Rio Tinto Stadium erupted with applause when Utah Royals forward Amy Rodriguez stepped up to the edge of the sideline. Fans stood and pulled out their cellphones to capture the comeback appearance and Royals debut of a woman who has scored 30 goals for the U.S. women’s national team as she was subbed on in the 77th minute.
Rodriguez had reminded herself on the bench to stay calm. It was the first time she was available for a match since tearing her ACL last year. But she wasn’t worried about nerves anymore as she sprinted onto the field with 19,000 fans cheering her on.
“To to get back on the field and think, ‘Oh, this is what I do for a living, this is fine,’” Rodriguez said, “it felt really normal.”
It not only was her first appearance in a year but also just her second professional match since the 2015 NWSL championship game after taking maternity leave in 2016. After her second comeback in as many years last Saturday, Rodriguez is available again as the Royals take on North Carolina this weekend.
“Every time that she’s come back from having a kid or from her ACL,” Royals captain Becky Sauerbrunn said, “she either gets back to where she was before or I think she actually gets fitter or more tricky on the ball or more technical.”
Sauerbrunn has known Rodriguez since they were teenagers, so she wasn’t surprised by her strong return Saturday.
Sauerbrunn’s first thought when she met Rodriguez was, “Who’s this young gun?” but that quickly morphed into “This is a special player.”
Rodriguez was two years younger than most of her teammates when she joined Sauerbrunn and the rest of the U.S. U-19 national team.
“She came in and she was just unfazed by a new team and older players and it was just her playing,” Sauerbrunn said. “And she was so good when she came in. She would not lose the ball. It was glued to her foot.”
Rodriguez’s stint with the U-19s — in which she scored two goals in the U-19 World Cup in Thailand — was part of a “meteoric rise” as Sauerbrunn put it from the U-17 squad to the senior team in the span of a year. She since has earned 130 caps, with her last call up coming just before the 2017 season.
She was called in for January camp, returning to the national team after giving birth to her second child.
“I think because I had done it once before, I felt normal in the steps,” Rodriguez said. “I knew what to do, I knew how patient I was going to have to be and I knew the right path to getting back to health. I felt really strong, felt fast, felt zippy, felt good.”
She scored a goal in FC Kansas City’s season opener April 16, her first since pegging the game-winner in the 2015 championship match. Then she tore her ACL.
She knew immediately her injury was serious. She suspected she would be out for the season, but she still felt sick to her stomach when the doctors gave her the diagnosis .
“I remember feeling almost light headed when they told me,” she said. “I had to lay down because just the idea that, ‘This is my prognosis now, this is going to be a year out from what I just worked six moths tirelessly for.‘”
The steps back were slow. She was on crutches for about a month then it was another few months until she could run again. She was finally cleared for soccer activities around the eight-month mark.
“It was harder to come back from an ACL tear than it was to come back from two children, and that’s pretty shocking,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez set a goal to be ready to play by the Royals’ home opener, and she made her warmly-received entrance right on time.
“The game changed when she came in when we were playing Chicago,” Sauerbrunn said. “You could see people give her a lot of respect because she’s tricky on the ball, she can run it behind, she can show feet, she can combine, she can triple, she can do all these things. It’s really hard to defend. I’m glad I don’t have to defend against her. I can only imagine what other teams feel about her.”
Rodriguez took a promising shot in the 88th minute, settling the ball to stop it pin-balling around the box, but she missed just wide when she was pulled down by a defender mid-swing .
Royals coach Laura Harvey kept her comments on Rodriguez’s performance brief.
“Hurry up and get fit,” she said in her post-game news conference. “Hurry up and get to 90 minutes as quick as possible.”
UTAH ROYALS AT NORTH CAROLINA COURAGE
When • 1:30 p.m. Saturday