For the past 10 years, Margaret Rodriguez has been a fixture on the touchlines for the University of Connecticut’s women’s soccer team, serving as an assistant coach to Len Tsantiris.
When Tsantiris called it a career after 37 years leading the Huskies women’s soccer program, Rodriguez (maiden name Tietjen) in January was named his replacement giving the Huntington native and one-time New York State High School Co-Player of the Year (along with her sister Jennifer) her first head coaching job.
Over the years the State of Connecticut has become home not just for Rodriguez and her husband and their children, but for her parents and her sister, Jennifer Prozzo, who is an assistant coach with the women’s soccer team at Central Connecticut State.
On August 23, UConn and Central Connecticut meet in what Rodriguez calls the annual “sibling rivalry” game.
Now, with the 2018 season approaching, Rodriguez is about to begin her first season as the coach in charge of a UConn team that has a strong history in women’s soccer. Recently, Rodriguez spoke with SleterFC.com about the challenges of being a new head coach, her career at UConn and her memories of her playing days on Long Island.
SLETERFC: Was taking over as head coach part of a succession plan or was it something of a surprise?
MARGARET RODRIGUEZ: I had been there for 10 years and worked for the coach that I played for. Len was there for 37 years and his retirement was going to happen at some point. He and I had talked about it over the past couple of years. But nothing is ever set in stone and nothing is ever guaranteed until it happens.
SFC: When you were named head coach, what were your initial thoughts?
MR: I definitely had a lot of thoughts going through my mind. I was humbled to get the opportunity. I love the game and this is my alma mater. This place has given me so much and now to be named head coach and have the opportunity to bring UConn to a next phase is humbling.
SFC: It is easier or more difficult to take over the UConn program than it would be if you left and took over another school’s program?
MR: For me, one of the best things is the familiarity with the program and the team. While I worked for Len for the past 10 years I was pretty much hands-on in all aspects of the program. So I think taking the head coaching job here is easier in that regard. The one challenge with moving over one seat to the head coaching position is making sure to hold the players accountable. So far the reception has been positive.
SFC: You’ve been at UConn for many years as a player and now a coach. How has the program evolved over time?
MR: When I first started playing (at UConn) in the 1990s the landscape of women’s soccer was drastically different. There were fewer programs and less money out there available for women’s soccer programs. Then, there were five or 10 programs that competed routinely year-after-year. Today there are 340 Division I programs and a great deal of parity across the country. Programs have grown and there is more money available. There are some programs that we used to roll over but now they are competing with us.
SFC: With the added competition today is it more challenging to recruit players?
MR: It is definitely more challenging. We now have to compete with programs such as Providence or BU that have grown over the past several years. We would also get walk-on players as well. But today so many programs are fully funded and offer scholarships. There is even more competition for players in our own backyard.
SFC: How would you describe your coaching style?
MR: Some of the things that Len did, like not running the players’ lives, I have adapted to my own philosophy. The players are responsible adults and I want them to make decisions and express themselves on the field. I also believe in encouraging the players and work to get the best out of them in a positive manner. And I have always felt I related well to the players and am able to read how they need to be coached.
SFC: What was it that first attracted you to UConn as a player?
MR: During the recruitment process my dad gave us (Margaret and her sister Jennifer) a maximum of a three-hour radius from home. At that time we were decent players but did not have a lot of options. But UConn had the brand name and was well known in the Northeast. Once we stepped foot on campus we knew it was the place we wanted to go. The campus still has that sense of home today.
SFC: What memories do you have of Long Island?
MR: My sister and I always talk about Long Island. My parents moved to Connecticut to be closer to us. I have a brother in Albany and one on Long Island. I don’t get back as often as I would like. But I do remember our high school playing days. Huntington High School is not a large high school, but in my senior season, we were ranked No. 1 in the country. That is a memory I will always hold dear.