SANDY — Lionel Messi. Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Amy Rodriguez.
If it feels like one of those things is not like the other, you’re not alone in feeling that way.
Rodriguez herself was shocked to see her name on an official FIFA list of nominations alongside some of the greatest players in the modern game of football — or soccer, as we call it on this side of the pond — when the world organization unveiled its nominations for the Puskas Award, given to the top goal of the year.
“I’m flabbergasted that I was even put in the same category as some of the other goal scorers,” Rodriguez told KSL.com by phone just before representing Utah Royals FC in a crucial league game against the Washington Spirit. “I didn’t feel that my goal was worthy of being considered for that list. I’m so honored, and I’m so proud to represent the NWSL, to even be considered in that category.”
Nevertheless, here she is.
Rodriguez’s strike against Sky Blue FC is one of three nominees for the Puskas Award produced by women’s soccer players, a feat in and of itself. The other two female nominees went to Billie Simpson of Clintonville Ladies SC, a lower division side in Ireland, and Ajara Nchout’s strike for Cameroon during a World Cup match against New Zealand.
But when the Southern California product stepped up to hit her strike — a long-dribbling rip from nearly 30 yards out after driving in, through and around the Sky Blue defense June 16 — she wasn’t even thinking of awards or accolades or even being remembered.
The goal almost immediately went viral, thanks in large part to the NWSL, ESPN and dozens of other media outlets.
Truth be told, though, Rodriguez wasn’t sure she’d score from that distance. She was just out to test the goalkeeper.
“I wasn’t expecting to score in that moment,” Rodriguez said. “Picking the ball up around the halfway mark, I just took space and was a little shocked that it was as open as it was.
“I was hoping for a shot on target. But I certainly didn’t expect to hit the back of the net like it did.”
Of course, the obligatory short list of nominees includes some of the game’s biggest legends — Messi of FC Barcelona and Ibrahimovic, the Lion who often speaks of himself in the third person and most recently comes by way of the LA Galaxy in MLS.
“Our league is so competitive, and we have some of the best players in the world playing in our league,” Rodriguez said. “To be part of it, to compete with and against these players, it drives the level of the league higher and higher. I’m proud to represent the NWSL in being recognized for this goal and to represent the Utah Royals.
“To bring attention to the NWSL is great for our league. We do have the world’s best players on these teams, and I think fans probably really enjoy watching the level of soccer that we put out on the pitch.”
The 10 nominees will be narrowed down to three finalists via a public voting panel among FIFA.com Club members through Sept 1. A panel of FIFA legends will then select the final Puskas Award winner, which will be announced at the organization’s annual awards ceremony Sept. 23 in Milan, Italy.
Rodriguez’s run of form — her team setup and goal-scoring ability hearkening back to a previous era, in some ways — has the Royals back in the mix of playoff contention. After three-straight results, collecting seven out of nine points during a three-match road trip, Utah is tied for third in the league with six matches left.
The 32-year-old striker has found a scoring resurgence for the Royals, netting eight goals in 2018 — tied for the second-most in the league behind Sam Kerr’s 13. That’s as many goals as Canadian legend Christine Sinclair of Portland and Kristen Hamilton of North Carolina, for reference.
“One of the words that defines this team is grit. We’ve shown that in the month of August,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve really buckled down and know that we need to get points in this run of games. Laura and the staff have really bought in to this team, and we want to put ourselves in the best shot possible in order to make the playoffs.
“We’re doing well. Hopefully, we can push towards those top four spots in the league.”
After Wednesday night’s game, the Royals will oversee the FIFA-approved international break along with the rest of the league. Utah returns to NWSL play Sept. 6 against the Portland Thorns.