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Head coach Carl Africo points to one game in particular to define Central Falls High senior forward Cristian Rodriguez‚Äô uncanny ability to put the ball in the net.
‚ÄúWe were playing Smithfield in a non-league match, and ‚Äď early on ‚Äď the guys really didn‚Äôt know how to play him,‚ÄĚ Africo recalled late last week of what turned out to be a 6-1 pasting of the host Sentinels. ‚ÄúThey decided to give him (shots with) his right foot, and he scored two goals in the first half.
‚ÄúAfter halftime, they figured they‚Äôd force him to his left foot, and he scored two more,‚ÄĚ he added. ‚ÄúThe players trying to defend him were just scratching their heads. On his fifth goal, they chose to double-team him, and that‚Äôs when he did his Houdini act ‚Äď now you see him, now you don‚Äôt.
‚ÄúHe totally faked out both guys, who virtually fell down, and he drilled a shot past the keeper. The kid just knows how to play this beautiful game.‚ÄĚ
In his most recent outing, the Warriors‚Äô relatively-easy 4-1 Division I triumph over Cumberland at Tucker Field on Wednesday night, Rodriguez had a mere two tallies. He could‚Äôve registered at least another pair, but ‚Äď on one in particular, with two players draped on him outside the left post ‚Äď he somehow escaped and ripped a low liner at the right post.
In uncharacteristic fashion, he missed by, perhaps, two inches. On a previous shot, his bash toward Clippers‚Äô keeper Remi Lussier caromed off the crossbar.
‚ÄúThe key for him, he has natural foot skills,‚ÄĚ Africo noted. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs ambidextrous, or should I say ‚Äėambi-footed.‚Äô He can use either one with power or finesse, and his teammates are finding him right now.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs lean and fast, and people are watching the artistry of what he‚Äôs doing and not paying attention to where the ball is,‚ÄĚ he added. ‚ÄúHe gets the ball, spins, contorts his body in every way he knows how to fake someone out and boot it home.
‚Äú(Last Wednesday) night, he was at the top of the 18 (yard line), with four Cumberland players all around him, and ‚Äď you blink ‚Äď he‚Äôs head-to-head with the goalie, no one else. He picks the right corner, and slides it just wide right. The biggest thing is, he‚Äôs taking whatever is given him.‚ÄĚ
While singing his praises, Africo indicated all of those qualities are reasons why Rodriguez now sits atop the leaderboard, in any division, in goals with 16 (he also has three assists). His closest competition, Prout‚Äôs Doug Buonanno, has just nine goals and two assists.
‚ÄúYou know, I figured it out, and Cristian has scored 71 percent of the goals we, as a team, have had so far this season,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúWhat does that tell you?‚ÄĚ
Talking to Rodriguez is rather difficult; the native of Los Reyes Magos, Colombia, can understand some English when teammates or coaches converse with him, but he has issues speaking it.
Still, with help from a pair of translators ‚Äď in this case, fellow senior quad-captains Juan Patino and Brian Figueroa ‚Äď Rodriguez stated the reason for his success is simple: A pure love for the sport.
‚ÄúI started playing when I was seven years old,‚ÄĚ he smiled shyly, as this is the first time he‚Äôs been interviewed in such detail. ‚ÄúMy dad (John) played professionally in Colombia, and he wanted me to play.
‚ÄúSince I was a little kid, I always had a ball at my feet, and I always adored playing,‚ÄĚ he added. ‚ÄúI moved here to the United States (specifically Central Falls) two years ago, but I always played for my (elementary and middle) schools, but also the town I lived in.‚ÄĚ
Unlike here in America, where youth soccer age groups are labeled Under-10, Under-12, Under-14, etc., they name them by birth year in Colombia. Not surprisingly, Rodriguez said, he led the ‚Äú‚Äô94s,‚ÄĚ in goals scored at each level.
‚ÄúIt just comes naturally to me,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôve been doing this since I was little; I guess it‚Äôs in my blood.‚ÄĚ
When asked if his parents attend his games, he explained his dad wouldn‚Äôt miss one, but his mom, Rosa, does as she has to work.
‚ÄúHe tells me I‚Äôm real good, but that I‚Äôve also got a lot of things to work on,‚ÄĚ he smiled. ‚ÄúLike he says, I‚Äôve always got to have the net marked on my forehead.‚ÄĚ
Patino mentioned that means, simply, he constantly needs to have a photographic memory of the net, where a keeper may be in relation to the posts and ideas as to where he could place it.
‚ÄúNo matter where I‚Äôm possessing the ball, I‚Äôve got to know where the net is, and I guess I do,‚ÄĚ he offered. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just instinct. I‚Äôm always really focused on what I‚Äôm doing.‚ÄĚ
He also was queried, via Patino, if his skills are hereditary, and Rodriguez just laughed.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt know, but my dad was really good, so I hope so,‚ÄĚ he said.
John Rodriguez decided to move his family to Rhode Island after spending time here working, the standout Warrior said. He did so with his wife; his son (via a previous marriage) Christian, 32, and Cristian. He also has a 20-year-old sister still in Colombia.
‚ÄúMy parents wanted me to have a better future, and have more opportunities, both in education and in soccer,‚ÄĚ Rodriguez said. ‚ÄúMy dad had lived here before, and he liked Central Falls, so he brought pretty much our whole family here.‚ÄĚ
Superlatives for Rodriguez, as a player and a person, aren‚Äôt only issued by his coach; his teammates rave about him, too.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs the star of the team, one of the best players I‚Äôve ever seen,‚ÄĚ Patino said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs the smartness he has, the way he uses his body to shield the ball, dribble. He knows exactly when he needs to make a pass or when to pull it (back). He can be running at full speed, then stop automatically, like on an ant hill.‚ÄĚ
Figueroa immediately interrupted, not out of being rude but of not being able to contain himself.
‚ÄúBut he‚Äôs not cocky; it‚Äôs almost like he doesn‚Äôt know how good he is,‚ÄĚ he stated. ‚ÄúI mean, he knows he‚Äôs talented, but he doesn‚Äôt let it go to his head. He‚Äôs very, very humble, and he‚Äôs really easy to get along with. He‚Äôs a jokester at the same time.
‚ÄúThe thing he cares most about is just playing the game,‚ÄĚ h continued. ‚ÄúI think he has the most fun on the field, when he‚Äôs playing and all of his teammates are there. He just lives for the game.‚ÄĚ
Figueroa then chuckled, as if he came up with another way to define his pal.
‚ÄúHe loves playing with a goalie‚Äôs head,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúHe gets them dizzy; he makes them feel like they‚Äôre on the other side of the field, like a fish out of water. He gets them flopping all over the place. Sometimes, it‚Äôs really funny. The goalies just don‚Äôt know how to figure him out.‚ÄĚ
Perhaps a few seconds later, Rodriguez becomes serious.
‚ÄúSoccer is the most important thing to me, and I wouldn‚Äôt be where I am without my teammates,‚ÄĚ he claimed. ‚ÄúWithout them, I wouldn‚Äôt have anyone to give me a nice through-ball, or to feed me a great throw-in. This is all about them. I owe them for what I do out on the field.‚ÄĚ