from million-dollar teenager to USA’s World Cup cutting edge

Here’s the thing about Trinity Rodman’s journey to the 2023 World Cup: It wasn’t always part of some long-term plan she laid out when she turned professional two years ago.

“It sounds silly, but it wasn’t even in my mind just because of how young I was and still am,” Rodman told the Guardian in an interview prior to the World Cup. “I think I’ve always just been trying to build my game.”

Now the 21-year-old Rodman is learning in the fast lane. She started the United States’ first two matches at this tournament on the right-wing, in a forward line that also includes Alex Morgan and Sophia Smith. Rodman and her teammates continue to stress that this team are a work in progress. Endless injuries and constant line-up changes meant that USA head coach Vlatko Andonovski rolled out a new starting XI for the opening match of the World Cup, a 3-0 win over Vietnam. He stuck with that line-up in the second game, a 1-1 draw against the Netherlands, because he wants to see the squad establish chemistry. Rodman is an important part of that plan.

“[Rodman] was getting defended very [physically], tough, and I actually thought that she was very good, [against the Netherlands],” Andonovski said on Saturday. “She put herself in really good situations, put her teammates in good situations to score goals as well and executed her role very well.”

Rodman attempted three shots in the draw with the Netherlands, a match in which the US struggled with their shape in the first-half. She nearly created a goal from nothing nine minutes into the match, when she sprinted at Dutch goalkeeper Daphne van Domselaar and got a touch on the ball only eight yards from goal. Van Domselaar managed to clear, but the warning shot had been sent.

Related: ‘I’m still gonna bust your ass’: Rapinoe happy with bench role at final World Cup

The play was also an illustration of why Rodman has emerged as Andonovski’s choice to play on the right, after Mallory Swanson ruptured her patella tendon in April. Rodman is an audacious dribbler and a strong finisher, but she has also worked hard to round out the defensive side of her game.

Rewind to the team’s second game of the year, a 5-0 win over New Zealand at Eden Park, and it becomes clearer how Rodman has worked intentionally toward that objective. Rodman assisted USA’s first goal of that game with a cross to Ashley Hatch from the left. That entire sequence of US possession began with Rodman tracking back into her own half to win the ball.

“What is preached all the time here is that getting back, working back on defense isn’t just winning the ball and possessing it,” Rodman said. “You’re winning the ball to counter-attack. You’re winning the ball to go forward and score a goal. So, I think our team is so good at defending and regaining the ball because we want to go forward, and we can score goals off of our defense.”

Multiple USA players bemoaned the team’s defensive play in the first-half against the Netherlands. They were stretched and allowed their opponents too much time on the ball. Rodman felt that her team’s struggles in the first 45 minutes were self-inflicted rather than being purely down to Dutch domination.

“Obviously, connections are building, the more we practice, the more we play together,” Rodman said after the match. “I think this game, me, Alex and Soph obviously had a noticeable, better connection today. That goes with playing with each other. I think our interchange and opposite movements were a lot better this game and created a lot of chances. At the end of the day, back lines have to respect the speed and ability that we have up top and I think we just did a really good job of working off each other.”

Here’s another thing about Rodman: she is very shy at first. Yes, she is personable, and she is the team’s unofficial creative director for TikTok videos, but she likes to adapt to new environments slowly. Entering the US senior team as a teenager was difficult, as is stepping into a starting World Cup role.

“It was hard in the beginning just because I am very surprisingly introverted when I first come into a team,” Rodman said.

Rodman has found her voice over the past year – and she’ll talk plenty about rewatching games and analyzing her game. “Film has definitely been a big factor,” she said.

Tablets are central to most USA team meetings, and players have access to them throughout training camp if they want to study in their rooms or in small groups. Speaking before the World Cup about the assist she served up in New Zealand in January, Rodman immediately recalls a nearly identical scenario that had played out on the opposite side of the field earlier in the match. She was too late to react, however, and realized after watching the film that she should have played an early ball in – something she eventually did for the opening goal.

Smarter decision making, tracking back defensively: these are the things that Rodman has worked on religiously over the past two years. “Turning things into a habit rather than reacting,” she says.

Rodman’s talent was clear from an early age as a USA youth international. She made an immediate impact at the professional level, too. After the Covid-19 pandemic canceled what would have been her freshman year of college at Washington State, Rodman decided to turn professional. Washington Spirit picked her No 2 overall in the 2021 NWSL draft. Rodman duly scored five minutes into her professional career, after coming on as a second-half substitute.

Success kept coming that year, with Rodman earning Rookie of the Year honors and leading the Spirit’s late-season turnaround, which eventually ended with their first NWSL title. Rodman was electric in the championship game. She struck fear into defenders as she ran at them on the wing, and she served the cross to Kelley O’Hara for the game-winning goal in extra time.

The Spirit rewarded their young star with the NWSL’s first million-dollar contract while she was still in her teens, and Rodman was firmly on the radar of Andonovski as he began a generational overhaul following a disappointing campaign for the US at the Tokyo Olympics.

Rodman’s sophomore NWSL campaign was more challenging. Her goalscoring contributions were cut nearly in half from the year prior as the Spirit struggled through a season with another coaching change. They finished second from bottom. Rodman said that as a rookie she had the element of surprise in her favor; nobody knew what to expect from her. By 2022, she had been scouted extensively, which challenged her to evolve her game.

She was unfazed. Another thing about Rodman is that she likes being uncomfortable. She would not have turned professional at 18 otherwise. The intense pressure of the United States national team is like no other in women’s soccer, and that is fine with her.

“When you make it to the top, when you’re here, you’re not ever comfortable,” Rodman said. “You’re going against the best of the best every single day and it just pushes me to be better and I love that part of it.”

A significant piece of that adaptation has been reminding herself why she is a fixture with the United States.

“I think what was challenging for me was to kind of connect Trinity in the NWSL and Trinity here,” she said before the tournament. “I think I bring different things to both teams while also playing like me. So, I think being able to also bring the confidence that I have in the league here – in the beginning I was a little bit more hesitant to go one-v-one because I was like, ‘I don’t want to mess up. I don’t want to lose it. I don’t want to be the person that we get counterattacked through.’ I’m trying to build that in more and make those split-second decisions to where we can help the team the most while still showing my strengths, because I got here for my one-v-one ability and my defensive work.”

Earning a place at this World Cup marked a clear acceleration of Rodman’s career timeline. Six months ago – particularly prior to the injury to Swanson – Rodman was considered a bubble player. Now she is one of the players Andonovski is leaning on most as the US chase a third successive title. Portugal are the next test on Tuesday, and if the upsets seen at this World Cup are any indication of the expanded field’s depth, the US will need to be far better in the knockout round. Rodman is a key part of that plan.

Nobody – not even Rodman – could say that this was all part of the script, but she learned early in her career that things rarely go to plan.

“I used to, when I was younger, just be like, ‘I want this, this and this,’” she said. “Once things [became] reality, I’m kind of like, nothing is going to turn out the way you want it. And if you get there, it’s not going to be the path that you thought it was going to be. I don’t really set certain goals on myself because I’m just like, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’ But I’m going to do what I need to do in this moment to get wherever I get.”

Leave a Comment