Former USC star Amy Rodriguez, left, and UCLA standout Lauren Cheney have… (Photos by Associated Press…)
Nearly three years ago, Amy Rodriguez and Lauren Cheney shared a pedestal in Beijing.
The two local soccer stars stood side by side, adorned in the same outfit. At the Olympics, there was no cardinal and gold, no blue and gold, no rivalry — just matching white jackets with red shirts underneath. And draped around their necks, both players wore a gleaming gold medal.
Now, on the eve of her first World Cup, Rodriguez reflects back on that moment and recalls she was crying.
"That," she said simply, "was amazing."
Olympic gold was the culmination of a friendship that's been budding for years. Rodriguez and Cheney advanced through the ranks of the U.S. national team's system together over the last half-decade. Although both would eventually make the Olympic roster, Cheney was initially cut, and that's when her friends proved indispensible.
"A-Rod and [teammate] Tobin [Heath] were phenomenal," Cheney said. "They could have and should have been so excited that they had made [the team] — and they were happy — but they were so thoughtful and caring and wanted to make sure that I was OK. I wanted to celebrate for them, and they wanted to sulk with me. That's true friendship right there."
Now, both USC's Rodriguez and UCLA's Cheney have made Team USA, and the friends are together in Germany, playing on what they say is an even bigger stage.
Rodriguez and Cheney first roomed together at a national team youth camp in 2005. By that point they were both soccer prodigies. Rodriguez was named a Gatorade high school player of the year, and 12 months later, Cheney got the same award. Both players rewrote their schools' record books, and Rodriguez was the No. 1 overall pick in the inaugural Women's Professional Soccer draft. Following suit, Cheney was the second overall pick a year later.
Now the two forwards spend most of their time as opponents in WPS, and teammates whenever the national team convenes. Cheney and Rodriguez call each other best friends on the team, and give Heath that same distinction. Heath played against both of her Olympic teammates at North Carolina, trained with the national team soon after Cheney and Rodriguez, and quickly assimilated. They were the three youngest players on the Olympic team, and Cheney said their personalities work in concert.
"Tobin is kind of the free spirit, and A-Rod is absolutely hilarious," Cheney said. "I don't know what role I play in that, but I'm fun, and kind of the girly girl. … And even though our personalities are so different, we do have that connection where we genuinely care about each other."
Cheney said the younger members of the team try to keep things light and full of laughs in order to balance the seriousness and experience the veterans contribute.
Rodriguez said that on the field, she benefits from how well Cheney understands her game. The pair push each other in practice, and they don't often separate when it ends.
"We just do everything together," Rodriguez said if herself, Cheney and Heath.
Though they met when they were first learning to drive, and chose schools in the same city, they became rivals each time they pulled on their college uniforms.
Rodriguez, a native of Lake Forest, stayed close to home when she chose USC, while Cheney headed west from Indiana to UCLA a year later.
The two standouts played each other five times in three years, and Cheney's Bruins won every match — except one.
In the 2007 national semifinal, the teams met in Texas. Rodriguez and Cheney scored all the goals: Rodriguez 2, Cheney 1.
It was UCLA's fifth consecutive loss in the College Cup, while USC snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Bruins. USC would go on to win its first women's soccer national championship.
"UCLA was, and still has been, the dominant program in the Pac-10," USC Coach Ali Khosroshahin said. "I would definitely rank that one as one of the biggest wins in program history."
And it was in that match that Rodriguez grabbed the attention of women's national team Coach Pia Sundhage.
"That's where my whole national team career kind of took off," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez added that she and Cheney still exchange jabs when one schools trumps the other.
"But we always joke about how we were very fortunate that the two of us played forward," Rodriguez said. "We never had to go [directly] against each other."
The U.S. is expected to win the World Cup, although it has not done so since 1999. But if the short-term goal is to win, Cheney, Rodriguez, and 11 of their teammates may play a role in sustaining the future of the sport. Years after the first attempt at a women's professional league — the WUSA — collapsed, WPS is struggling. Five teams, including the Los Angeles Sol, are already defunct less than three years after the league's inaugural game.