Head coach Carl Africo points to one game in particular to define Central Falls High senior forward Cristian Rodriguez’ uncanny ability to put the ball in the net.
“We were playing Smithfield in a non-league match, and – early on – the guys really didn’t know how to play him,” Africo recalled late last week of what turned out to be a 6-1 pasting of the host Sentinels. “They decided to give him (shots with) his right foot, and he scored two goals in the first half.
“After halftime, they figured they’d force him to his left foot, and he scored two more,” he added. “The players trying to defend him were just scratching their heads. On his fifth goal, they chose to double-team him, and that’s when he did his Houdini act – now you see him, now you don’t.
“He 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.”
In his most recent outing, the Warriors’ relatively-easy 4-1 Division I triumph over Cumberland at Tucker Field on Wednesday night, Rodriguez had a mere two tallies. He could’ve registered at least another pair, but – on one in particular, with two players draped on him outside the left post – 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’ keeper Remi Lussier caromed off the crossbar.
“The key for him, he has natural foot skills,” Africo noted. “He’s ambidextrous, or should I say ‘ambi-footed.’ He can use either one with power or finesse, and his teammates are finding him right now.
“He’s lean and fast, and people are watching the artistry of what he’s doing and not paying attention to where the ball is,” he added. “He gets the ball, spins, contorts his body in every way he knows how to fake someone out and boot it home.
“(Last Wednesday) night, he was at the top of the 18 (yard line), with four Cumberland players all around him, and – you blink – he’s 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’s taking whatever is given him.”
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’s Doug Buonanno, has just nine goals and two assists.
“You know, I figured it out, and Cristian has scored 71 percent of the goals we, as a team, have had so far this season,” he said. “What does that tell you?”
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 – in this case, fellow senior quad-captains Juan Patino and Brian Figueroa – Rodriguez stated the reason for his success is simple: A pure love for the sport.
“I started playing when I was seven years old,” he smiled shyly, as this is the first time he’s been interviewed in such detail. “My dad (John) played professionally in Colombia, and he wanted me to play.
“Since I was a little kid, I always had a ball at my feet, and I always adored playing,” he added. “I 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.”
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 “’94s,” in goals scored at each level.
“It just comes naturally to me,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since I was little; I guess it’s in my blood.”
When asked if his parents attend his games, he explained his dad wouldn’t miss one, but his mom, Rosa, does as she has to work.
“He tells me I’m real good, but that I’ve also got a lot of things to work on,” he smiled. “Like he says, I’ve always got to have the net marked on my forehead.”
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.
“No matter where I’m possessing the ball, I’ve got to know where the net is, and I guess I do,” he offered. “It’s just instinct. I’m always really focused on what I’m doing.”
He also was queried, via Patino, if his skills are hereditary, and Rodriguez just laughed.
“I don’t know, but my dad was really good, so I hope so,” 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.
“My parents wanted me to have a better future, and have more opportunities, both in education and in soccer,” Rodriguez said. “My dad had lived here before, and he liked Central Falls, so he brought pretty much our whole family here.”
Superlatives for Rodriguez, as a player and a person, aren’t only issued by his coach; his teammates rave about him, too.
“He’s the star of the team, one of the best players I’ve ever seen,” Patino said. “It’s 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.”
Figueroa immediately interrupted, not out of being rude but of not being able to contain himself.
“But he’s not cocky; it’s almost like he doesn’t know how good he is,” he stated. “I mean, he knows he’s talented, but he doesn’t let it go to his head. He’s very, very humble, and he’s really easy to get along with. He’s a jokester at the same time.
“The thing he cares most about is just playing the game,” h continued. “I think he has the most fun on the field, when he’s playing and all of his teammates are there. He just lives for the game.”
Figueroa then chuckled, as if he came up with another way to define his pal.
“He loves playing with a goalie’s head,” he said. “He gets them dizzy; he makes them feel like they’re on the other side of the field, like a fish out of water. He gets them flopping all over the place. Sometimes, it’s really funny. The goalies just don’t know how to figure him out.”
Perhaps a few seconds later, Rodriguez becomes serious.
“Soccer is the most important thing to me, and I wouldn’t be where I am without my teammates,” he claimed. “Without them, I wouldn’t 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.”