Rivalry Week

Santi Rodríguez thrives under increased "responsibility" at New York City FC


It’s impossible to truly capture a moment. Sure, you can snap a photo, but even the camera sometimes lies. Santi Rodríguez knows that. The New York City FC attacking midfielder is learning to shoot photos, working out how to freeze time while finding the right color, lighting and depth for each image.

It’s a study of angles, sending his mind through the same calculations he makes on the field. There, unlike behind the camera where he’s soliciting help from NYCFC’s photographers and friends from his native Uruguay, it’s second nature.

The ball has been at his feet since he was a kid in Montevideo, representing Third Street in kickarounds against informal teams from the other streets in the neighborhood.

When the ball is at his feet, “I sincerely feel very natural, very spontaneous. I try to be the most child-like possible in the day-to-day here in the club, playing and training,” he told MLSsoccer.com this week. “I like to have fun because, really, it’s my job, but I do what I like so it’s not a job. I do what I always dreamed of, and so I enjoy it that much more.

“I really love putting in an assist, scoring, playing a one-two with my teammates. It makes me feel like a kid again, and it’s what I enjoy the most.”

Rivalry roots

Now 24, Rodríguez is exuding the joy of a youngster this season. He’s scored five times in 13 matches and, in Wednesday's 2-1 win at the Philadelphia Union, added his third assist of the season with a perfectly-measured pass from the right wing for Alonso Martínez's opener.

This Saturday, it’s a rivalry clash but, instead of representing Third Street against Second, he’s suiting up for New York City FC against the New York Red Bulls at Citi Field, part of Rivalry Week presented by Continental Tire (7:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).

Rodríguez still tries to keep elements of street soccer in his game. When he chops the ball back to send his defender past and puts in a cross, that’s the Third Street in him. But it wasn’t long before he balanced playing in the streets of the Uruguayan capital with the more formal style of play he learned at one of the country’s top teams: Nacional.

His bond with the Tricolor runs so deep, he has the crest tattooed on his calf and says he’s still a “die-hard fan” who loves to interact with fans of the team on social media and keep up with each match. He played in multiple editions of the Clásico Uruguayo, a heated contest with fellow heavyweight Peñarol.

“The Clásico there is incredible. It has a huge magic for me,” he said.

Evolving role

Here, Rodríguez says, there are more rules and more red tape whereas fans in Uruguay are free to set off fireworks or climb trees and structures to get a glimpse of their team – no matter the fact they may literally be risking life and limb. But while the spectacle off the field in Uruguay may draw the eye, Rodríguez believes the quality of Saturday's match will be worth watching.

“I really enjoy the game here," he said. "There, it’s a bit more of a situation where maybe in a Clásico it doesn’t matter how you play, it’s just about winning.

"Here you play a bit more [tactically] and obviously also play to win. For me, you always have to win a Clásico.”

The intensity of a rivalry match is just one lesson he's working to impart on teammates in a young NYCFC locker room. Rodríguez pushed back on the idea that he’s one of the group's old heads. “I’m there in the middle!” he laughed, noting the presence of several veteran players in the squad.

But there’s no doubt he’s trying to help his younger teammates along. Whether working with teenage Slovenia right back Mitja Ilenič on where to put crosses or sharing life lessons with fellow South Americans Agustín Ojeda and Julián Fernández, Rodríguez is trying to put in extra effort to make sure this NYCFC season is a success.

It wasn’t always a guarantee Rodríguez would be here in this place, with NYCFC investing in youth to push the team forward after their MLS Cup 2021 triumph. Ahead of last season, Rodríguez's future seemed like it could be in Europe, Brazil or anywhere else outside the Bronx. But after agreeing to a Designated Player deal that will keep him at the club through 2027, the player knows he’s home.

That can be comforting, but it also brings a high level of expectation. Even so, NYCFC head coach Nick Cushing knows the drive he's had since he first started playing means Rodríguez will push himself to succeed.

“I think the good thing about myself and Santi is we see the game the same way. We have the same standards and desire,” Cushing said in a video the team published last month. “We have the same hunger and belief in New York City.

“If we’re going to be a winning team, it’s going to involve Santi Rodríguez playing his best football.”

Rising to the challenge

When Rodríguez hears Cushing make statements like that, and make them publicly, it motivates him.

Rather than pressure, he feels an obligation to be the key player on this team as they look to earn not just a rivalry win this weekend against RBNY, but to add another MLS Cup after winning one in Rodríguez's first season with the club in 2021.

“What he said was really important to me,” Rodríguez said. “The responsibility is greater, but those types of positive comments help boost my confidence.

"What he said lets you play as you’ve been playing, play naturally without having to think, ‘I have more responsibility now, I have to do more things,’ No, I do these things that I’ve got to do well, always thinking about the team and staying calm because I really feel that confidence.”

In other words, for Rodríguez to do what he knows best, what he's been doing since he was scoring for the Third Street squad instead of being cheered by stadiums full of fans of Nacional or NYCFC: Create magical moments, ones that can't be frozen in time, but ones fans will remember forever.