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BEIJING 2008

She's 'A-Rod' of soccer

USC's speedy forward could play a key role in Games after Wambach's injury.

August 05, 2008|Lucas Shaw and Philip Hersh | Special to The Times

BEIJING -- The "clutch player" has always held a special place in the hearts of sports fans: Reggie Jackson, Jerry West, Tiger Woods. Then there is "A-Rod" -- no, not Alex Rodriguez. This one is USC's Amy Rodriguez, newly minted member of the U.S. women's soccer team.

She is called clutch because of her knack for game-winning goals, but you wouldn't know it by talking to her.

"I've never really heard the clutch player thing until just recently," Rodriguez said. "When you are playing with a college, you are just trying to make the team better."

Rodriguez, a 21-year-old soccer sensation from Santa Margarita High, has already staked her claim as one of the United States' best goal scorers, whether for the NCAA champion Trojans or for the national team.

"She's one of the fastest players on our team, and I think as long as we can keep putting her in positions to score goals for us she'll continue to do so," Team USA forward Abby Wambach said. "What I've found with Amy is when she gets those opportunities and chances, she capitalizes on them."

Of course, Rodriguez will have those chances after Wambach -- the player whose presence dominated the U.S. women's team, in sheer size at 5 feet 11 and in outsized personality -- broke a leg three weeks ago in the final tuneup game before the Olympics.

The loss of the team's leading scorer in the last two World Cups and the 2004 Olympics means considerable attention will focus on whether Rodriguez can score some of the goals Wambach regularly produced.

The U.S. squad already was without all of its retired legends, including Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly, who had played on every team since women's soccer made its Olympic debut in 1996.

"You have to be prepared to step up at any time," Rodriguez said after a practice last week at Beijing Normal University, "and I'm ready to do that. Abby is irreplaceable, but I know and my teammates know I have something to bring to the game, and I plan on doing that in my own way."

Rodriguez, a reserve most of this year, could start when the U.S., the defending gold medalist, opens Olympic play against Norway on Wednesday in Qinhuangdao, where the women have been based since leaving Beijing on Sunday.

Speed is what she is all about. And Rodriguez gives U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage a different dimension.

"A-Rod has speed, and she is unpredictable," Sundhage said. "But she is a young player, so she has her ups and downs. Sometimes she plays tremendously well, and sometimes she doesn't have a good day."

Veteran U.S. defender Kate Markgraf sums it up this way: "Defending A-Rod is very difficult. She is so fast you can't stay with her. She reminds me a lot of Tiffeny Milbrett and [Brazil's] Marta. If you let A-Rod turn you [with the ball], you're fried, and her turn is so quick and explosive."

A national player of the year in high school, the 5-4 Rodriguez was called up to the full national team in January and in June became the second-youngest player selected to the Olympic squad. After being called up, she scored five goals, three of them game winners.

Winning games is nothing new for Rodriguez, who last winter led the Trojans to their first national title.

She chose USC because she saw it as a "school where national championships are made." When she arrived there, the Trojans had not made it out of the second round of the NCAA tournament in 10 years under coach Jim Millinder. Her first year would be Millinder's last; USC lost again in the second round, and his contract was not renewed.

Ali Khosroshahin took over the USC program, and one of the first things he discovered was that Rodriguez is more than a gifted soccer player.

"She's a joker," Khosroshahin said. "She just has a really good sense of humor, and she just is always having a good time."

Yet, Rodriguez's jokes did not save her from having to adapt to Khosroshahin's team concept, or from working on her defense. "She didn't defend at all," Khosroshahin said. "She was a goal scorer."

Khosroshahin says Rodriguez has since made great strides in other aspects of her game, but it was her scoring that saved the Trojans in the NCAA tournament. In the semifinals against UCLA, Rodriguez recorded her first two-goal game to secure a 2-1 victory.

In that championship season, she started 21 of 25 games and had a career-high 86 shots on goal, scoring 10 times, three of them game winners, plus three assists for 23 points.

Rodriguez then decided to take the second semester of school off to train for the Olympics, even though she was not assured a spot.

"It was really hard," she said. "I was really torn at the time because I wasn't sure what my chances were with the team. School is important to me. I took a chance."

One of eight first-time Olympians on the American team, Rodriguez had been a backup. But with Wambach injured, the starting forward spot is up for grabs.

"I always came in as a sub," Rodriguez said. "Now I feel like with Abby out, someone needs to step up and take that position."

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