History set to happen at NWSL Challenge Cup between Cruz, Rodriguez

Shirley Cruz & Raquel Rodriguez of Costa Rica
Herriman, Utah — July 8: Madeline Nolf #22 of Utah Royals FC and Shirley Cruz #28 of OL Reign FC battle for the ball during a game between OL Reign and Utah Royals FC at Zions Bank Stadium on July 8, 2020 in Herriman, Utah. (Photo by Rob Gray/ISI Photos/Getty Images).

Herriman, Utah — Monday will be a day of history at the NWSL Challenge Cup. It’ll be a historic day for not just the league, but for Concacaf and Costa Rica, too. If Shirley Cruz of OL Reign and Raquel Rodriguez of the Portland Thorns take the pitch on Monday, they’ll be the first Costa Ricans to face each other in an NWSL competition.

Concacaf is represented well in the NWSL by members from the United States and Canadian women’s national teams. However, other nations like Costa Rica, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago aren’t as populated in the league.

Since 2015, Costa Rica has had a representative in the NWSL. Raquel Rodriguez was drafted by Sky Blue FC after a collegiate career at Penn State. Now, she’s with the Portland Thorns after an offseason trade.

This past offseason, Shirley Cruz joined OL Reign.

It might be long overdue for Cruz, a legend in her own right in Costa Rica. However, this was the year that the move became official and actually happened. Cruz followed the tracks of head coach Farid Benstiti to Tacoma, where the Reign are based.

Cruz and Benstiti have history together. He coached her at Paris Saint-Germain from 2012-16. Cruz stayed with the club until 2018, when she moved on for one season in China. She then returned to Costa Rica, featuring for Liga Deportiva Alajuelense. Then, she followed Benstiti to the NWSL.

Cruz said on Saturday that it’s an honor and privilege to play against Rodriguez.

“It’s a really special moment because [Rodriguez] has never had the opportunity to play with another Costa Rican national team teammate,” Cruz said. “It’s also a very new scenario for both of us, because Rocky is with Portland so she has to adapt to a new style of game. And for me, it’s new too, a new team, new teammates and new style of game. And it’s a privilege and special moment for us to play against each other. It’s a big rivalry between Portland the Reign.”

A new, but welcome, friendly rivalry

Even though they’re teammates for Costa Rica, Cruz and Rodriguez are going to want a win for their respective clubs. As mentioned, Rodriguez has been in the league much longer than Cruz. However, she said playing against Cruz will be surreal.

“It’s definitely going to be different and weird in a way for me,” Rodriguez said last week. “I’ve never played against any national team teammates with a professional club. It’s going to be a battle, for sure.”

Cruz is a legend in her own right, that’s why Rodriguez said it will be strange to play against the person she’s learned to model her game after.

“I have always looked up to her, so it’s going to be weird playing against her, but exciting at the same time,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez had the opportunity to play against national team players while in Costa Rica. However, she was the lone Costa Rican overseas during her time in France and in China. Her time in China and Costa Rica separated her from Farid Benstiti.

While Cruz is in a new environment in the United States and in the NWSL, she does have some familiarity with her coach.

“I feel confident that during this 3-4 months that we’d get ahold of it, and that we’re going to figure out the new system,” Cruz said, as Celia Jiminez Delgado translated. “Get together with the teammates and get to know each other on the field and that’s going to hopefully show up and improve in the next few games.”

It was time for Cruz in the NWSL

After many years in Europe, it almost seemed like the legendary Costa Rican midfielder was bound to come to the NWSL. It’s a signing that has been long overdue to some. For Cruz, it was the perfect time.

“When he told me about the project and team, I was playing in Costa Rica. My whole career, I played in Europe, so right now I’m trying to learn this different style,” Cruz explained. “And I really like the players. They helped me with the culture and even tried to help me in the first week. I know the Cup situation, so we need to work together…”

“So right now I just try to help the team and Farid, and learn a new style with him. I’m glad that the players are really good with me. It’s a different time and I enjoy playing with the girls right now.”

While Cruz is adjusting to the NWSL, she doesn’t have too much adjusting with her coach. She has experience with Benstiti. It’s been a benefit for other players to have Cruz on the roster, due to that experience.

“I do believe that having Farid coming from Europe and having Shirley, that has played with him for so long, and we also have some European players on the team, including myself, it’s always easier when you have someone that understands that style of game,” Celia Jiminez Delgado said. “In that sense, I am grateful that we have so many players, including Shirley, who understand that style of game. They make the transition and adaptation easier.”

Time for Costa Rican History for Cruz, Rodriguez

And, above all, Cruz is adjusting to the quickness of the NWSL and the new Challenge Cup format.

“This is a fast tournament,” Cruz said. “We’ve been playing within 3-4 games. We’ve been lucky enough that we have a deep roster and we’ve been switching the XI a lot.”

As they get ready for their first-ever historic Costa Rican matchup in the NWSL, Cruz looked back on conversations about the league with Rodriguez. She said that Rodriguez prepared her for the tempo of the NWSL.

“When I talked with Rocky, she told me, ‘You will see.’ It’s more direct,” Cruz said. “It’s a very competitive league. In other leagues, you have only two really good teams, four top teams. Here, you need to be focused. Other teams can win in the last minutes. Here, every team is good.”

And, of course, they’re talking about the upcoming match, too.

“I believe that this is a good time for us to focus on our team, performance,” Cruz said. “We’ll say hello after the game.”

Portland and OL Reign will take the pitch tomorrow, July 13, for the final day of group matches. The knockout rounds will begin this coming Friday.

Portland and OL Reign will kick off at 12:30 p.m. EST/10:30 a.m. MT.

 

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