As Rodney Wallace rose in the world of soccer, he had claims to two soccer-playing nations which have emerged as keen Concacaf rivals.
Rodney Wallace's MLS Flight Path
Wallace was born in San Jose, Costa Rica, but moved with his family to the United States at age 9 — specifically, so his mother could take a job with the Organization of American States. The news of their move came just as Wallace made the youth squad at Alajuelense, one of Costa Rica's biggest clubs.
"I was skeptical about the move," Wallace said. "I didn't know about the soccer culture in the United States. I just knew I had the opportunity to play for this big club, and regardless of how young you are, you know you have dreams and there are things you want to do."
At first, Wallace found the U.S. to be a stark contrast from life in Costa Rica, where after-school pickup games were commonplace and as he put it, "You'd make two goals out of anything you could find."
Wallace found a club team in his new home of Rockville, Maryland, and despite not having his soccer cleats with him the first time out — he recollects, "It was pouring rain that day, and I was slipping all over the place" — he showed enough skill and knowledge of the game to impress the coaches and embark on his development. That process included U.S. Youth Soccer's Olympic Development Program, which he notes was crucial in his evolution as a player.
Wallace then won a scholarship to play college soccer at the University of Maryland, helping the Terrapins win a national championship in his second season. "I always wanted to go there; I knew that for a fact," he said. "I'd grown up going to those games, and watching those guys, and knew I wanted to play on that field. It was always packed, with energy, it seemed like the best college environment. It had the feel of a professional game."
After strong NCAA campaigns in 2007 and 2008, he decided to enter the MLS SuperDraft, going through the Combine before becoming part of a class that included Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Stefan Frei, Sam Cronin and Chris Pontius. Wallace was selected sixth overall by his hometown team, D.C. United, which he termed "a dream come true," noting that, like his college team, "it was a team I grew up watching."
Wallace would play in D.C.'s 2009 opening match, score his first MLS goal a month later, and become a solid contributor in his first two seasons, though an injury sidelined him for much of 2010. That November, he was traded to the Portland Timbers, a club who, while a long-established brand in American soccer, were entering their inaugural MLS season.
"I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but it seemed like a good opportunity to get out and experience something else," he recalled. Wallace had only known the D.C. area since moving from Costa Rica. Portland definitely looked different and felt different — but his gauge of the fans' excitement led him to feel he was in a good place.
Then, in the Timbers' MLS home debut, he scored a first-half goal that helped them notch their first league win.
"I remember the coach making a speech before the game, about how historic this night would be, and he asked us who was going to make history, who was going to score that goal, who would going to cement their name in such a special place." Scoring a goal in that game — especially considering his parents were in the audience to witness history — made it especially special for Wallace.
2011 also marked another dream come true for Wallace: He received his first call-up to the Costa Rican national team, and became part of a legendary 2014 qualifying campaign (best remembered by Americans for the 2013 SnowClasico in Denver) that saw the Ticos advance to the World Cup for the third time in four cycles, after missing out on the prior tournament in South Africa. Wallace, unfortunately, wasn't able to be part of the squad that made an impressive run to the quarter-finals — he tore his ACL in a 2013 playoff match, and wasn't able to recover in time to feature in Brazil.
Wallace's fifth and final year in Portland was nothing short of magical. The Timbers made the playoffs, went on a run that included an 11-round penalty-kick shootout to dispatch Sporting Kansas City, and after getting past their Cascadia rivals in Vancouver and conference-leading FC Dallas, they traveled to Columbus for the chance to win their first-ever MLS Cup.
Within seven minutes, the Timbers were up 2-0. Diego Valeri scored 27 seconds into the match; as Wallace recalls, "that gave us a bunch of energy" — which he channeled into a diving header that would, even with Columbus pulling a goal back in the 17th minute, stand as the match and MLS Cup winner.
"It was one of those moments where you feel like something special is going to happen," Wallace said of his goal. "Once you feel what your teammates are feeling, you know you're feeling the same thing, and looking each other in the eye, it's contagious."
For Wallace, though, that momentous game would be his last in a Timbers jersey. He was eager to test the waters in Europe, and got an opportunity to move to FC Arouca, a team in Portugal's top-tier Primeira Liga, in the midst of what would be a Europa League-qualifying season.
Though the move initially seemed like the right one for Wallace, he would find himself on a completely different path in just a couple month's time — transferred to Brazilian team Sport Recife.
"I wanted to take my career to a different level," Wallace said of the move to Arouca. "When I got there, the team just didn't stop winning, they were doing well, and they were clicking.
"You can only work as hard as you can, and support and respect the bigger picture," he said, noting that it's hard to join a team even midseason, let alone one that has a group of players in sync. "That's exactly what I had to do. It was difficult for me to get on the field as much as. I wanted to, but I was very fortunate to be in that environment because it was so different."
Though he characterizes mostly sitting on the sidelines as difficult, he feels it strengthened him mentally and made him all the more eager to take the field again with Sport Recife. "There's so much talent there," he said of the top Brazilian league. "The atmosphere is incredible. The fans were non-stop. The quality was very high. I enjoyed my time there."
Though Wallace had opportunities to stay in Brazil, he and his family couldn't pass up the option provided them at the start of 2017: A return to the United States and MLS, for a New York City FC team who had just completed their inaugural season. "Getting calls from [then-coach] Patrick Vieira and [director of football operations] Claudio Reyna, telling you about what direction they want the team to go, and that you're one of those pieces," he recalled. "It seemed like a great opportunity."
Now that Wallace has experienced life at his new club — not to mention life in the Big Apple — he says, "it's a privilege to play for this club, not only because you're part of something super special ... you're representing New York, one of the best cities in the world. It's pretty remarkable. That's why we perform on the pitch — the responsibility is to put this club at the highest level."
In helping to ready NYCFC for a second-straight playoff run, Wallace has also elevated his game to reach the ultimate goal that cruelly eluded him in 2014 — a trip to the World Cup as part of the Costa Rica team that again qualified for the quadrennial tournament.
"It's amazing to represent your country," Wallace said. "Growing up, those are your heroes playing on the national team. I was always fortunate to have passion and love for those colors, for Costa Rica. Even being in the States, I would watch those games. I had always been connected to that.
"Playing in the World Cup, I feel like it's the ultimate level you can reach," he added. "Not many players have the privilege to live that. I was honored by that. You look across the field, and you're playing against Serbia, against Brazil, against Switzerland. It's surreal."
Though Costa Rica couldn't repeat their 2014 run, only lasting through the group stage at Russia 2018, Wallace knows how much of an accomplishment it is to just get to the World Cup. After all, he playes alongside teammates and against MLS opponents who felt the absence of World Cup action acutely this summer — as part of the squad that bested the Americans on the field and in the Concacaf standings.
"I live in the United States, and I grew up here, but I play for Costa Rica, and I give everything I have for that national team, for my teammates there. After the qualifiers, people ask me how I feel about the U.S. not making it, and I'm just glad Costa Rica made it. All my focus and concentration was on that. It's unfortunate that it didn't happen for the U.S.; I have friends on the team, and I feel for them. Those relationships are important at the end of the day."
"But in order for me to get to the World Cup, somebody has to get left behind. It's a competition, and at the end, you're either there or you're not. It's competitive, it's good for Concacaf to have the quality, and it's good for MLS to have the players that are in those national teams. There's more success for the players, and for the league, and that's exactly what's happening right now. It's a great time to be in this league."
Wallace, who's already written himself into the league's lore with his two prior teams, feels there's more history to be written with his third. "From the beginning of the year, we've had a championship as a goal," he noted of he and his NYCFC teammates. "We've carried ourselves in that manner, on the field, every time we train, every time we play."
And that would no doubt please the hometown fans who happen to wear both varieties of red, white and blue.