When Margaret Rodriguez started thinking about taking over the UConn women’s soccer head coaching job after longtime coach Len Tsantiris retired, she consulted with her family.
What if, she asked her 7-year-old daughter Lucy (in case she didn’t get the job), Mommy was home more to spend time with you and your little sister …
But she didn’t get further because Lucy, who plays soccer at Oakwood in Glastonbury, started to cry.
“I said, ‘What?’” Rodriguez said. “She said, ‘I love that you’re at UConn and I can go to games. I love being there.’
“At that moment, I looked at my husband and I’m like, I never thought of what I’m adding to their lives by doing this. The way they looked at me. That’s when I knew. Let’s do this as a family.”
Rodriguez (Mags to those who know her) — mom, former UConn All-American, former professional player, assistant coach for the last 10 years — got the job and is now the head coach at UConn. She is the third women’s soccer coach in school history, following in the footsteps of Tsantiris, who coached for 37 years and became the second all-time winningest coach in NCAA Division I history.
She, along with her identical twin sister Jen, played for Tsantiris, graduating in 1999. The Huskies went to the NCAA championship game in 1997, her sophomore year, where they lost to North Carolina. They advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals three times, and Rodriguez — then Margaret Tietjen — is sixth on the all-time scoring list with 128 points. She had 43 goals and 42 assists during her career.
“She’s very good,” Tsantiris said from Florida. “She knows how to win games, how to recruit. I had her do pretty much everything. That’s how they learn.
“Mags, she’s a special person as far as personality, dealing with players, her colleagues. She’s very likable. Also in recruiting, the kids like her. They feel comfortable. I wanted the best person for the program to go to the next level, which is winning a national championship. I’m not putting pressure on her. It’s very difficult nowadays, especially for a team from the Northeast.”
Rodriguez, 40, understands what she is inheriting. The UConn women’s soccer program is highly esteemed, but it’s not where it was when she was playing simply because of the explosive growth of women’s college soccer and the parity among the programs. Being in the Northeast is tough because of the weather; not being in a Power Five conference is tough because other programs have more money and resources.
The Huskies advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2014 and 2015, but they haven’t made it back to the quarterfinals since 2007.
“I think UConn has found its success with blue-collar, hard-working players,” she said. “That’s what got us through the early years. We may not have had the national team players or those [big] names, but we worked. We had some sense of pride in our institution. I think there’s a lot of pride in this state in this university. And when you come here as a student-athlet,e that carries over. I think we exceeded a lot of expectations as players. I think we need to bring back that blue-collar working mentality.
“If we can hone in the type of player who wants to be at UConn — we’re talking Northeast vs. West Coast or down South — if you can find the player who has the talent and wants to be here, that’s going to push this program on. Once you get into NCAAs, everybody’s good. You have those special years, where health is on your side, you have some of the right players at the right time — that will take you at the next level.”
She also understands that there isn’t a plethora of female Division I women’s soccer coaches, especially with families and children, and she would like to be that role model for her children and her players.
“There are some of us but not that many,” she said. “I believe now we’re back down to like 28 percent at the Division I level. There are a lot of young females getting into it out of college. Once you get over a certain age, it starts to get fewer and fewer.
“[Having a family and coaching] seems to be an old stigma I’m willing to prove wrong. There’s a balance. You have to learn to have balance in your life.”
Rodriguez and her sister grew up on Long Island. They wanted to stay in the Northeast; UConn was the big name that had gone to every NCAA Tournament since 1982 and had been to the national championship game twice, in 1984 and 1990. When they walked onto the campus, they knew they would be coming to Storrs.
Four years later, they had left their legacy. Rodriguez went on to play in San Diego and New York before WUSA, the professional women’s soccer league, folded. She became an assistant coach at the University of Hartford; her sister Jen became an assistant at Central Connecticut.
When the opportunity to be a UConn assistant arose 10 years ago, Tsantiris wanted one of the twins. Jen was starting a family and lived in Southington; so Mags was the one.
“He was a good mentor for me,” she said of Tsantiris. “We differ a lot — I’m a little more structured. He was very hands-off and free-flowing. We differ greatly in our preparation and approach to things.”
She had just gotten off the phone with Tsantiris on Thursday. She has yet to move into his office. She needs to hire some assistant coaches.
Tsantiris wants her to win a national championship; when he coached, the Huskies kept running into North Carolina in the championship game on the Tar Heels’ home turf. They lost all four times to North Carolina.
“We’ve knocked on the door a bunch of times,” Rodriguez said. “We always joked every time we got into the finals, it’s in North Carolina against North Carolina. We always joked it was always stacked against us.
“I know what it’s going to take to get back to that. When I was an assistant coach under Lenny, I always said, ‘I’m going to get that national title for you. I’m going to get it. You deserve it. You’ve been there. It’s the only thing you don’t have.’”