CARY, N.C. – Costa Rica is a beautiful country, popular with tourists for its lush tropical vegetation, stunning beaches and gorgeous scenery.

The tiny Central American nation is known the world over for not having a military, a claim Costa Rica has boasted since 1948. And then there’s soccer. Soccer is king in Costa Rica … no other sport comes even remotely close to its popularity there.

Folks down in Costa Rica may have heard of baseball and American football, but that’s about it.

Raquel Rodriguez first joined Costa Rica’s U17 national team at just 13, and the ride continued this summer as she scored the first-ever goal for the country in World Cup competition. The goal came in the team’s first World Cup game, a 1-1 tie June 9 against Spain.

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“The country lives and breathes soccer,” said Rodriguez, a Penn State senior midfielder. “That’s what people want to see and what people are always aware of. Whenever there’s a soccer ball, people just get together and play, whether it’s on the beach, on the street or in a park. We have a lot of passion about soccer.”

Representing any country at such an elite level is accomplishment enough, but to do so for a soccer-crazed country like Costa Rica is simply a cut above.

“It brings me a joy to represent my country,” said Rodriguez, who is known to her Nittany Lions teammates as ‘Rocky.’ “Even though I started at a young age, I’m still very grateful that I am part of the national team.

“I also take it as a responsibility to represent it in the best way possible. There’s something special about every team you play with, but the national team is your home country. You’re representing your people. Soccer is just part of our culture, so that just makes it even more special.”

The international stage has been good to Rodriguez, and she has enjoyed a similar level of success at the collegiate level. As a Penn State freshman in 2012, she and her teammates made it all the way to the finals of the College Cup before falling to North Carolina.

The squad is back this year, and opens its 2015 College Cup run Friday at 5 p.m. ET against Rutgers.

“It’s been amazing since I came here,” Rodriguez said. “It hasn’t been easy, for sure. Right now, all our focus is on Friday evening. Of course, our expectations are to win. We know that’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be very tough. The four teams are great teams. We always focus on the process, to take it one game at a time.”

Rodriguez’s roots may be in Costa Rica, where she lives in the capital of San Jose, but Penn State has become something of an adopted home.

“A key part of my experience has been the soccer part, but also just the people I’ve met here at Penn State,” Rodriguez said. “I truly believe that God … the Lord … just put me in this place because He knew that the people here were going to take care of me and were going to love me. I’m very grateful for that.”

The young woman has blood kin, of course, but she also now has a family at Penn State.

“Me and my family will be forever grateful,” she concluded. “I came here knowing no one, but I leave with a couple of other mothers besides my mom in Costa Rica and I leave with more sisters. That is very meaningful to me, and it makes the experience even more special.”

That’s the bottom line for Raquel “Rocky” Rodriguez. Playing soccer means playing for family, both for the Costa Rican national team in World Cup competition and at Penn State.