HOUSTON — The instructions from his coach seemed simple enough, but the atmosphere Memo Rodríguez stepped into late Saturday night made executing those instructions quite difficult.
The 22-year-old Houston Dynamo midfielder was up to the challenge anyway. He usually is.
In the 90th minute of a tie game against the LA Galaxy, Rodríguez gained possession at the edge of the attacking third and passed wide to Boniek García.
García touched it toward the penalty area while Rodríguez sprinted toward the face of the goal.
García’s cross to the far post found Romell Quioto, but Quioto’s sliding shot bounced off the crossbar. It went directly to Rodríguez, a step inside the six-yard box, and Rodríguez jumped to head the ball into the goal, sending BBVA Compass Stadium’s announced sellout crowd into a frenzy.
Seconds before Rodríguez ran onto the field, coach Wilmer Cabrera told him to “bring the energy.”
“You get into matches like that, and it is intense,” Rodríguez said. “You have to match the intensity as soon as you come in. That is the hard part coming off the bench. With the right mentality I think anybody can do that.”
Knack for production
Rodríguez — whose full name is José Guillermo “Memo” Rodríguez — has come off the bench in six of his 12 MLS appearances, dating back to April 8, 2017. That includes all three of his appearances this season.
He has made the most of his limited opportunities, too.
He appeared in four consecutive games last July and contributed two goals and one assist. One of those goals came after he subbed on in the 63rd minute. The assist came during a 31-minute shift and helped the Dynamo steal a share of the points in a home game against the Portland Timbers.
Saturday’s late winner is not the first of his career. Last season, in the Dynamo’s U.S. Open Cup opener, Rodríguez scored in the 110th minute to clinch a 3-2 win over North Carolina FC.
Rodríguez’s MLS goals-per-90-minutes ratio last year was 0.55, tied for second on the team with Alberth Elis. Add his three appearances this year, and his career number jumps to 0.77.
In 2017, only Atlanta United’s Josef Martínez had a ratio bigger than that. New York City FC’s David Villa was the only other player at least equal to Rodríguez.
Positive early signs
Cabrera said he is not surprised by Rodríguez’s scoring. In 2016, Cabrera had a front row seat while Rodríguez led Rio Grande Valley FC in the United Soccer League with seven assists and finished second with six goals.
Rodríguez was shy in the early going with RGV FC, especially when he did not play in the first few games. Eventually, everything clicked and he flourished.
“Whenever he stepped on the field, he was showing all of us that he had something special and he was making a difference,” Cabrera said. “He became the most important player throughout that season with us, and that’s why we brought him over (to the Dynamo) because he earned that himself.”
More minutes coming?
Just as Rodríguez’s rookie year was picking up steam, he suffered a right knee sprain that sidelined him for the rest of the season. He came back healthy this preseason and said he felt great throughout January and February.
Despite that, he has played only 21 minutes over three appearances. After Saturday’s game against the Galaxy, Cabrera said the club was easing Rodríguez into action to make sure his knee is 100 percent.
It remains to be seen exactly how many minutes Rodríguez will get in the coming months. Cabrera said if Rodríguez keeps performing well in training and when he subs into games, his opportunities will increase.
Scoring a dramatic goal in his latest appearance has made Rodríguez hungrier. He’s ready for his next one.
“The staff did a very good job of bringing me along slowly and not pushing things so I could recover right,” he said. “They know what they are doing, and I understand as a player that they’re making the best decision for the team. Now that I am getting more minutes on the field I have to take advantage and bring the energy.”