PORTLAND, Ore. – As Portland began its transition into the city’s COVID-19 lockdown, Raquel Rodríguez was in the air, and in airports, making her way from an old home to a new.
This was March. It was two months after the only team she had played for in the National Women’s Soccer League, Sky Blue FC, agreed to trade her rights to the Portland Thorns. During her four seasons in New Jersey, she’d won a Rookie of the Year award, established herself as one of the team’s most valuable players, and evolved into a different player. When she left Penn State University, she was the best player in college soccer, using the attacking prowess she’d also shown for the Costa Rica women's national team to be her team’s defining threat going toward goal. As a pro, she was slowly being asked to leverage her other skills – her ball-winning, defending, and positional sense – in a deeper role. From rookie to veteran, “Rocky” had evolved into one of the NWSL’s best central midfielders.
Come the end of the 2019 season, Rodríguez felt she was ready for a new challenge. But amid an offseason home in Costa Rica, she’d yet to meet up with her new team. Like other Thorns called up by their national teams, she spent early March representing her country, not Portland. At some point she would fly north, see her new teammates and new apartment, and start settling into that new home.
But when that point came, her team’s preseason practices had just been shut down. While Rodríguez was on her way back from San Jose, changing planes ahead of a final leg to Portland, the life that awaited was in flux.
“A lot of borders were being closed, so I just wanted to come to Portland before I couldn't get out of Costa Rica,” she remembers. “Once that happened, I was actually happy I was here. But it wasn't until after several weeks of quarantine, I realized the season was up in the air.”
Players and staff had begun isolating at home, waiting for the world to figure out how to continue. We were scared to go outside; scared to touch any public surface; scared at not knowing whether coronavirus was airborne. When Rodríguez got to Portland, she got her new apartment, but her new city was off limits, and her new teammates only existed as pixels on Zoom calls.
“That was the toughest time of 2020 for me,” Rodríguez says. “I know the year isn't over yet, but at least during the season, that was really tough. It was a new place, it wasn't home yet, at that point, I didn't know anybody … I couldn't even see [her teammates]. I couldn't hug them. I couldn't get to know the city. I couldn't get out of the house …
“I wanted to go back home, or at least somewhere that was more familiar than Portland.”
We will all remember March 2020 for the adjustments; for the shock of life being beyond our control. For most, that meant months at homes, isolated or with loved ones, slowly figuring the new world. For Rodríguez, it meant swapping one set of adjustments for another, and being left in a place with no intimacies or comforts. The walls we grew tired of as being too familiar were, for her, also too foreign: new rooms in a new city, left blank by corona’s confusion.
“The waiting part is what got me,” she admits, now. “It was like, ‘yeah, this is going to be a very different year.’”
This is also a very different Rodríguez than we’re used to. Be it in interviews, on social media, or in the energy she brings to the field, Rodríguez is a unique combination of drive, reality and optimism. She’s positive, but not just for positivity’s sake. She’s a realist, but doesn’t let that make her cynical. There is a feeling from “Rocky” that being progressive about life is more than just good in theory. It’s a tested and tried way she’s defined her life; an application of Costa Rica’s “Pura Vida” she delivers to the world.
When the Thorns acquired Rodríguez, they were hoping she would deliver that attitude to that locker room. She was a key part of the team’s offseason makeover, one designed to redefine the team’s standard and culture.
Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC
Within the lines, the impact Rodríguez had with Sky Blue quickly took hold, where she immediately slid into the team’s midfield and, along with fellow central midfielder Lindsey Horan, became a fulcrum for the team’s approach. Outside the lines, Rodríguez was prepared to take it slow.
“I remember thinking I was really happy to now be part of the Thorns, because at a personal level, I was looking to get out of my comfort zone,” she shared, when asked to think about her early-year goals. “I do remember thinking ‘let me get there, let me get installed, and once I am there, settled, I will get to do personal goal-setting’ … I didn't necessarily have specific performance goals. It was more so, I was busy trying to get to know the players on the field, and off the field, too.”
On the field, the first hints of that progress came during the NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah, where, despite only a few weeks of full training with the team before the summer tournament, Rodríguez’s impact was clear. Though Portland struggled to score goals in their six games of the tournament, they were stingy with the chances they conceded, and more times than not, they were controlling the ball. The Rodríguez and Horan pairing, with help from the players around them, were dictating how games played out.
Come the NWSL Fall Series, Rodríguez’s impact was even more evident, both in terms of her on-field impact and off. While helping the Thorns win the Verizon Community Shield – given to the team with the best record over the series – Rodríguez was part of perhaps Portland’s best moment of the fall, volleying home a highlight-reel goal for her first Portland score.
Perhaps as important as the goal were the reactions from her teammates. It was more than shock at the execution; pauses to reflect what they just saw. As their reaction told, the person was important. The player who executed that moment mattered beyond the moment itself. Rocky was being celebrated as much as the goal.
“Being part of this team has been one of the most positive things [of 2020],” she said. “As time went by and I got to know everybody a little bit better, I started to realize how blessed I was not only to be part of this amazing organization, but also part of an amazing team.
Photos: Craig Mitchelldyer / Thorns FC
“Whenever you go through highs or lows during the season, it's much more bearable and it's much more fulfilling when you have people to celebrate it with. I think this team has the type of people that you can go through highs and lows, and you wouldn't rather be in any other place.”
Forging that type of attitude was always one of Portland’s goals for the season, and while 2020 was anything but typical, teams could still build cultures. They could still set standards. They could still work toward goals. Amid quarantines and lockdowns, those goals had to change, but as Challenge Cup and Fall Series showed, choosing targets and reaching them was still possible.
As Rodríguez hints, though, Portland’s main targets weren’t about July Cups or fall Shields; rather, they were about building for the future. The Thorns’ 2020 was about securing foundations for the seasons that will come, and making sure players like Rocky – people brought in to define the new Thorns – go into 2021 excited about what’s to come.
“I’m just someone who is always looking to grow, at every level …,” Rodríguez says, when asked about 2021. “I would want to see myself just getting better on the pitch, getting more comfortable, because I know that when I feel that way, I can always perform better. And I think for the team, it was really encouraging and promising and exciting to see how much we grew in a couple of months …
“I want to see our full potential come out and flourish. Everything we've invested in 2020, I would love to see it flourish on a personal level and at a team level in 2021."