Tuesday, June 15, 2021

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Brian Rodriguez comes of age 

  • Rodriguez is one of the promising young talents Uruguay are banking on
  • Winger has three goals in nine games with La Celeste
  • He talks about maturing as a player, the national team and World Cup qualifiers

In 2016 shortly after Brian Rodriguez had joined Penarol, Uruguayan legend Jose Perdomo, who had brought him to the Montevideo club, famously dubbed him locura (madness). “He was 15 years old and had a rocket in his head; he was a madman,” said the former Celeste midfielder – a Copa America champion in 1987 and participant at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™.

By the time Rodriguez joined Major League Soccer (MLS) side Los Angeles FC (LAFC) for a club record fee three years later, fans were calling him Rayito (Little Lightning). While the first nickname alluded to his volatile temperament, the second focused on his electrifying play, which combines speed and dexterity, the ability to open up teams on either flank and his scoring ability.

And it was the emergence of this more mature player that convinced national team boss Oscar Tabarez to hand him his senior team debut in 2019 and then name him in his starting XI for the opening qualifiers of the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.

In conversation with FIFA.com, the player explains his journey and transformation. “First of all, I found the move from Tranqueras to Montevideo quite tough. I grew up in a small town and was very restless. By five, I was already misbehaving, so a teacher suggested to my parents that I take up football to expend some energy. I was a lazy student,” says Rodriguez, who currently plays for Spanish outfit Almeria.

“Afterwards, I struggled to adapt to the rigours of professional life. When I was 17, I made my top-flight debut and joined a squad of adults, who made no mistakes. By contrast, I made a lot of them and experienced many things all at once that I couldn’t handle. Luckily, several of my club-mates talked to me and helped me mature,” adds the Uruguayan who will turn 21 on 20 May.

During that period, he was overlooked for the 2019 South American U-20 Championship, despite having represented Uruguay at youth level for several years. However, his development at Penarol, where he contributed two goals and four assists as his side claimed the Apertura title, in which he was named Best Young Player, paved the way for his inclusion in the squad for that year’s FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland.


Brian Rodriguez of Uruguay celebrates scoring his sides second goal during the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cu

© Getty Images

There, Rodriguez was one of La Celeste’s leading players, weighing in with two goals and an assist in four games, as his side reached the last 16. “The disappointment of not going to the South American Championship was offset by representing my country at a World Cup, which is incomparable and the most important event.”

Shortly after that came his move to MLS side LAFC, another big change but one he insists was less traumatic for a simple reason: “I already had a mental coach, and that helped me on a personal level to adapt to another country, to a big city like Los Angeles, to another language, and to playing with people from many other cultures.”

Despite his progress, he was still a bit shocked when Tabarez gave him his first call-up to the senior team in August 2019 for their friendlies in Costa Rica and the United States. “I’d left home for training that day and my girlfriend texted me a picture of the squad list. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry! I remember glancing through the list but with no expectation of seeing my name. I hadn’t envisaged playing for the team at such a young age. I wasn’t long in Los Angeles and hadn’t nailed down a starting place in the national team, so I thought I’d first have to start playing and then see.”

The prospect of sharing a dressing room with many of the players he’d admired as a fan was also an experience in itself. “I arrived in Costa Rica just before lunch, went upstairs to put on the team clothes, but then I didn’t want to come down! The boss sent one of his assistants to get me and when I eventually saw him everything went a bit fuzzy. I was as nervous as I was happy.”

On the pitch, however, he looked very much at ease, starting both games and scoring his first goal in the USA fixture. The strike was a trademark Rodriguez move: powering in from the left flank, he dribbled past a defender before unleashing an unstoppable left-foot drive. “I rocked up with damp gunpowder, but it all worked out in the end.”

During the next international break that October, he scored his second goal, this time with his right foot after cutting in from the same side. Then a month later, he fulfilled another dream: getting to know Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, with whom he shared attacking duties in a friendly against Hungary. What’s more, the former even provided him with the assist for his third goal in five games.

“Do you know what it’s like to play with your idols? It’s easy! And off the field too – they’re like anyone else, very normal. What’s more, Suarez beat me on the PlayStation and drove me crazy. I might have to complain about him winding me up!” he jokes.

Tabarez, meanwhile, was generous in his praise of the winger. “I have a lot of faith in players who come back from difficult times, who reinvent themselves and show a new dimension. He’s seized the chance he’s been given. We didn’t have a player with that kind of pace, someone with the ability to strike the ball well with either foot who can prove decisive in the final third.”

So with his form good in Los Angeles, it was no surprise to see him start the World Cup qualifying games against Chile (2-1) and Ecuador (2-4). “They were tough games as expected. There was a time when I assumed that if we could beat Ecuador in Montevideo, then we’d beat them in Quito too. But when you go there, you realise it’s very different. A lot of things can influence these games.”

Rodriguez did not play in their win in Colombia (3-0) but came off the bench in the defeat to Brazil (0-2). With six points, Uruguay currently occupy fifth place (the play-off spot) in the ten-team group. “We’d hoped to be higher up, but it’s not bad. We beat Chile, which is hard to do, and defeated Colombia in Barranquilla. These qualifiers are fierce and are never easy for us.”


Brian Rodriguez of Uruguay fights for the ball with José Pedro Fuenzalida of Chile

© Getty Images

With the next qualifying rounds and the Copa America just around the corner, Rodriguez accepts the obligations they bring, but with one proviso. “We’re a small country, but very big in footballing terms. And because we’ve been doing well, there’s an expectation of good results. However, I prefer not to feel superior to anyone else.”

Ahead of those national team duties, Rodriguez is focusing fully on his club ones. His loan spell at Almeria, where he’s been since the start of the year but not had much playing time, ends in June, and he still doesn’t know if he’ll stay there, return to Los Angeles or change course. “I’m fine here and I like the project. For now, I’m just focusing on winning promotion to the Primera. We’ll see later what happens.”

For all that, he admits to dreaming of reaching Qatar 2022. “At the last World Cup, we had a lot of young players in our side, and I realise that I now have the chance to be at the next edition, which motivates me to keep working. It’s a goal I have firmly in mind and those are my plans,” he concludes.

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