The 2014 USL Championship Final Most Valuable Player, Rodrigo Lopez will suit up again for Sacramento Republic FC this season after spending the past four years in his native Mexico. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
SACRAMENTO, Calif. – As the first signing for Sacramento Republic FC, Rodrigo Lopez was always going to have a special place in the hearts of the club’s supporters.
The club’s on-field leader in its first two seasons, Lopez led Sacramento to victory in the USL Championship Final in its inaugural season in 2014, earning All-League First Team honors and Championship Final MVP honors in the process.
On Friday, the 32-year-old’s return to the club after four seasons in his native Mexico was announced. In an in-depth conversation, USLChampionship.com talked with Lopez about coming back to California’s capital, what it meant to achieve his dream of playing in Liga MX, supporting Republic FC from afar and his aim of returning Republic FC to the elite in the Championship.
Rodrigo Lopez was given a heroes welcome on Saturday by Sacramento Republic FC fans as he returned for his second stint with the club, announced on Friday morning. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
Q: Personally, what does it mean to be a player for Sacramento Republic FC again?
RL: It means a lot, man. Truly, since the day I arrived in 2014, everyone received me with open arms and made me feel at home since Day 1. Everything we lived that first season, USL champions and the season I had personally, the support from the fans, the love on and off the field was incredible and I’ve always called it home. I never wanted to leave, but at the same time I wanted to pursue my dream which was to play in Mexico in the top league, and obviously Sacramento was a big help for me to be seen and to establish that dream that I had to go and play in Mexico, so to me it means a lot. I owe a lot to the city, to the franchise, to everyone in Sacramento who has supported the team and myself. I owe them a lot.
Q: What did you miss most about playing for Republic FC while you were in Mexico?
RL: It’s a different type of atmosphere playing in the USL than in Mexico, but Sacramento had something special. It’s so family-oriented and going to the games every weekend was so much fun, not just for myself but for my family. The love the fans shared with me and provided me in my two years there, it was just something that I can’t really explain, it was a feeling I always had and I knew that one day I had to be back in Sacramento wearing that crest again.
Q: How did this come about, what was the process behind deciding this was the time to come back?
RL: It was a frustrating year for me in Mexico, not just for me but for my team and my teammates. We went through a really hard time and my contract ended, and there were talks about coming back and talks about being there in Veracruz or maybe possibly seeing some other teams in Mexico, but at my age – and I’m not saying that because I’m getting ready to retire, I’m saying that because I just think it was time for me to settle somewhere I could raise my family, raise my kids, and Sacramento was it. In my head, I wanted to go back to Sacramento.
The day my contract ended in Mexico I made some phone calls, I called my agent and I told him, ‘Look, I want to go back to the States and my priority is Sacramento.’ And he said, ‘Well, there are other options, we could see other teams,’ and I said, ‘No, I want Sacramento.’ So, we pushed and reached out to [Republic FC General Manager] Todd [Dunivant] and Todd obviously made everything possible to get me back.
Q: Is there any nervousness about going back to a place where you were the all-conquering hero and having to live up to those expectations again?
RL: No. I’m anxious to get back to playing where I was loved and where I was well received. Like I said, after this year I went through in Veracruz, I’m just ready to have fun again and I’m ready to give it all for Sacramento Republic and to help them conquer what we conquered that first year in winning a championship. I’m not back to retire, that’s the honest truth. I’m back because I want to play and I want to help Sacramento get back on the map and get back to where they should be at the top of table every year. Now that Coach [Mark] Briggs is coming in, I’ve heard a lot about him as a coach and it’s an interesting signing for the team, and I think he’s the right man for this new process coming in 2020.
A year after his move to Mexico, Lopez achieved his goal of competing in Liga MX when he was acquired by historic club Deportivo Toluca F.C. in its centenary season.
Q: In the past four years in Mexico, you talked about the atmosphere down there and how it’s different to playing in the Championship, how has it changed you since you last wore a Republic FC uniform?
RL: It’s changed me a lot. In Mexico there’s a different type of pressure out there. You feel a huge responsibility, a huge amount of pressure, lots of money involved, lots of passion, of people working every day the whole week to buy a ticket for their family to go to the stadium and that’s when you see how passionate the fans are. It’s a big pressure, and it’s not just a big pressure from fans but from organizations, owners, general managers, coaches, even in-between players. You’re playing with top players in the world, players who’ve played in the World Cup and there’s a lot of pressure, so I think I’ve managed to gain a lot of confidence, a lot of leadership skills.
I’ve played with a lot of great players out there and learned a lot from their leadership and how they train day-in and day-out and how to be a good pro. I think me coming back to Sacramento, it’s with more than just being that player on the field. I think it’s going to bring a lot to my teammates, a lot to the fans, a lot to my coaching staff and to the franchise. I’m going to try and lead a team, I’m going to be responsible and try to hold myself accountable as well, day-in and day-out, every game try to set a good example for my teammates.
Q: Like you mentioned, you headed with the goal of competing at the highest level, playing in Liga MX. What did it mean to achieve that goal with a club as historic as Deportivo Toluca?
RL: Oh man, to me it was a dream come true. The day the draft happened there were two teams interested, the General Manager for Celaya called me in after training and said, ‘there’s two teams, here are your options,’ and he named Toluca and that was it. A huge team, a club that in the 90s and early this decade was one of the best teams in Mexico. They’ve won so many titles in the past 20 years, and I grew up watching that league, so it was a dream come true. Being there, I learned a lot, I gained a lot of experience, I gained a lot of things that you don’t really get back in the States as much.
To be honest, no-one really believed I could go back to Mexico and play in the first division and I always found a way to prove people wrong and to follow my dream.
Q: What did it mean to be suiting up those first few games? It’s 2017, the club’s centenary, and you’re out there in the middle of all of it. It’s got to have been an incredible feeling.
RL: It was, but it was also hard for me. It was a really frustrating season for me, I came in preseason, signed with Toluca, I don’t think the coach had much intention of playing me, I think it was more to fill the team in, in case they needed it, but I had a strong preseason. I played the last two games of preseason as a starter and coming into the first game against Chivas – which was the team that I started my career with – I came in as a starter.
What was frustrating was the week before the season I had a really serious injury on my heel and I played 10 games injured, and I say it’s frustrating because I feel I could have done more, but at the same time I played those first 10 games as a starter and I was able to be on the field with so many great players, something I had dreamed of for so long, it was so special to me. I don’t regret going to Toluca or going back to Mexico at all. I think it’s something that describes my character, my ambition. My ambition was always to do better, to accomplish my dreams.
Q: You mentioned the struggles that Veracruz had this past season while you were there, was there any bigger-picture lesson you were able to take away from that even as tough as things were for you guys?
RL: Talking with some of my teammates, Carlos Salcido – who is one of the best players to me in Mexican history – these are the situations where you learn the most, when you’re struggling, when your players, your teammates need you, when you have to go into every training session, every day in 100 degree weather, humid and have to train without being paid is something I don’t wish upon any player, and to be quite fair the team managed it quite well.
The players, we had a team full of men who fought for each other. I know things didn’t go well, but I think on the soccer side and on the field we did whatever we possibly could to help the club – and the club wasn’t helping us – so it made it a difficult situation, but at the same time I learned a lot from it. I gained a lot of character. You have to be patient, you have to sacrifice a lot of things to be willing to go home and take care of your family going through all this, so it was hard, but I learned a lot from it.
Rodrigo Lopez is looking forward to stepping back onto the field for Republic FC, but his excitement is shared by his whole family, especially son Roman. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC
Q: While you were in Mexico, it did still seem like your connection to Sacramento never went away. I saw you asking for links to streams on Twitter, and during the fifth season celebration you were one of the guests that came to give a pregame Q&A and were honored on the field. What was it like to follow the club as a fan?
RL: It was nice. I always followed it since the day I left – like I said, I didn’t really want to leave Sacramento, it was really hard for me to leave but at the same time I had to pursue my dream. Being away, being in Mexico and still being able to catch some games, it felt good to me. I tried to follow them as much as I could, I always supported, I always wished them the best, and I thought they had a good team. I thought they could have done a little better last year, but that’s the league. The league is always getting better every year, it gets more competitive, so I think Sacramento has to be the top team in the league every season, especially moving forward to MLS, I think the city would be the happiest if the club won another championship.
“In USL this is by far the best fan base, and these guys are the reason why I came back to be honest...” - @Lopez_Roro— Republic FC (@SacRepublicFC) January 5, 2020
Don’t miss RoRo’s return to the Old Glory Red this season - learn about 2020 Memberships here: https://t.co/qU15FK5j1E pic.twitter.com/jRXPBcn2dw
Q: This is a pretty different Championship to the one you last played in, has it been interesting to see how the landscape in the league and level of competition has changed since 2015?
RL: It has, a lot. Like I said, I follow the league and watch what’s going on, not just Sacramento but I have plenty of friends who are still playing in the league, a lot of those old teammates, so I follow the league and it seems to get more competitive as the seasons go by. I think it’s going to be a challenge; it’s not going to be easy, but it’s something that I’m ready for and prepared for.
Q: You’re no longer Republic FC’s goalscoring leader all-time, that’s now Cameron Iwasa, who’s going to be your teammate again this season. What has it been like to see the way he has flourished for his hometown club and in a way become what you were to the team in its first two seasons?
RL: Cameron’s a great guy. He’s worked for what he’s accomplished in Sacramento and he’s someone who deserves every single one of his accomplishments. I’m not coming back to break records, to be the leading scorer, to be the leader in assists. I want to contribute to the club, and I want Cameron to break the record by far. I’m here to help Cameron, I’m here to make him better, to push him to become a better player and hopefully play for Sacramento on the MLS side. I think he deserves it. I think he still has a lot to learn, and I think he’s a player that’s going to do a lot for us.
Q: You mentioned Mark Briggs and his resume as the new Head Coach, there’s going to be some very good talent around you. Is the expectation Republic FC should contend for its second league title this year?
RL: Yes, Sacramento will compete and will fight for a title this season. I’ve spoken to a couple of previous Real Monarchs players and everyone has always been positive about Mark. The style of play he implements on the field is one that interests me a lot, it had a lot to do with me coming back, and him and I share many ideas on the field that we know could bring value to the club. I know Mark is ready for another chance at the USL as a young coach, I know he’s ambitious, he’s a hard worker and I’m sure it’s going to go well for him.
Q: Couple of months from now you’re going to have the home opener at Papa Murphy’s Park. What’s it going to mean to step back onto that field for your first official game back in Old Glory Red?
RL: It’s going to be special. My son and my wife are very excited, and my son Roman speaks about it every day and he has memories of SacRepublic. Not many, because he was young, but he’s truly excited and he’s excited for me as well. We have another son on the way in a few weeks, so I can’t wait until that day, and when that day comes it’s going to be special. I’m going to have a lot of butterflies in my stomach and I’m sure I’m not going to be able to sleep the night before. I think that explains how I’ll be set up for that day.