Raquel Rodriguez continued her scoring heroics, propelling Costa Rica into the CONCACAF women’s Olympic qualifying semifinals with two goals vs. Mexico. (Andy Mead/YCJPhoto)

This story originally appeared at BigAppleSoccer.com Feb. 17, 2016

By Michael Lewis

FRISCO, Texas — Raquel Rodriguez has proven to be a game-changer on the field.

She just might turn out to be one off the field as well.

Rodriguez, selected by Sky Blue FC in last month’s National Women’s Soccer League college draft, has been nothing but sensational at the Concacaf Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship. She has connected for five goals — second only to the USA’s Crystal Dunn — including both scores in Costa Rica’s decisive 2-1 win over Mexico, which propelled the Ticas into Friday’s semifinals in Houston. They will play Canada for a spot at the Rio Summer Olympics.

The goals continued an incredible eight months for the Rodriguez. In June, she became the first Costa Rican to score a goal in the  Women’s World Cup. She tallied the winner in Penn State’s 1-0 triumph over Duke University in the NCAA Division I final and earned the Missouri Athletic Club Hermann Trophy as the top college player.

And now the Olympic qualifying tournament.

Needless to say, the 22-year-old Rodriguez was showered with compliments by friend and foe alike after Monday’s match at Toyota Stadium.

“She did an exceptional job,” Costa Rica coach Amelia Valverde said.

“Rodriguez, because of her age, has a great future,” Mexico coach Leonardo Cuellar said. “You are going to see her in the league in the U.S. [National Women’s Soccer League] and you’re going to see her for a long time in international soccer.”

For someone her age, Rodriguez has sounded well beyond her years.

She is among a talented new generation of players who has helped veterans such as Shirley Cruz take the Costa Rican side to new heights.

The growth of the women’s game in the Central American country has come at a rapid pace over the past decade taking the team from confederation also-rans to a respected CONCACAF power.

And there is much more to grow.

There is no professional women’s league in Costa Rica, so players must play in American colleges and in the NWSL and European leagues to expand their personal games.

“It is part of the things that I would wish would change right away,” Rodriguez said. “It is tough, it is tough. It is getting better now.”

Rodriguez noted that two players recently left her native land to play in Spain.

“One would wish we would be all professionals,” she said. “But I think it’s just growing. The more time passes by, maybe the more normal it is for more players to get out of the country and that’s what we’re aiming [for]. It doesn’t have to be the best league, but as long as they leave and they’re playing, that’s the baby steps that are going to improve our game.”

Last week Valverde said that qualifying for the Olympics would be the biggest thing to happen to Costa Rica soccer. Last year the Ticas participated in their first Women’s World Cup.

Asked if she sensed that each victory moves the program forward, Rodriguez replied, “I think it has to happen for us as a country, for women’s soccer to improve. I think we’re doing our part. Then we want to see a response. … As we win then we can maybe ask for more.”

To truly appreciate Costa Rica’s rise, you have to remember the team rarely comes together for international friendlies outside of official competitions.

The U.S. women’s national team gets together for several camps a year, many times prior to friendlies and lesser tournaments to prepare.

“Even though we don’t have a tournament, the national team still [would] keep gathering and have camps and have games, like friendlies,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t have those. Would like to see more support from organizations, whether its profits or non-profits. We need sponsors. In Costa Rica there’s many players that are talented. … There is only so much they can give economically and sometimes and we need that support.”

Rodriguez said she has spoken to veterans such as Cruz to come up with ideas to improve the game back home. She added that there is no grass roots women’s soccer in Costa Rica.

“Each one of us come together and we come up with ideas,” she said. “That’s what we want to do. This generation, we are starting to work on that, brainstorming and some of the players in a couple of years are going to be done playing soccer.”

Regardless of the ideas, Rodriguez planned to be diplomatic about presenting them.

“We’re trying to be smart about [that],” she said. “What can I do to be effective and just not whinny? In my four years at Penn State, I met really important mentors. In the years ahead, what’s under my control? How can I contribute? What can I do while I play?”

Rodriguez and company certainly played a match to remember Monday night.

When the final whistle sounded at Toyota Stadium Monday night, the Costa Ricans did not look like they were in a celebratory mood. They weren’t jumping up and down after defeating Mexico, which participated in the 2004 Summer Games in Athens.

“We’re very happy that we’re in the semis,” Rodriguez said. “The true joy would come if we qualify for the Olympics. So maybe that’s why we didn’t express that much joy. It was a tough win, but it’s not what we’re aiming for.”

They survived a late surge by the Mexicans and Maribel Dominguez. The legendary striker scored off a bicycle kick in the 79th minute and had almost tallied in stoppage time. The Costa Ricans (2-0-1, 6 points) needed a win to advance, the Mexicans (1-0-2, 3) a tie, due to goal differential.

“Those last minutes are very tough,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s part of what we have to improve on, finishing strong, how to manage those last minutes. It was nerve-wracking. I had my heart in my throat a couple of times on those two last plays especially.”