It was a very pleasing Sunday afternoon at Thunderbird Stadium, and not just because WFC2 had recorded their first USL home win.
The game against Real Monarchs SLC marked the playing return of Whitecaps’ center back Diego Rodriguez. With a busy and gruelling summer schedule coming up, and some defensive lapses in recent matches, the return of Rodriguez to the MLS squad is a welcome sight.
The Uruguayan has had a tough start to his MLS career.
Rodriguez joined Vancouver on a one-year loan with a transfer option from Primera Division side Club Atlético Juventud de Las Piedras in January. Beaten out of a starting spot in the preseason by veteran Pa Modou Kah, the centre back made his MLS debut with a start against Orlando City in the third week of the season.
Rodriguez played well in the 1-0 win and many, ourselves included, felt that he immediately formed a formidable centre back pairing with Kendall Waston. It looked like they could be the partnership to move the club forward but unfortunately he was to pick up a two game ban for his now infamous grabbing of Aurelien Collin’s balls during the second half of the match.
After sitting out the wins against Portland and LA, Rodriguez immediately came back into the starting line-up to face Columbus on April 8th. His MLS woes were to continue, however, limping off in the 15th minute with a right quad strain.
It was a tough setback for a 22-year-old starting off life in a new country and league. He worked hard to get back fit, but just when he was close to a return he suffered a heartbreaking relapse in training and was carted off in tears. You really had to feel for him and what it meant to him to get fit enough to play for his new club.
The whole time that Rodriguez has been rehabbing, the Whitecaps defence has had mixed results. On the whole, pretty solid but with some lapses and the play of Kah can be something of an adventure at times.
The good news for Rodriguez and the Whitecaps is that he is now back healthy and raring to go. He scored a wonderful long range goal at training last week that beat David Ousted all ends up, leaving the Dane waxing lyrical about the strike.
“It was tough for me because I was in a good moment,” Rodriguez admitted to AFTN. “Then I had the injury and came back and then had a step back, but now I feel very good. The turf sometimes means adapting but now I’m very healthy, I’m very good and ready to play.”
‘Caps coach Carl Robinson indicated that Rodriguez would get a run out for the USL side on Sunday to test his readiness and we’re pleased to confirm that he came through it with flying colours.
Rodriguez played 64 minutes for WFC2, looked comfortable and was rarely troubled at the back, while coming close with a header and looking a danger at set pieces in the opponent’s box.
The Uruguayan was delighted to come through the outing unscathed in what is the final step to his recovery and being back in the MSL reckoning.
“I feel very good,” Rodriguez told us after the match. “It was a good game, it’s a good group and we wanted to win. I felt very comfortable on the field and felt very happy.
“First up was this moment, that I passed, but now I feel very good. and looking forward to playing.”
Rodriguez captained the young ‘Caps on Sunday and the experience and professionalism he brought to the squad over the weekend delighted head coach Alan Koch, who was delighted to see the Uruguayan back to full fitness.
“It’s huge [having Rodriguez in the WFC2 team],” Koch told us after the match. “Diego’s a class act. He’s a true professional. He came and trained with us yesterday for the first time. He jumped in right away. He embraced everybody and he got to know [the squad]. He didn’t know some of the guy’s names yesterday when he got there. But he was asking guy’s names, he got to know them.
“You could see today that he wanted to play the full 90 odd minutes but we were told to play him the 60 odd. He put in a quality performance.”
Rodriguez knows it’s not simply a case of waltzing straight back into the ‘Caps starting line up in MLS. Competition is fierce in the centre back position right now, with Kah having ups and downs, Waston close to suspension and Tim Parker and Christian Dean both pushing hard to get minutes.
It’s that competition that’s driving Rodriguez on, however.
“It’s like an internal competition that we have,” Rodriguez added. “We have great players, but it’s good for us because we’re pushing up the levels. When the coach needs me, I’ll be ready. I’m very comfortable here, very happy and it’s a great group.”
So just how ready is he? He certainly looked comfortable against Real Monarchs and felt no adverse effects or pain during the match. A great sign and great news. Robinson may feel that he needs another USL match next weekend against Arizona United to get back to full match fitness, but he may find himself on the bench to face Real Salt Lake on Saturday first, with an eye to getting minutes in the horrific five games on the road that the ‘Caps have coming up.
Whatever plans Robinson has for him, he’ll be good to go.
“I work every day,” Rodriguez said. “I have to thank all the medical staff that have worked with me and all the guys for the support and my family. They’re all together for me. When the coach needs me. I will be ready.”
Despite the trials and tribulations he’s had during the start of his MLS career, Rodriguez is loving his time in the city and with the Whitecaps. He loves Vancouver and despite it being hard watching games from the sidelines these past few weeks, he’s been very impressed with what he’s seen of Major League Soccer so far.
“I’ve enjoyed the games,” Rodriguez told us. “MLS is a great league. There’s great stadiums, great players. I feel very comfortable here. The club here is great and all the fans. It’s different but on the field it’s all the same. Eleven versus eleven and we do the best to win.”
The Whitecaps certainly need to get back to winning ways with a tough five game road stretch coming up. Having Diego Rodriguez back in the mix should definitely help.