After scoring FC Kansas City’s lone goal in a shutout against the Western New York Flash on June 4, Amy Rodriguez had only one thing on her mind.
She rushed to the stands in hopes of finding and sharing the moment with her 10-month-old son, Ryan, whom she hadn’t seen in a month.
At the time, she couldn’t find Ryan or her husband, Adam Shilling, but she reassured her son after the game that she had tried her best.
“I wanted to come to you, I wanted to come to you,” she cooed, smiling and pointing to her giggling baby after being reunited in the locker room.
Less than a year after giving birth to her son, the player known as “A-Rod” to teammates and fans has made a graceful return to the top of both the national and international soccer scenes. She ranks second in the National Women’s Soccer League in scoring (nine goals) and shots on goal (25) while also playing increasing minutes for the U.S. women’s national team.
But figuring out life as a new mom might be the 27-year-old professional athlete’s biggest accomplishment of all.
For Rodriguez, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who’d played in college at Southern California, the pregnancy came as a shock.
When she and Shilling were married in October 2011, they agreed that they wanted a family some day. That day arrived earlier than anticipated when Ryan was born Aug. 6, 2013.
Rodriguez had played for the Philadelphia Independence of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league in 2010-2011, scoring 17 goals. But that team folded when the WPS ceased operations in 2012.
Rodriguez’s career appeared ready to pick up again in 2013, when she was allocated to the Seattle Reign of the fledgling NWSL, but then she was forced to sit out the Reign’s inaugural season because of her pregnancy.
Ryan’s arrival did not keep her off the pitch entirely, though. Just four months after giving birth, Rodriguez started playing soccer again and earlier this year returned to action with the U.S. national team.
And two months after that, following a trade to FC Kansas City, she took the field as a starter for FCKC and scored a goal in an April draw with Sky Blue FC.
“My mind-set to get back was really strong, and luckily my body cooperated,” Rodriguez said. “My teammates have also been really supportive and helped me out a lot, and the trainers as well.
“It’s been a collective effort, and I am excited that I have been able to come back the way I have.”
It’s still not common for elite female athletes to embrace motherhood during the peak of their careers.
But before four-time WNBA champion Sheryl Swoopes did it in the late 1990s, the balancing act seemed pretty much impossible.
Swoopes was the first overall pick in the inaugural WNBA Draft in 1997 but soon after discovered she was pregnant. She went on to have her son, Jordan, on the same day the season started and joined the Houston Comets just seven weeks later for the remainder of their championship season.
A handful of players followed in Swoopes’ footsteps in basketball, and Rodriguez soon had first-hand examples in soccer in fellow national teamers Christie Rampone and Stephanie Cox.
Both helped her through some difficult early times.
“There are so many young ladies and even women who can look up to us and say it is possible, and that (set an example) is one thing I wanted to do,” Swoopes said. “It is part of life, but it doesn’t mean that you have to make any sacrifices.
“You don’t have to give up your career or put starting your family on hold, but at the same time, it is important to have the right people in your circle.”
Support from her teammates was especially important for Rodriguez because Shilling, a former USC athlete (he played water polo) like Rodriguez, lives in California. The couple has a month-on/month-off arrangement for caring for Ryan during the season — hence her inability to see her baby at all during FCKC’s travel-heavy month of May.
“Amy’s teammates and coaching staff, both national and club, have been very helpful and accommodating for our Ryan,” Shilling said. “Her teammates are able to lend a hand to her when she needs to run a quick errand, and her coaches allow her to bring Ryan along and take time to be a mom when needed.”
Indeed, the Blues had Ryan travel with them on their first two road trips this season and even paid to bring along his nanny — teammate Lauren Holiday’s cousin. When Ryan is in town, he stays with Rodriguez, Holiday and their nanny in an Overland Park apartment.
“It’s Amy’s baby, but it’s like a team baby because all the girls enjoy having him around,” FCKC coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “It doesn’t bother us at all — and maybe even brings us closer together.”
Rodriguez said her body was so “out of whack” after the pregnancy that she had to relearn some of the balance and coordination that had been so key to her success as a forward.
And then there was the mental aspect of coming back, which she said was even harder.
“You aren’t used to such a fast-paced style of play because I had been moseying for nine months, relaxing, carrying a baby and having a baby,” Rodriguez said. “Being thrown into the fire and being able to hit the ground running was quite difficult, but I did it and I am proud of myself.”
Because of all the hard work Rodriguez put into her comeback, Andonovski said there was little doubt in his mind that Rodriguez would eventually return to her old self. He was even more convinced after consulting national-team peers like Holiday and Becky Sauerbrunn.
“I think she looks sharper than I’ve seen her in a long time,” Holiday said. “I think it is unbelievable that you could go through childbirth (and return to top form), and not only that but she is an amazing mom and takes care of Ryan and still shows up and gets the job done.”
How complete is Rodriguez’s comeback? She has a team-high nine goals and 25 shots on goal in 13 games with the Blues, which includes a two-goal performance on Mother’s Day against the Washington Spirit. That game earned her NWSL Player of the Week honors.
“She brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm to our practices and trainings and is a true team player,” Andonovski said. “On top of that, she produces and produces big. I’m not sure what else you could ask for.”