SPORTING'S LOPEZ SEES U20 BREAKOUT
After a successful World Cup qualifying tournament with the US U-20 national team, Mikey Lopez is eager to begin his first professional season with Sporting Kansas City.
Lopez, 20, has already had a very eventful first three months of 2013. It started in January when he made the decision to leave the University of North Carolina and turn professional. He signed a Generation Adidas contract and was drafted with the 14th overall pick in the MLS Superdraft.
It was one of the most interesting picks of the draft because few expected Lopez to fall outside the top 10. The fact that he fell to Kansas City, however, drew a lot of attention because it seemed like Lopez was a natural fit with a club known for a strong midfield and who lost Roger Espinoza to Wigan in the offseason.
"I didn't go as high as other people predicted but I'm really happy it worked out how it did," Lopez told YA. "I'm very happy they chose me. It fits the style of how I like to play and it will definitely help me develop more as a player."
Lopez is still adjusting to the professional game at Kansas City but missing most of the team's preseason with international duty has prolonged the process. The MLS season is now three weeks old and Lopez has not appeared for Kansas City however he did make the bench this weekend in a 0-0 draw with the Chicago Fire.
In the weeks ahead Lopez is confident that his professional debut is coming and that he will be able to play a productive role for an ambitious Kansas City team that has high expectations in 2013 in both the MLS, the US Open Cup, and the CONCACAF Champions League.
"It's always a little difficult missing a big part of preseason," Lopez explained. "In the first week and a half I was there I felt that I made good progress. Now I just feel that it's going to get better. I'm getting the hang of it. Even though I was gone for a big chunk of preseason, being a pro now means I have to adapt quickly to the players around me."
"I hope league games happen relatively quickly," he continued. "That all depends on the coaches and how they feel about me. I think beyond that, playing in those big international games last month helped me transition to the professional game a lot. Hopefully, if everything goes according to plan, I'll be on the field soon helping our team in league games."
In addition to Sporting Kansas City in all competitions, the highlight of Lopez's busy 2013 will be the U-20 World Cup. Lopez has been a regular contributor to the team the entire cycle and he is likely to be on the roster that competes in this summer in Turkey
In February's World Cup qualifying tournament in Mexico, Lopez put on a series of strong performances including in a 2-0 win over Cuba in the semifinals where he controlled the possession game. In the final game against Mexico with the US team undermanned after the departure of many top players, Lopez went 120 minutes in a hard fought 3-1 extra time loss.
"It was an amazing atmosphere," Lopez recalled of the final against Mexico. "That's any American soccer player's dream is to play against Mexico in Mexico. We were all really excited. It was tough knowing we didn't have many subs but we were confident in the team we had. The coaches were confident in is us. All was had to do was go out and play well. We didn't get the result we wanted but we gave it our all and worked hard."
Heading towards the U-20 World Cup this summer, there is a lot of optimism for the team to perform well. During the qualifying tournament, the US team was well prepared but tactically and mentally. Most notably, the team responded well to adversity against both Canada and Mexico when the opponents scored the opening goal.
In each occasion, the US team was able to respond with a quick equalizer to get back into the game. For Lopez, he believes that this attribute is a reflection of head coach Tab Ramos and
"It has to do a lot with the coaching, coaching staff and the players we have around us," Lopez said. "We never got down on ourselves and we never put our heads down. When we went down against Canada, it woke us up more than anything. We scored quickly afterward and then again. It shows the mentality that the staff has brought to us. "
The U-20 World Cup is still three months away and Lopez is excited for the chance to prove that this US team can compete at the highest level; especially after the recent setbacks of the 2013 US U-23 Olympic team and the US U-20 team that both failed to qualify for their respective tournaments.
The son of Mexican immigrants, Lopez has represented the United States since U-18 level and is now set for the biggest opportunity of his young career.
"We wanted to show our fans that we are progressing as a soccer country," Lopez concluded. "It was a big thing to get off our shoulders. It all hasn't sunk in. It probably won't until after the World Cup. It's a dream come true to get a chance to play in the World Cup at any stage. The U-20 World Cup is the second biggest thing and it's crazy to think we made it and I have an opportunity to play at that stage. It's an honor for any soccer player."