NCAA women's soccer: From backyard to Bruins, the Rodriguez sisters share strong bond at UCLA

Karina, left, and Anika Rodriguez had a sibling rivalry as kids. Together at UCLA, they're each other's biggest supporters as the Bruins contend for an NCAA women's soccer title. Don Liebig/UCLA Photography

When she needed a place to live for her final quarter at UCLA, Anika Rodriguez turned for help to the person she had most often driven to the verge of tears. The person from whom she elicited more exasperated sighs and recriminating looks than anyone else over the years.

That might sound like an unlikely savior. Or it might sound like a sister.

Which is how a two-bedroom unit for four became home for five, work space converted into an extra bedroom. She didn't even have to ask. It was settled as soon as Karina Rodriguez, two years younger and now a junior at UCLA, heard her sister's anxiety about housing as a redshirt senior. After all, Anika did the same for Karina when the younger sister enrolled early as a freshman. That's how it works. There were battles through the years, almost always when a soccer ball quite literally came between them as forward and defender, but those were fleeting.

Sisterhood was not.

"We spent an absurd amount of hours together," Anika said. "We obviously got on each other's nerves a little bit. But I think for how much time we spent together, and how intertwined our friend groups became, we handled it really well. I wouldn't have changed anything.

"I really do like it like that. She is my best friend, and I want her in all parts of my life."

It's a nice sibling story, if not exactly unique in college sports. Except it might also be the reason that UCLA wins a national championship this season. Anika is, after all, responsible for the Bruins having the services of one of the nation's best defenders. She shaped Karina into that player. Day after day as they grew up, younger sister had to try to stop older sister.

Amid a bevy of injuries and absences, the Bruins fell short a season ago in part because a knee injury sidelined the forward who infuses the lineup with so much life. Without Anika, part of their identity was missing. And so it was Karina who made sure Anika could be herself again.

"I can count on her to be there for me in just about everything," Anika said.

There are five siblings in all, three sisters and two brothers. But as the oldest, Anika and Karina share a distinct bond. Soccer only magnified it, Karina settling in naturally as a defender from almost the moment she followed Anika onto the field. Now teammates in college, they were more often opponents in backyard games.

"She would get really upset," Anika recalled of her younger sister. "And I would get really upset because she was getting mad at me. And then we would just both be mad at each other. Then we'd have to stop or it would get bad."

The bad feelings rarely lasted much beyond the dinner table.

"The player I am today is just so much because of her and our childhood together," Karina said. "We kind of butted heads all growing up. Just having an older sister who -- she's fast, she's technical, she's everything a forward wants to be. It was so good for me growing up and being able to be challenged by her on the field every day when we'd train."

"The player I am today is just so much because of her and our childhood together. ... It was so good for me growing up and being able to be challenged by her on the field every day when we'd train." Karina Rodriguez

Beyond the actual battles for the ball in the backyard, Anika unknowingly set goals that her younger sister used as waypoints. Anika drew regional attention from the Olympic Development Program, so Karina set out to do the same. The United States U17 national team? Anika set the bar. Karina then appeared in the U17 World Cup. A scholarship at UCLA? There was no question in Karina's mind where she would go after Anika chose the Bruins.

"In a way, it turned into her guiding me in the way she was doing things," Karina said. "I don't think she ever realized how much of an impact it had on me."

Karina got an opportunity to pay it back in what was supposed to be her older sister's freshman season. Anika never saw the field that fall, sidelined by a torn ACL in her left knee. She was new to college and new to the team, unsure how to manage the day-to-day routine and whom to count on for help. So she counted on her sister, still at home in Torrance, about 20 miles away.

When Anika had surgery on her knee, Karina took days off from high school and stayed with her on campus, joking that, in this limited circumstance, she would be her older sister's maid. When schedules and Los Angeles traffic made it impractical to meet in person, they'd FaceTime.

For the first time in their lives, they had the option to go their separate ways. And for the first time in their lives, they chose each other's company rather than it being the default setting.

"I feel like I've always been able to lean on her growing up," Karina said. "And then for her to be going through that, it was an opportunity for me to step up and be that shoulder for her to lean on. That helped teach me how to let all my siblings lean on me and be a strong person when they need [me] to be."

Although overshadowed by the sheer wealth of talent on hand in Westwood, at one point sharing the front line with Hailie Mace and Ashley Sanchez in front of Jessie Fleming, Anika carved out a place for herself as more than a complementary player when she finally took the field as a redshirt freshman. A season later, she totaled eight goals and nine assists and started alongside her sister, by then a true freshman, in the national championship game.

Then came a game against Arizona State last fall. Anika scored her fourth goal of the season early in the game, a typically aggressive dipping shot from 20 yards. Not even 10 minutes later, she lay on the ground after her left knee buckled when she tried to plant and corral a ball in danger of getting away from her. A sickeningly familiar feeling washed over her.

"I literally remember looking at Karina, just like, 'I can't do this again,'" Anika said. "I knew that I had done it."

She again had torn the ACL in her left knee. She again faced the long rehab process and the isolation that comes with it. And again, Karina was there to help. She went to rehab sessions with Anika when campus was otherwise deserted over winter break. She pushed her not to ease up over spring break.

After her first ACL injury, Anika felt as if she sank into a dark space, even with her younger sister's support. Despite setbacks that kept her out until last week's game against Santa Clara, that wasn't the case the second time around. Some of that was her own experience. Much of it was Karina.

"By the time I reached the end, I was like, 'Wow, I didn't get caught up in just wanting to play and focusing on that,'" Anika said. "It was a bunch of small goals that she had put in front of me."

UCLA lost to Santa Clara, a disappointing result a week after beating defending national champion Florida State. But the 10 minutes that Anika played could yet make that game among the most important for the Bruins all season. At her best, Anika is a self-described fiery presence in a lineup so talented that it sometimes appears to glide through games. She's so combustible, in fact, that it's often Karina who delivers a "stern talking" on the field to calm her down.

That energy, not to mention goal-scoring touch, could make all the difference for the Bruins.

"I think I just feel the most myself when I'm on the field," Anika said. "I get to express myself in a way that I can't off the field. ... It's a chance for me to be me in an unfiltered way."

No one understands that better than Karina.