By EVAN REAM
With Saturday’s USL Pro Championship quickly approaching, emotions are running high at Sacramento Republic FC training.
On one side of the field, the goalkeepers are messing around, cussing at each other and telling jokes. On the other is an eight-on-eight scrimmage with Republic head coach Preki as the center of the action. The coach constantly yells, applauding the winning team and admonishing the losers.
In the heart of it all, a diminutive playmaker — listed at 5’7 — sprays balls to either side of the field, creating tap-ins for the red team who are having their way with the yellows.
Red players constantly call for “RoRo” — no one calls Rodrigo Lopez by his given name — to pass them the ball. The scrimmage ends after just six minutes. It was an easy 4-1 win for the red side who get to stay on to take on the blues, a team that doesn’t fare much better.
The 26-year-old Lopez has already played for seven different clubs in the past decade, but at least for one magical season with an upstart expansion side, he’s finally found a home.
It’s about time Lopez start taking credit for his own wizardry, though.
He’ll tell you he played poorly in Sac Republic’s USL Pro semifinal win over their rivals at LA Galaxy II, even though Lopez netted a hat trick in the dramatic 3-2 comeback.
When he says this, he looks you straight in the eye, making you feel as though it can’t possibly be a self-deprecating throwaway comment. “RoRo” is the heartbeat of the team, the face of the franchise, the player synonymous with the workmanlike ambition of Republic FC.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Seven years ago, when Preki was still the coach of Chivas USA and Lopez an upstart teenager, the coach cut him after Lopez made just eight MLS appearances.
“He was a young boy,” Preki said. “Some things were hard in those moments for him, (the) defensive side of things. He’s improved on that side, but he still has a long ways to go, too. He can still improve in a lot of ways. It’s going to be up to him how far he can go.”
After he was let go, the then 19-year-old bounced around in the lower divisions in the U.S. and Mexico, often managing to become a fan favorite, but rarely gaining a consistent role.
Lopez impressed the USL Portland Timbers enough to carry him over on their MLS expansion team, but he couldn’t make it on the field on the more competitive MLS roster.
At Orlando City SC in 2012, he came off the bench for a strong team that made the USL Pro playoffs, and then with the Los Angeles Blues last year Lopez played well, but couldn’t find the back of the net.
But then Preki and technical director Graham Smith made Lopez the first player in Sacramento Republic FC history in December of 2013.
Nine months later, the man who once ended Lopez’s burgeoning MLS career is counting on him to deliver in the championship game when there couldn’t be more on the line.
A win would validate the team and the city of Sacramento as a soccer hub, and it would undoubtedly help in their pursuit of MLS franchise.
“One of the reasons why I came here was because of Preki, just because I know what kind of coach he is and how hard he is,” Lopez says. “I’ve said this since the beginning of the season, but I think he’s the perfect man for this, for this team here, because we have so many young players and so many inexperienced players and he’s done such a good job with them.”
Preki has also helped Lopez, in the middle portion of his soccer career, turn from an average USL Pro player to a legitimate MVP candidate, scoring 10 goals and adding eight assists in league play, which garnered him USL Pro All-League First Team honors.
Preki rarely gives compliments to individual players, but there is a hint of exuberance in his otherwise tired voice when he talks about Lopez.
“He’s been one of the main contributors,” Preki said. “I give him credit for being part of the group because I always want to make sure the individual skills are only as good as you put them within the frame of the group. He’s been able to do that. Kudos to him.”
Despite the accolades Lopez has received, and all the attention that has been paid to him as the face of a USL Pro finalist, “RoRo” remains humble, giving reporters the boring answers. The right answers.
He’ll tell you how Preki lit into him the hardest at halftime of the Galaxy II game when the team was down 2-0. He’ll tell you that as a leader, he needed that, and that he didn’t play well despite netting a highlight-reel free kick in the 93rd minute to break a 2-2 deadlock.
Lopez has scored 14 goals in all competitions this year. 13 of them in Sacramento.
“RoRo” has become the face of soccer in the Indomitable City.
The only question remains: how long can Republic FC keep him around the California state capital?
“I really like it here,” Lopez said. “I’ve told many people since day one I’ve felt welcome, I’ve felt at home. To end this season off with a championship would mean so much to me and my family. I really want to stay here, I like it here. The fans have made it so much more enjoyable to be here and not just the fans, but everyone involved in this organization has done a phenomenal job.”
Lately, Republic officials have been using #BuiltForMLS in their social media campaigns to stir up interest while trying to secure an MLS franchise.
It’s looking more and more like Lopez is built for MLS as well.
What are your thoughts on this story? What has Lopez meant to Sac Republic FC this season?
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