Costa Rica built this generation by focusing on youth development, but it must win to get people to care.
[She] has a great future. ... You're going to see her for a long period of time in international soccer.Mexico coach Leonardo Cuellar on Raquel Rodriguez
"I think we're doing our part," Rodriguez said. "And then we want to see a response, whether it's -- everything else. But I think we're doing our job right now, and I'm very happy for that. As we win, then maybe we can ask for more."
More, in this case, isn't much. She meant things such as training camps and friendlies during FIFA's international windows, things that are almost unknown to this women's program. She meant more sponsors whose money could keep talented players from leaving the sport too soon.
By winning the Hermann Trophy and an NCAA title, by scoring the first goal in Costa Rican World Cup history and by doing the things she did Monday night, Rodriguez, along with Cruz, is already the one who has to do the asking. At 22, she has to be the voice and the conscience.
"We're trying to be smart about it," Rodriguez said. "I personally am trying to be smart about it, exactly what can I do to be effective and not just whiny."
The rout against Puerto Rico, as essentially meaningless as it might have been, was not without value to the United States -- and not just for the rest it afforded many starters. Dunn was replaced at halftime in the previous game against Mexico. U.S. coach Jill Ellis said the move was mostly about seeing other people in wide positions, but the coach also made the point that there are still things Dunn, emerging force though she is, needs to work on when playing wide, especially against packed defenses.
"I think the next step for Crystal is when there isn't space, how does she find and make space?" Ellis said.
She filled a different role Monday night, pushed high into the No. 9 spot vacated by Morgan, but the confidence with which she took and finished chances matters as a response.
Likewise, the opponent notwithstanding, Pugh was little short of sensational. It still remains to be seen if this is her audition for 2019 or if she is truly ready to claim a valuable roster spot for the Olympics, should the United States qualify, but this performance didn't hurt her cause.
"She's a very, very special player," Ellis said. "I thought she just looks so comfortable. And for a player to come into this environment, play in front of probably the biggest crowds -- these past games have been the biggest crowds she's probably been in front of -- she's just done exceptionally well.
"She's very gifted on the ball. Her understanding of space and playing off her teammates and then also being able to solve things individually, for a young player -- I'm not saying she's complete because I think she's got a long way to go -- but her starting point is very good."
There was something bittersweet about Costa Rica's advancing after Mexico's Maribel Dominguez, who cut the deficit in half with a beautiful bicycle kick, missed a clean opportunity to draw level in the closing seconds. At 37 years old and without a club, Dominguez is nearing the end of an outstanding international career as Mexico's all-time leading scorer.
But Mexico, with the exception of one memorable win against the United States in World Cup qualifying, has largely failed to capitalize on a generation's worth of talent. It has plateaued. Before the game Monday, Mexico coach Leonardo Cuellar said his team would face the greatest generation of Costa Rican talent. Rodriguez is at the forefront of that, and it is her turn.
"Definitely, I think Rodriguez and Cruz have made the rest of the team better around them because they are outstanding players," Cuellar said. "Rodriguez, because of her age, has a great future. You're going to see her in the league in the U.S., and you're going to see her for a long period of time in international soccer. ... It's no surprise that around these type of players, the rest of the Costa Rican players have grown to this level."
The United States put on a show for fans who wanted nothing more. In front of a largely empty stadium, Rodriguez and Costa Rica played for their future.