Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Camarati/UNC Athletics
By AVI CREDITOR
With all of the talent that Mikey Lopez had around him last season, it was understandable for the U.S. Under-20 midfielder's contributions to get a bit lost in the shuffle at the University of North Carolina.
That's not to say he had a sub-standard year. Far from it, in fact. Lopez won ACC Freshman of the Year honors, with his three goals and four assists in 25 games at central midfield, helping North Carolina to the national championship.
With Billy Schuler pursuing a professional career in Sweden, and Enzo Martinez and Ben Speas signing Generation adidas and Homegrown Player deals, respectively, with MLS, it is Lopez's turn to run the show for one of the nation's premiere programs and enjoy the spotlight as MLS scouts and coaches salivate at his potential.
"I put a lot of pressure on myself, a little more pressure than from the outside," Lopez said. "I just have to get better every day and try to be one of the top players in the country, and hopefully I do get an offer with Generation adidas."
Lopez faces a major year ahead from a personal standpoint. Between guiding the Tar Heels and fighting for a place on the U.S. U-20 World Cup qualifying team, the 19-year-old Dallas native's focus is on accomplishing a number of different goals.
"It's a challenge for any player in that circumstance," UNC coach Carlos Somoano said. "A player who wants to play for any national team, Under-20s included, I think they have to play well for their club and make sure they're in good form on a day-to-day basis. That's a challenge. You can never think too far ahead.
"For young players that becomes a real big challenge. They can lose sight on what got them there in the first place. That's what we try to do with Mikey. If he can remember that, then everything will come to him that he wants."
Lopez is helped by the fact that three of his U-20 teammates play for North Carolina as well. Lopez, left back Jordan McCrary and centerback Boyd Okwuono went through the rigors of freshman year together, and incoming attacker Danny Garcia is also there to lend a motivational hand with all four eyeing big things on both the collegiate and international level.
With the departures of so many leaders and stars — the aforementioned Schuler, Martinez and Speas in addition to FC Dallas centerback Matt Hedges and late Columbus Crew midfielder and former UNC captain Kirk Urso — the sophomore trio has taken it upon themselves to be the leaders of the new regime at UNC. Lopez, specifically, has taken a larger role, and even though he is not the most vocal of leaders, he lets his precise passing and creative vision do the talking.
"He's taking more control, and he just wants the ball a lot more," Okwuono said. "He's taking more responsibility, which is good. We need him to."
Lopez' experience on the U-20 level has prepped him for his place in the UNC attack. With Tab Ramos' more aggressive style of play, the 5-foot-8, 160-pound Lopez is right at home pushing the tempo and making plays happen.
"With the U-18s, we would always stay back and defend," Lopez said. "Tab is trying to get us to press and have more possession of the ball and go at the team."
At North Carolina, it figures to be the same way.
"We have to put the target on the other team's back instead of having it on ours, and we have to be going at the other team instead of us holding back," Lopez said. "We want to press them, and (UNC's) style is to don't be the prey, be the predator, and that's how we're going to go about things."
It is that killer instinct and mindset that makes Lopez such a prime candidate to make sure that everyone of his contributions gets the proper amount of attention in this most-important year of his young playing career.
"Mikey is a very important part of this team," Somoano said. "As long as he continues to focus on doing what he does well, then the team will function at the highest level."