Trinity Rodman: The future of American soccer has arrived

After a standout rookie season with the Washington Spirit, 20-year-old Trinity Rodman continues to make history in women's soccer. But as her success rises, she's ready to take ownership of her famous last name. Hana Asano for ESPN


It's late March, and Trinity Rodman's mother, Michelle Rodman, stands in a suite at the Washington Spirit's Audi Field in D.C., sporting a white hoodie with an image of her daughter playing soccer and the name "Rodman" blasted across the front. Trinity, perhaps the brightest young star in the game, is about to take on the North Carolina Courage in the National Women's Soccer League Challenge Cup, and Michelle is equally nervous and excited, just as she had been years ago when she watched Trinity sprint back and forth in youth soccer games while the other kids picked daisies.

"She's going to put on a show," Michelle says.

"No. 2. Forward. Trinity Rodman!" reverberates throughout the stadium loud speakers. Michelle searches for her daughter. "There she is! Ah, my baby. God, I'm emotional. What the heck." When 20-year-old Rodman moved to the D.C. area from Newport Beach, California, to play for the Spirit, Michelle flew out for games as often as possible. She needs to be there; she's always been there.

"OK, Rodman, let's turn it up!" Michelle's voice echoes throughout the stadium. "I love you, Trinity. I love you, Trin."

The Spirit fail to score in the first 45.

Just after halftime, Michelle stands and clasps her hands in quasi-prayer. Then, screams, "Let's go, Rodman! You've got this!" Though Trinity doesn't respond, her mother's words seem to somehow ignite her.

In the 58th minute, Rodman scrappily traps a cross with her shins and volleys it home. Celebrating with the Griddy dance and mobbed by teammates, Rodman flashes a glance at her mother, who roars, "Hell, yeah," as fireworks erupt outside the stadium.

After the win, Rodman says that when she hears her mother's voice during games, she's transported back to those early days: The club games at 10 or 11 years old, dribbling circles around other girls. Michelle's "Go, go, go! Beat her," serves as the soundtrack of her youth. Those cheers and chants follow Rodman onto the field now.

"The field is my comfort zone, but there's a different level of having somebody behind you in person, on the sidelines, and hearing that support. It brings me back," Rodman says. "I love hearing her voice on the sidelines."

In November, Rodman heard another voice on those sidelines, one she wasn't expecting. On a cold D.C. night, during a playoff battle with the North Carolina Courage, Rodman wanted to leave it all on the field. But when she heard that voice -- his voice -- her mind went blank.

"Go Trinity!"

She turned in disbelief to see her father, NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman. After all these years of him not being there, after the void he left behind, after all the work she had put into claiming her famous last name as her own, now here he was, cheering from the sidelines.

"I don't even know if there was a thought," Rodman says. "I had so many feelings, but also none."

"PEOPLE DO KNOW Trinity Rodman sometimes before Dennis Rodman now," Trinity says. They know the fierce player who pummels goals into top corners at Audi Field and beyond. "That's a cool thing for me. I'm not trying to overcome what he accomplished, I just want to build my own story, and I think I'm doing a really good job."

At 18, Rodman made history as the youngest player ever drafted into the NWSL when the Spirit took her second overall in 2021. She'd been a freshman forward at Washington State but left without lacing up when the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the season. That April, Rodman became the youngest American to score (five minutes after subbing on) in her NWSL debut during the 2021 Challenge Cup. By the tournament's second game, she was starting.

During her rookie season, Rodman started 22 of 25 games. She scored seven goals, including two game winners, and led the league with seven assists. She was one of only 16 with 2,000 minutes played and finished second in the NWSL in shots and shots on goal. After engineering Washington to its first NWSL championship over the Chicago Red Stars -- she didn't score but demolished the post on a long-range effort -- her impressive resume earned her the 2021 NWSL Rookie of the Year and U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year laurels. Rodman wasn't just an award-winning basketball surname anymore.

"She's an all-out competitor," Spirit head coach Kris Ward says. "Her ability to withstand pressure and close contact with the opponent and her desire to help her team succeed -- she's a change-the-game player. There hasn't been anyone like her before."

At the start of 2022, Rodman accepted her first call-up for the U.S. women's national team training camp. A few weeks before her USWNT debut, Rodman signed a contract extension to become the highest-paid player in NWSL history. Rodman's four-year deal reportedly is worth $1.1 million, including an annual base of $281,000, eclipsing Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe's $250,000.

"It immediately raises the bar. It's just a glimpse into the future of this league," Ward says. "She certainly deserves every piece of it, but it also creates a stepladder for everyone else."

"I'm that person that broke the mold for that," Rodman says about her contract extension. "I'm paving the path for younger players and showing older players that this is what they should have gotten in the first place."

AT THE LOCAL Boys & Girls Club, Rodman and older brother Dennis "DJ" Rodman Jr., a year apart, played a slew of sports and made everything a competition. Elbows, boxouts and shoves were commonplace, anything to win. The Rodman children took after their father, but both Trinity and DJ credit Michelle, too, who was a track and field competitor and softball player in high school.

"With my mom's and my dad's genes, me and my brother excelled in a lot of sports," Rodman says. "I was good at basketball, but I was uncomfortable. I did not like dribbling, [I] didn't know how to shoot. ... It didn't feel like I knew what I was doing."

Michelle made sure her kids never felt pressure to play basketball because of their father. DJ fell in love with basketball, but Trinity took to soccer.

Enrolled in a local youth girls' team, her teammates were experts in picking flowers and perfecting cartwheels during practice. Not Rodman. She stood out. She wanted to score, to win.

"As soon as I saw her on the field, it was a no-brainer," Michelle says. "I knew that was it." She vividly remembers a teary 4-year-old Trinity saying, "Mom, I don't understand. Why isn't anybody else doing what I'm doing? We need a goal."

"I realized that soccer was going to be my thing when I couldn't accept that people could play a sport just for fun," Rodman says. "I was like, 'No way, they're just playing soccer just to have fun. I think at a young age, I was just like, 'Can we score? What are we doing?' I knew that my heart was in the game, and I wanted to push myself as far as I could go."

Right before middle school, soccer ramped up for Rodman. Up until then, she was playing on local teams in Orange County. But then, one spring, a friend called Michelle and said that Rodman should try out for the Southern California Blues in San Juan Capistrano, 25 miles southeast.

The tryouts hosted a sea of 10-year-old girls considered the best of the best in Southern California, a hotbed of soccer talent. Coach Greg Baker didn't know who Rodman was. That quickly changed.

"We saw her train at tryouts, and we knew, 'Oh, this is an athlete.' She was extremely raw, but she was 10, so that was to be expected, but she had a lot of the intangibles that we were looking for. [We] instantly picked her up."

From age 10 until the Spirit drafted her, Rodman played under Baker with the SoCal Blues. Baker understood early on that she was different even among elite players.

"Trinity is the type of player that can feel out a game and moment, and she can create moments. And that's one piece that we never touched as her coaches," Baker says. "The best players in the world can do this on their own."

As she developed on the field, Baker noticed a shift in public perception. During her first few years on the Blues, Baker says Rodman was considered a marquee player in part because of Dennis. It wasn't until she started making national camps, scoring goals in big games, and winning titles that the narrative shifted.

"She was a force to be reckoned with in the age group and turned into this sort of phenom," Baker says. "Before she turned pro, you could ask anyone in SoCal, and they knew Trinity Rodman for Trin."

Rodman's stardom began to take shape at 14. During a regional club match, she scored a game-winning penalty kick. Once the ball hit the net, fans, players, and even parents stormed the field and tackled Rodman to the ground.

As her club team dominated, Rodman grappled with fame -- local but growing. In 2019, a Chinese youth national team traveled to Southern California to compete against the United States and wanted to scrimmage a local club team. On a spring afternoon, 700 onlookers flooded a local high school to watch Rodman's SoCal Blues. For 90 minutes, 17-year-old Rodman put on a show. She rainbowed and nutmegged defenders, danced down sidelines, and displayed a less-polished version of the bag of tricks she still wields as a pro. It paid off. Rodman's Blues won 5-1. Beyond the eye-popping box score, the glaring takeaway was the fandom for her.

After the game, ball girls asked Trinity for her autograph. Seven hundred fans at a local high school to watch a youth soccer scrimmage. All cheering for Rodman.

"It was the first time I saw true fans for Trinity," Baker says. "She has star power, and it's just beginning. If things go how they should, Trinity could have Mia Hamm-type stardom."

WHEN RODMAN WAS a toddler, Michelle filed for divorce from Dennis. Proceedings and postponements would stretch out over the next eight years. The Rodman children were absent from their father physically, emotionally and financially. (Dennis could not be reached for comment on this story.) When Trinity was blooming on the field, she lived at an Orange County Comfort Inn with Michelle, DJ and her older sister Teyana Lima for almost a year. Michelle didn't want them to realize the depths of their struggles, so she turned their tenure into a game of sorts.

Michelle chose the closest room to the pool. She'd wake Trinity and DJ every morning before school and let them take a dip. "I wanted to make it like a vacation," Michelle says. "I would let them jump on the beds and do whatever they wanted, so it wasn't necessarily like, 'Oh God, we don't have anything. We're staying at this motel.'"

They'd eat waffles in the hotel's lobby and free lunches at school. Michelle stocked up on Cup Noodles and $0.99 frozen burritos for dinner, the kids' favorites.

"We didn't have a house or a car. And that's not the most ideal situation to be in with a family. But our mom made it fun," DJ recalls. "That was probably the hardest time in our lives. But we would never trade anything in the world to grow up differently because it's probably the most humbling life I could ask for."

"People don't have a clue, not a clue," Michelle says. "It was a roller coaster of you have money, you don't have money."

After Trinity was born in 2002, Michelle and the kids lived with Dennis for a short period. For a few years, it felt like they had everything they needed. Only just removed from the NBA, Michelle says Dennis continued to stay in his NBA "party" phase with glimmers of being a family man.

When Rodman was 2 years old, Dennis gifted Michelle a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for her birthday. Riding in the mountains of Southern California, Michelle crashed and had to be airlifted from the site. "That was my wake-up call," Michelle says. "I'm blessed to be alive. But I knew that I couldn't take it anymore. I needed to be there for my kids. I decided to divorce and be done with the Dennis stuff. That was it for me."

The family moved nearly 10 times in a decade. Michelle had some money saved from the restaurant and club she owned with Dennis, but there was not enough consistent financial support to raise a family of four.

During the hard times, Michelle leaned on her oldest daughter from her first marriage, Lima, 13 years Trinity's senior, to help care for her younger siblings.

"She helped raise us," DJ says.

Lima drove the children to practices and school and helped wherever needed, including braiding Trinity's hair for games.

"Before soccer games, my mom couldn't braid as good as my sister, so I didn't care what my sister was doing. I would call her and be like, 'Teyana, I need you to drive me to the game because my hair needs to be braided,'" Rodman says.

As the financial stress took a toll, Michelle wanted to ensure that her children's involvement in sports didn't suffer. Once Rodman joined the Blues, Coach Baker helped pay dues and fees, which were thousands of dollars each year. His support continued throughout her entire duration with the club. Michelle handled travel expenses and made do with the inconsistent financial support that Dennis provided for the children throughout the years. Says DJ: "We're at the point now where it's hard to picture him in our lives because for so long he wasn't."

"ENTERING THE GAME, earning her first cap for the U.S. Women's National Team, No. 2 Trinity Rodman!"

Rodman stands on the sideline in her U.S. women's national team red and dark blues. She chomps on gum, clapping as the loudspeaker blares and the stadium roars. Her teammate Mallory Pugh -- who, like Rodman, never played an NCAA game before entering the National Women's Soccer League -- runs toward her. The two high-five and embrace for a short hug. Rodman beams and takes off, her last name in bold letters on the back of the jersey.

"Sometimes, it feels like a dream," she says.

All 7,333 pairs of eyes were on her that February night at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, less than an hour away from where she grew up in Newport Beach. Southern Californians bundled up in USWNT scarves, beanies, jerseys and blankets as the temperature dropped into the 50s. It was the opener of the SheBelieves Cup and Rodman's much-anticipated international debut against Czech Republic women's national team.

Fans needed no introduction. If a chant's decibels could measure hope -- or hype -- expectations for Rodman were stratospheric.

When she entered in the 60th minute, Rodman became the fourth teenager since 2010 to debut for the U.S. squad, which has more than double as many World Cup titles and Olympic golds as any other country. Although she didn't score, Rodman was relentless in front of goal: darting runs, through balls, headed crosses. Save for finding the net, it was a trademark Rodman performance, marked by the passion NWSL fans have grown to expect over the previous year and change.

Rodman logged her first 30 minutes in a USWNT jersey. But after the game ended, she didn't leave the field. While most of her teammates went around the stadium, momentarily signing autographs and hugging family members, Rodman stayed in the moment. She took it all in.

Over 200 fans patiently waited at every corner of the field for Rodman. Little girls, families, teenagers, adults, all clustered into a frenzy to meet Rodman -- or at the very least scream her name just a few feet in front of her. For nearly 45 minutes, fans threw jerseys and hats onto the field for her to sign. Phones projected in front of her face for selfies. Every few minutes, she'd stop to engage with them beyond the autographs and shrieks.

A group of 40 girls from a local Southern California soccer club stood in the stands behind Team USA's bench with a large sign that read, "Inspire Confidence." They giggled and jumped about as Rodman inched toward them. "This is their favorite player," one of the parents says. "They wanted to come tonight to see Trinity. They couldn't stop talking about it all week."

Even after a member of the USWNT staff came to usher Rodman off the field, she continued signing and posing for selfies. She might not have been able to sign every autograph, but she made it a point to let her fans know that she appreciated their presence.

"I love being able to interact with them," Rodman says of her fans. "It means everything to me."

ON A COLD D.C.  night, during a playoff battle with the North Carolina Courage, Rodman stood in shock, the sound of her father's voice yelling "Go, Trinity!" ringing in her ears. Since she started playing soccer, Rodman has only seen her father at a handful of games. Dennis showing up unannounced wasn't new, but on that scale, it was jarring. It was her rookie season, a playoff game -- stakes were large. Even midgame, she couldn't help but wonder what it meant for their relationship.

"I remember thinking, 'Is this the start? Is this his effort to start coming to more games? Is this just to pop in?' I wasn't sure," Rodman says. "I think that's why I was so emotional because our relationship has been so rocky that I didn't know what that game meant."

She adds, "But no matter what, I'm so blessed that he was able to be there. He is family at the end of the day. And it was amazing to see him and hear him cheer me on the sideline, knowing the other half of my parents were proud of me."

For the thousands at the playoff game, the focus teetered between on-field action and Dennis Rodman on the sideline. Trinity had already paved her own way; on the soccer field, the names on jerseys, the shouts for "Rodman!" -- they were for Trinity, not Dennis. But that night, it felt different, and she wanted to set the record straight.

The next day, Rodman posted a photo from the game on Instagram. Her back to the camera, RODMAN across her shoulders and centered in frame, her head in the crook of father's neck. His tattooed hand flat against her back, a glossy T-shirt featuring his own likeness catching the camera's glint.

"Yes, Dennis Rodman showed up to an Nwsl game, but also my dad, after YEARS surprised me at a big game in my career, I was shocked, overwhelmed, happy, sad, everything."

Rodman let her followers know that her father doesn't play a "big role" in her life and "most people don't know that." She noted she goes months "if not years without his presence or communication." But Rodman stressed that she'll always be "his little girl" and hoped they could improve their relationship moving forward.

"I didn't want it to get misconstrued. I didn't want people to think he was in my life when he wasn't or vice versa. And I wanted people to know the full story," Rodman says. "I think people still thought that 'Oh, he's going to play a role. He's going to be more present.' And that post honestly was more for my sanity. Being young and not having a father around it can be extremely emotional, and you tend to look at it negatively."

It has been nearly seven months since that game. Rodman hasn't seen her father, who is now 61, but they spoke once on the phone. Rodman admits she has found peace with it all. She chooses to feel blessed instead by the consistent presence of Michelle, Teyana and DJ.

"With [being a] Rodman, there's so much that comes with it. It's the childhood that me and DJ had. It's the living in Newport Beach when my dad was a little bit around but was still in the party NBA phase," Rodman says. "And there's the time when he wasn't in our lives, and we were living with our mom separately but still seeing him. There's the NBA crazy side.

"There's just so much behind it that I love to have in my last name."

Rodman stressed, "When I say Rodman, it's not my dad's name. It's my name. It's my brother's name. It's my family's name. And it's ultimately the story that got me to where I am today, and I love that."