ORANGEBURG, N.Y. – When Ronald Matarrita headed past Tim Howard for his first MLS goal in nearly two years in New York City FC's 4-0 win over the Colorado Rapids two weeks ago, the outside back sprinted to the bench to cap his celebration.
Awaiting was an embrace from Rodney Wallace, a teammate for club and country, his roommate on the road and his co-pilot on a journey that is taking the Ticos' Big Apple tandem to Russia for their first World Cup appearance next month.
“He’s always been supportive of me through my injuries so he was the first person I thought of to go celebrate with,” Matarrita said. “He’s with me at my lowest and he’s always with me at my highest.”
Matarrita and Wallace first met, ironically, in Russia. It was Oct. 9, 2016 and both players were called into the Costa Rica national team that defeated Russia 4-3 in a friendly played in Krasnodar.
Matarrita, who was in his first season with NYCFC after a transfer from his hometown team Alajuelense, was in the starting XI that day. Wallace, based at Brazil's Sport Recife at the time, came off the substitute’s bench for the final 20 minutes.
A year later, Wallace joined Matarrita in New York after NYCFC acquired his rights from the Portland Timbers in exchange for $75,000 of General Allocation Money and $50,000 of Targeted Allocation Money.
“We went into the qualifiers and felt very comfortable with each other right away,” Wallace said. “He’s one of my closest friends. To be on this journey together is amazing with all the things we’ve been through, from the qualifiers to the things here in New York, to finally be on that list together its amazing.”
Wallace, though, remained in Los Angeles to film a commercial. After speaking to his parents and his wife, Wallace tried to reach Matarrita, who got his message – and many more – when he finally landed in New York.
“When I landed I got all the messages and had an idea about what was going on,” Matarrita said. “But it was pure happiness to be called up and it speaks to my hard work and effort I’ve been putting in.”
Despite his prominent role for the Ticos when healthy, Matarrita's World Cup has at times looked far from a certainty during a two-and-a-half year New York stint that has included battles with a myriad of injuries. A year ago it was a broken foot and a high ankle sprain that limited him to 12 games in his second season in MLS.
Matarrita began 2018 as Patrick Vieira’s second option at left back behind Ben Sweat. Then came a hamstring injury that kept him out of a pair of matches each for club and country.
Those were admittedly dark days for Matarrita, but through it all Wallace was by his side.
“He carries his heart on his sleeve and when things go wrong it feels like it’s literally the end of the world,” Wallace said. “Unfortunately I’ve been there, I’ve been exactly where he is multiple times. Mata has a lot going for him. He’s a young player with a lot of talent and to see him go down with injury after injury, it takes a toll on your mind. As a friend I can only be there for him, making sure that his mind is right, his attitude is correct and he stays positive.”
Conversely, Wallace said Matarrita makes him “feel safe.”
“He’s a person I can trust and he’s literally behind me on the field,” Wallace said. “There’s no secret as to why we’re in this together.”
Soon, they will be leaving for Russia. It is Costa Rica’s second consecutive World Cup appearance, but the first for Wallace and Matarrita. The goal is to improve on Costa Rica's impressive performance four years ago, when the Ticos shocked the world to finish atop a group that featured three former tournament winners in England, Italy and Uruguay. They eventually reached the quarterfinals, where they were ousted by the Netherlands on penalties.
Wallace will have his family in Russia, while Matarrita’s will watch from Costa Rica. They will have the support of a nation and they will have each other. They also have some sage advice from their captain, World Cup winner David Villa.
“The most important [advice I can give] is enjoy, enjoy because so many players can’t play this event, never in their life. Very good players never had the option to go to the World Cup,” Villa said. “They are going to the World Cup. It’s the best tournament in the world. So enjoy, not only the games , but enjoy the events they have before. The best advice I tell them is of course to be ready to give everything, give 100 percent, but enjoy because it’s amazing to be there.”