Trinity Rodman is no ordinary teenage phenom

(Tony Quinn / ISI Photos)

Trinity Rodman can still feel the jolt she received from Brooke Hendrix in the first minute of a bruising NWSL game last month.

Rodman, 18 years old at the time and playing in just her second professional game with the Washington Spirit, received a through ball from Ashley Sanchez in full stride toward Louisville’s backline. Looking to slide past Hendrix with her speed, Rodman took a touch and got a shot off just as the seasoned Louisville defender knocked her off balance.

Instead of a breakaway goal, it was a “welcome to the NWSL” moment for Rodman.

“Being so young and being so new to all of this physicality, I was going against her, trying to run behind and she gave me a big bump,” Rodman says, her voice soft and reflective while recalling the play from the May 21 game. “That’s when I realized there’s a lot of strong players in this league and I obviously need to learn to become a bigger body and be able to maneuver out of it.”

Many of those lessons for Rodman have come in real time. Since the Spirit selected her with the second overall pick in January’s draft, making her the youngest player ever drafted into the NWSL, there’s been no easing into the professional game.

Even before Rodman touched an NWSL field, people knew her name. She’s the daughter of five-time NBA champion Dennis Rodman and a teenage phenom who essentially bypassed college for the pros, where the expectations have only intensified. Rodman scored in her debut for the Spirit during the NWSL Challenge Cup and has started four of five games in the regular season. She’s ranked second in the league in shots (16) and fourth in shots on goal (8).

What Rodman has accomplished in just four months in the NWSL doesn’t surprise Spirit coach Richie Burke. Rodman first came onto his radar in 2019 through Laura Harvey, Rodman’s coach with the United States U-20 team.

“She said to me, ‘Look Richie, she’s legit, absolutely legit,’” Burke says. Following that conversation, Burke had one of his assistants pull some clips so he could watch Rodman in action, including at the 2020 U-20 CONCACAF Women’s Championship, where she scored nine goals and made her case to be nominated for the U.S. Soccer Young Female Player of the Year award.

“You can’t teach that innate instinct, that feel for the game, when the ball is going to get to certain places, or you get there a little bit before the ball arrives,” Burke says. “Her football instincts are just fantastic.”

Rodman made her professional debut for the Spirit on April 10 against the North Carolina Courage in the Challenge Cup. Entering the game in the 55th minute, she needed only five minutes to make her mark on the match with a textbook, two-touch finish. She used her pace to slice through the Courage’s backline and her technique to bring the ball down in the air and place it into the near post.

It’s those types of plays that have Rodman not only on NWSL scouting reports but on U.S. women’s national team coach Vlatko Andonovski’s watch list.

“Vlatko and the national team staff have been coming to games. She’s very much on the radar,” Burke says. “I was telling Vlatko when we were in Louisville talking about her a little bit that when you play with her and you’re around her, you realize how quickly she closes you down. She’s unbelievably fast and unbelievably quick across the ground, so when you’re in there playing with her, she changes your mind. You’re like, ‘Bloody hell!’ She’s on you like a flash.”

Running fast, cutting hard, defending until the ball is won and scoring goals have always been hallmarks of Rodman’s game. Even when she was 4 years old, growing up in Newport Beach, Calif. and just getting started in soccer, she couldn’t wrap her head around the kids who wanted to pick flowers and chat with their parents rather than attack the opposing defense.

“I would get so frustrated and try to gather the whole team while the game was going on,” Rodman says. “That’s when I knew soccer was going to be my thing.”

Rodman played for the fabled SoCal Blues soccer club her entire youth career, leading the team to a five-year undefeated streak and four ECNL national championships.

“Being on such a good club team, I got to experience the real competitive side of it,” she says. “When we started winning, my competitiveness started taking over and I was like, yeah, this is the sport I want to play. I feel the most confident and at home when I’m on the field.”

Rodman, the No. 1-ranked forward coming out of high school, intended to play at Washington State last fall. When the season was pushed back to the spring because of COVID-19, Rodman used the downtime to reconsider her priorities, eventually deciding to declare for the NWSL draft.

“I started getting impatient in a way, and I had pushed myself so hard and done so much extra work that I wanted to be at that level that I had been working hard to be at my whole life,” she says.

In her first practices with the Spirit, she realized just how much more work she had to do, starting with her strength and conditioning.

“I don’t think anyone could really be prepared for it being 18 years old,” Rodman says. “Every time at practice I got beat to the ball. I got pushed off the ball. I missed shots. Every single mistake I made, I learned from it, being around such talented and experienced players.”

Rodman has shined for the U.S. U-20 team and caught the attention of Vlatko Andonovski. (Brad Smith / ISI Photos)

Burke recalls one practice early in training camp when Rodman was having a hard time finding her rhythm in a passing square drill. As coaches examined every first touch and players whipped passes around, Rodman heard Burke’s commentary and assumed he was mad at her.

After practice, Spirit forward Ashley Sanchez spoke with Rodman and told her not to take Burke’s words so personally, that they were just his unique way of welcoming her to the team. That became official after a preseason game when Burke made up a song for Rodman, an annual tradition for his first-year players.

Rodman’s humility and constant drive to get better have endeared her to her older teammates. She mentions Andi Sullivan, Kelley O’Hara and Emily Sonnett as her biggest mentors on the team.

“I think that she could have come into preseason so big-headed — didn’t play in college, drafted high. But she’s been so professional in her approach to training and learning more,” Sullivan says. “For someone like her, she’s not just a star — she’s studying, she’s working hard and she’s showing up.”

Watching film has been integral to Rodman’s progress as a rookie. She’s noticed, for example, that her runs in the final third have been too slow and straight, making them predictable and easier for the defense to pick up, and she’s adjusted accordingly.

In the first minute of the Spirit’s game against the Orlando Pride on June 6, Rodman received the ball with her back to goal. She took a touch with the outside of her right foot and chopped it behind her back, spinning out of pressure and finding space down the right wing. She then whipped the ball across the box to Hatch, giving the Spirit their first scoring chance of the game.

“I think the greatest thing for Trinity is that she’s holding her own right now,” Harvey says. “For someone at her age to just be able to hold her own is a huge compliment right now.”

Although she’s improving and growing more comfortable with every training session and game, Rodman still calls her mom, Michelle, many times a day. When she has a practice that’s not up to her standards, she knows her mom will always say the right thing.

“You’re doing the best that you can do,” her mom will tell her. “If in your head you’re working your hardest, that’s all you can do and you just have to take it day by day because there’s nothing you can do about the practice you had an hour ago. Think about the next practice and how you can get better.”

The advice has stuck with Rodman, who turned 19 last month. Only five months have passed since she made history at the NWSL draft, and she feels like a different player now when she takes the field.

“I have already learned so much, and I think being able to see how much progress has happened in a short amount of time gets me excited for what’s in the future,” she says. “Before I was like, ‘Wow, I’m good.’ Now I’m like, ‘Wow I wasn’t that good.’”

Even Rodman can see she is just cracking the surface of her potential. And as her work continues to translate to the field, she’s making a name for herself.

“I’ll play the hardest I can ever play for my team,” she says. “I’ll do anything and put my body on the line so my team can succeed.”