TAMPA — J.P. Rodrigues exited customs at Mexico City International Airport with teammates from the Guyana national team, opened an opaque glass door leading to baggage claim and was besieged by 40 or so journalists assigned to cover Guyana's 2014 World Cup qualifying match against Mexico.
As cameras clicked and video lights blinded, reporters shoved microphones and tape recorders into Rodrigues' face and — in Spanish — peppered him with questions.
"How will you compete with the mighty Mexican team?" "What do you think of Chicharito?" "Have you ever seen a stadium as big as (104,000 capacity) Azteca?"
The experience was surreal for Rodrigues, used to the anonymity of playing for the Rowdies in a second-level league in a country that considers soccer a mid-major sport. He had heard about the rock-star lifestyle players enjoyed in more soccer-mad locales.
Now he was living it.
"When we were walking through the mall (in Mexico City), people were asking for our autographs, taking pictures. It was crazy," Rodrigues said. "They respect you for being a soccer player, even if they've never seen you play. They just love soccer there. … It was neat to experience that."
Rodrigues left the Rowdies on May 26 and spent nearly three weeks playing for the Guyana national team as it began the third round of World Cup qualifying. After training in Bogota, Colombia, and scrimmaging the Colombian team in a closed-door meeting, the Guyanese traveled to Mexico City for their opening match against Mexico and played four days later at home in Georgetown against Costa Rica.
Rodrigues, who is allowed to play for Guyana because his father was born there, played a full 90 minutes in both matches as a central defender. Against CONCACAF favorite Mexico, Guyana performed better than expected in a 3-1 loss in front of more than 80,000. Rodrigues said prior to that he had never played before a crowd larger than 17,000.
"When we went back to Guyana, we were greeted at the airport," he said. "They acted as if we won, which was nice, but at the same time, we didn't. We gained a lot of respect to go into Azteca and not get blown out in front of that many people."
Guyana followed the Mexico defeat with a disappointing 4-0 loss at home to Costa Rica.
Rodrigues — who has 19 caps for Guyana dating to 2006, when he made his first appearance in a Gold Cup qualifier — missed four matches for the Rowdies but was back in time to start last Saturday's 2-1 victory at Minnesota, which snapped a three-match losing streak.
"J.P. definitely came back and brought us his verve and his spirit and his intensity and his desire to defend," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said.
Guyana, a long shot to qualify for the World Cup, will have another chance to earn points when it plays at El Salvador on Sept. 7 and hosts the team Sept. 11.
"We played well in our first two games, and we learned a lot going forward," Rodrigues said. "We're not out of it by any means."
Rowdies vs. San Antonio
When/where: 7:30; Al Lang Field, St. Petersburg
Records: Rowdies 4-5-3 (15 points); San Antonio 6-1-4 (22)
Last time out: The Rowdies salvaged three points from an up-to-that-point disastrous three-game road trip by rallying to defeat Minnesota 2-1 last Saturday. The victory was the Rowdies' first since May 22. San Antonio moved into first place in the NASL after beating Puerto Rico in Puerto Rico 2-0 last Saturday. The Scorpions are unbeaten in their past nine league games.
Notes: Former Rowdies GK Daryl Sattler has been instrumental in San Antonio's surge to the top of the NASL. Sattler, who missed most of last season with Tampa Bay after tearing the ACL in his right knee, leads the league with a 0.37 goals-allowed average. … Current Rowdies GK Jeff Attinella is tops in the league for most saves with 49. … Rowdies M Shane Hill is suspended for tonight's match after picking up his fifth yellow card of the season in the victory over Minnesota.