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Santiago Rodríguez: A Long December
NYCFC's new South American soccer starlet, his December from hell, and his uncanny ability to make the best from the bad.
Good soccer players need not to be titans sculpted by Michelangelo. In soccer, ability is much more important than shape, and in many cases skill is the art of turning limitations into virtues.
Montevideo’s preeminent prosaist and native son Eduardo Galeano put these words in the 1995 seminal poetic soccer novel “Soccer in Sun and Shadow”. In NYCFC’s newest signing, Santiago Rodríguez, the late Galeano would have found a fitting stand-in for this description in his fellow countryman who bled Club de Football Nacional. “Santi’s” seven month journey to New York is a deft illustration of the “art of turning limitations into virtues” both on and off the field.
Before the melodrama of on-field brawls, salacious love triangles, organizational upheaval, and network television C-listers, Santiago Rodríguez the player was a menace in the midfield.
Since being called up as a teen to the South American superpower senior outfit of his childhood club, Nacional, Santi has been at his best bombing downhill from right behind a center forward. He is generally a ruthlessly creative ‘10’ on the pitch, striking a balance between a high-IQ puller of the strings and a pacey runner between the lines, best displayed (in perhaps what is his signature move) during his mystifying ‘dummy runs’. His waif-like stature gifts him agility and maneuverability, allowing him to sprint up the sidelines behind defenders on either side of the wing as needed.
For Nacional, he proved himself a pivotal spark plug and vicious innovator with attacking discipline, sustaining the team’s previous successes into a fruitful two-year run.In 2019 and 2020, on a team constructed to funnel double-digit goals through Argentine veteran and team captain Gonzalo Bergessio, Rodríguez not only helped provide service to the eventual golden boot winner but also notched his own tallies on the score sheet. In both years, of all Nacional players with at least 1,000 minutes per season, Santi claimed the second-most goals per 90 minutes with 0.41 and 0.40 respectively.
Santi was just announced as a member of NYCFC’s new youth firepower movement. Nestled among a batch of other high-ceiling, high-valued South American transfers like Brazilian wingers Thiago Andrade and Talles Magno, he will have an opportunity to both freshly reload a perennial league-topping team to hit a new hardware winning level, increase his international standing in hopes of an ocean-crossing to Europe, potentially give NYCFC the heir apparent to aging masetro Maxi Moralez at the #10. Santi will benefit from the tutelage of Moralez, a similarly diminutive playmaker relying on skill over size.
While the keys to the car may soon be Santi’s, there may be trepidation in trusting the future of a franchise known for crumbling in key moments to a soft spoken, lean and spare, and overwhelmingly unostentatious young adult. But Santi is more than his unassuming smile. He's a player who learned humility walking long roads to youth practices and riding his father’s horse home, taking a dingey bus -- even after earning recognition -- to his brother's games in rundown stadiums, and signing every last autograph. He is wise beyond his years: composed, professional, and a leader in the making that littered his roughest stretch personally and professionally with moments of magic and maturity.
Specifically, Santiago had a rough end to 2020. In the words of a Berkeley, California alternative rock band’s 1996 hit off of their second album, what he didn’t expect was “a long December”.
After signing to City Football Group last November while remaining loaned to and on the roster of his own Club Nacional, the young Uruguayan was awash with the bright promises of a newly opened future. Before his overseas stardom was to come to fruition however, a cascade of misfortune, in an almost karmic riposte, befell himself and his club almost immediately.
Following two months without a loss, Club Nacional entered the first of two legs of their Copa Libertadores --the premiere club competition of this hemisphere -- semi-final contest with more confidence than one would usually equip themselves with against 36-time Argentine league champions River Plate. They lost conceding a last-minute penalty
Just three days later, a match was scheduled against Nacional’s bitter domestic rival Club Atlético Peñarol. The Uruguayan Clásico is one of the most heated soccer matchups of the western hemisphere. These teams hate each other. Peñarol once set a world record for the largest flag ever unfurled in a stadium, and a few years later Nacional retorted by unfolding an even bigger one -- that kind of hate each other. Or, as our friend Galeano simply put: “Peñarol, el cuadro enemigo”.
With tired legs and Nacional trailing their storied adversaries 2-1 at the start of the second half, the first instance of Santi’s magic crawling out of difficulty was revealed. Immediately from kick-off, Nacional lofted the opening kick to the opposite corner where 36-year-old veteran “el Chory” Castro, who made his own Nacional debut two years before Santi was even born, recovered the deep ball. Chory then picked out his protégé in front of goal: the cherubic Santi buried the strike in the back of the net then kissed the iconic “C.N.d.F.” badge while his teammates swarmed.
However, misfortune hit back. Peñarol was gifted a controversial (read: incorrect) penalty decision just two minutes before the end of regulation. It was to be two last-minute heartbreaks in three days in two of the biggest matches of the year.
A coach got ejected.
Nacional had a last chance header saved.
The saved header was transmuted quickly to a Peñarol breakaway.
A Nacional player flung himself cleat first out of frustration directly into the runaway’s Achilles tendon.
Rival fans in the stands started going back and forth.
The final whistle blew.
A scrum began in midfield.
Santi went in to play peacekeeper and was immediately swallowed into the swarm of yellow and white.
The challenges only continued after the Peñarol match, and this time they were personal. In the hours before the second leg of Nacional’s cup match against River Plate (just four days post-brawl), a rumor had begun to spread through Uruguayan social media: Rodríguez’s girlfriend, the subject of his many lovey-dovey back Twitter and Instagram exchanges, had broken the Nacional COVID bubble to meet with Santi’s teammate and fellow midfield wunderkind Gabriel Neves.
It wasn’t just any one-off rumour however. It was an intricately scripted narrative from various anonymous accounts involving screenshots and Whatsapp voice notes playing out arguments between the three to enhance the shock value. The fabrication soon took on a life of its own with other users adding their own flair: Santi and Gabi had ended up in a fistfight, or Santi had requested to leave the team, and on and on. Regardless of the veracity of the claims, the flame had been ignited.
On his social media accounts, Rodríguez posted an image that resembled a legal statement rather than lashing out at gossip.
There were no frills, no emotion, just a willingness to get back to the game he loved. “They will not be able to make us lose focus,” Santi wrote, “much less make the squad fall.” By next morning the constructed falsehoods had all but whispered away, and Santi had curbed yet another stumbling block via his own style of making the best of things.
The following day, Nacional fell to River Plate playing a majority of the match with an ejected player and ended as well as expected, a crushing 6-2 loss for an 8-2 two-game drubbing. However, just as always, the Santi magic was wrung out once again.
While trailing 3-1, the nimble number-23-clad happy warrior sped by one defender into the box, deftly nutmegged a second, and slipped the ball past the keeper. He kissed the club crest on his shirt once again and made his way to the match’s captain and selfsame Gabi Neves to deliver a long embrace. Both an exceptional goal and larger-than-football expression in what was to unexpectedly be Santi’s final match in a Nacional uniform.
Nacional cleaned house at the start of the following transfer window. This decision was made easier when it became public that 12 players had broken their hotel quarantine with women and booze following the Peñarol match, spilling over into a player revolt against both management and tactics in the hotel lobby the next morning. There were 10 players loaned away to other teams, six players sold, four loans allowed to expire, and, in a record since reliable data has been kept for the club, five players were cut from the squad outright with not a penny sought to be earned.
Santi couldn’t even avoid escaping this abominable December without perhaps the most significant and dizzying three moves yet.. First, one of the older players he most looked up to in the 36-year-old seven-year Nacional veteran Sebastián “Papelito” Fernández was shipped off to another team. His mentor, “el Chory”, was one of the players cut outright. His two largest inspirations among his teammates were gone in an instant. But worst of all, against his expectation, Rodríguez himself was one of the loans set to expire, ending the star-turned run of his team for a decade in an unanticipated whimper.
Santi continued his journey to NYCFC, joining the CFG Uruguayan outpost Montevideo City Torque for the next five months before coming stateside. He made the best of that situation as well (of course). Rodríguez smiled through having to act in advertisements for their new sponsor while competing with his lame-duck team without complaint. He also learned a new position on the wing, one that will likely come in handy for his time with NYCFC, with the same diligence that earned him his usual plaudits.
Throughout the past year, and its raucous end, Santi proved time and again his ability to conquer tribulations in his playing and personal life with vigor and poise: a clear answer to why City Football Group would appreciate his employment. A question that does remain is just how things unfolded before he stepped foot on the NYCFC training facility in Orangeburg, New York.
When Santi first signed his contract with City Football Group back in November of 2020, a reality was generally agreed upon as far as is reported. Santi would stay on loan to Club Nacional, join the CFG subset Montevideo City Torque for “a few months”, then leave to NYCFC at the turn of summer 2021. Assuming it meant he would finish the full season with Nacional, which seemed to be Santi’s understanding as well. This was best revealed in a televised interview in January where Rodríguez commented La salida de Nacional no me la esperaba - “Leaving Nacional, I did not expect.” He added that City Football Group had phoned Nacional and recalled the young player, but in doing so, Santi would leave two thirds into that season’s competition thus disqualifying him from play for more than three months.
This of course leaves many questions.Why would a half-suspended lame-duck session with a lesser Uruguayan team be necessary when CFG could have just bought Santi outright on behalf of his eventual team NYCFC? Regardless of the potential financial shenanigans involving the $4.73 million transfer fee that CFG paid, we do know as reported by The Athletic that MLS “has the ability to review documentation from affiliate clubs for owners with teams in different leagues, like NYCFC.” It’s also worth mentioning that a similar arrangement was made with Taty Castellanos, where the Argentine was put out on loan by Montevideo City Torque to NYCFC before his purchase option was triggered albeit at a much smaller fee than Santi.
Finally, why would CFG, Montevideo City, and NYCFC all be tight-lipped about Santi’s final destination when it had been reported since November that all parties involved knew the eventual destination? This led to Rodriguez, apparently out of the shell game loop, posting the oddly fantastical Instagram story of a cake with both an NYCFC logo and his face perplexingly photoshopped next to Gabriel Macht of the USA network show Suits before the transfer was announced.
Regardless of how it happened, there is one thing to both learn from the Santi Rodríguez transfer saga and expect from his future in New York City. No matter how many long roads he may need to walk (or horses to ride), no matter how many dingey buses or exuberant fans; no matter how hard the stretch may be or months on a bench he may sit, he will always wring out a drop of magic. In a scandal, he is even-headed. In a fight, he makes peace. When his team is on the ropes, he’ll devise a moment of enchantment.
When there is a long December, there is reason to believe. ❧
Image: Herman Hueg, Ornamental Confectionery and Practical Assistant to the Art of Baking
Editor’s Note: We got confirmation that this detail is incorrect due to something that mistranslated. As much as we would like it to be true, Santi’s dad did not take him to practice on horseback.