A thing that’s often said about elite athletes is that they make it look easy. Just look at the subtle curve on that free kick, watch the almost casual stepover that leaves the defender flatfooted, see how easily he gets his head on the ball.
It’s not something you’ll often hear said about Angelo Rodriguez.
When an attacking possession makes its way to the forward, he tends to receive the ball not in space, but with his back up against a defender. He shields the ball with a trunk of a body while the opposing centerback kicks at his feet trying to pry the ball away. In this interval, the other attacking players are swarming past him until Rodriguez has the opportunity to play the ball off and then peel into the teeth of the defense farther up the field. Or else he’s getting the ball in much the same manner but in the box, where he’s immediately set upon by two or three defenders instead of one.
The Colombian attacker, in short, turns soccer into a full contact sport.
“That’s part of the game,” he says via a translator. “In my position I play with my back turned and the centerback will always be physical with you. I always receive hits, bruises, every game I leave with something but I like it – the battle between the centerback and myself. I’ve always said the one who wins that battle will win the game. The centerback who is not holding up well will always make it easy for me.”
It’s not always pretty but it’s an approach that’s becoming increasingly effective for Minnesota United. Against D.C. United recently, Rodriguez spent much of the afternoon holding up the ball against colossal centerbacks Donovan Pines, Steven Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant, all of whom are over six feet tall. But at a crucial moment in the 82nd minute, the 5-foot-11-inch Rodriguez peeled off of Pines and ran at the near post as fullback Romain Metanire sent a cross in.
You can debate whether Rodriguez actually got his foot on the ball — when asked after the game he responded with a laugh, “As a forward I’m always going to say yes.” But his presence in front of goal unmistakably made the goal possible in that instant and, consequently, the 1-0 win. And that’s the thing about the burly forward: He’s not necessarily going to strike lovely curving balls from outside the box or coax a volley into the upper left corner of the net, but he’s warping the game around him now that the team is getting comfortable with his Brutalist style.
“At the beginning, we didn't know what kind of game he had,” said midfielder Miguel Ibarra. “Now we know: We give it up to him and he's going to hold it up and slow down the play for us. He's strong. There's not many people that have pushed him off the ball. Get the ball into his feet and once he lays it off, he gets back into the area and we put it in there for him.”
“It was something I have wanted my teammates and coaching staff to better understand: my game and my strength,” he says. “Once I was confident enough to express my style of play, I told them to pass me the ball since that is my strength and now my teammates look for me.”
His four goals and one assist put him into an upper tier of goalscorers in MLS alongside the likes of Johnny Russell and Jordan Morris, but some of the advanced stats paint an even better picture. Given the relative lack of scoring in soccer and the large degree of luck involved in one-goal wins or losses, a stat like expected goals or expected assists can give us a fuller picture of the work a player puts in based on the relative difficulty of a player’s opportunities on the pitch.
Of players who have played at least 400 minutes this season, Rodriguez’s expected goals + expected assists per 96 minutes (the average number of minutes in a game including stoppage time) of 0.71 puts him 12th in the league and well above the likes of Wayne Rooney, Diego Rossi and Nicolas Lodeiro. His work in the box has also led directly to at least one penalty kick — yet another contribution that doesn’t get marked down in the boxscore for his account.
Just as on the field, it’s taken Rodriguez some time to get settled off the field. He joined the Loons in 2018 when the season was already mostly over, and he did so without his family around him. Now that they’ve joined him and he’s no longer making do with his living situation, he’s more at ease in the Twin Cities and he’s getting to enjoy things like watching his two young sons score on goal after the win over D.C. United while the Wonderwall cheered.
“It was emotional,” he says when asked about the moment with his sons. “Honestly it was pure happiness. Most importantly my sons were happy and it’s very motivating to see. We will always have that memory. Many people have sent me messages about how beautiful it was but it could’ve been any of their kids that could’ve been in that position. I am very fortunate to be here.”
So maybe it's not so much that he doesn't make it look easy. Maybe it's just that the comparatively reserved forward — whom his teammates insist is a funny guy always ready to crack a joke — doesn't conform to our ideas about what the tip of the spear is supposed to look like. Maybe he just makes the hard work look normal.