Rodrigo Lopez has spent most of his life earning his keep with his feet. But after last season, he learned how to pick up a few bucks using his hands.
Doing construction work in his Santa Barbara hometown reinforced the Republic FC midfielder’s love for soccer.
“I needed to provide for my family,” said Lopez, who has a 1-year-old son, Roman, with girlfriend Cristina Becerra. “I did all the work that guys starting off in a minimum-wage job do. I was digging, carrying plywood, hauling around two-by-fours.”
Lopez, known as “RoRo” to teammates and fans, said during those four months he developed a deeper appreciation for those who work physically demanding jobs. He would rise at 5 a.m., head for a workout at the gym, do manual labor for eight hours, then go for a run in the evening to keep in soccer shape.
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“I’d fall asleep by 8 or 9 p.m.,” Lopez, 5-foot-7, said. “It made me feel how blessed I am to come out here and do something I love. I think it helped me mature and become a better person and stronger player.”
Lopez has helped Republic FC win six consecutive matches heading into Saturday night’s USL Pro match against Arizona United SC at sold-out Hughes Stadium.
In Republic FC’s 6-0 U.S. Open Cup win over the Fresno Fuego on May 28 at Cosumnes River College – a victory that propelled the first-year club into Wednesday’s fourth-round match against the San Jose Earthquakes in San Francisco – Lopez came off the bench at halftime to lead a 5-0, second-half onslaught with two assists and a goal.
The goal came after Lopez dribbled through two Fresno defenders, made a short pass to himself, then chipped the ball over the diving keeper.
Lopez also had the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over rival Los Angeles Galaxy II on May 17 at Hughes Stadium when his second-half free kick just outside the penalty area found a gap in Galaxy II’s wall.
Republic FC technical director Graham Smith, who coached Lopez when he was with the Ventura County Fusion, thought Lopez would be the perfect first signing for Sacramento.
“I knew what he could do for the team,” Smith said. “Every time I saw him play against quality opposition, he was quality. (He has a) repertoire of skills. He can change the complexion of the game with one pass.”
Lopez leads the team in assists with five and has scored three goals, tied for second with Justin Braun and Dakota Collins. Thomas Stewart leads with five.
“I feel like I’m playing great,” Lopez said, “but that’s because I have a bunch of teammates who are great and do certain things that help me become a better player.”
Lopez, 26, wants to help the franchise achieve its goal of moving up to Major League Soccer. Lopez, in his 10th season as a pro, hopes to get back to America’s highest soccer level, preferably with Republic FC.
He played three seasons for Chivas USA, including in 2007 for Preki, Republic FC’s coach. Lopez also played for the Portland Timbers for three seasons, the last one after the team joined the MLS.
He was bypassed in the 2011 MLS re-entry draft after he wasn’t re-signed in Portland. He played for Ventura County and Orlando City in 2012 and last season for the Los Angeles Blues (now Orange County), where he was second in USL Pro with 11 assists.
Lopez had history with Preki and knew he’d “get the best out of me” even though Preki released him at Chivas USA.
“We knew when he was a young player that he had a lot of talent,” Preki said. “He just needed to mature to become more a two-way player.”
As part of his maturation through the years, Lopez has become a leader off the field, too. He’s quick to flash a smile, chat with fans, sign autographs and do community work such as visiting sick children in the hospital.
“His enthusiasm is infectious,” Smith said. “He has a big heart, and I believe the people of Sacramento have designated him as their No. 1 son at this moment in time.”
Lopez senses he is in a special moment in his career.
“I could see building a family here, and being here might give me the opportunity to do something else after soccer,” said Lopez, a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico. “But right now I feel I’m hitting my prime.”
He says he is taking better care of his body and understands that work ethic trumps talent alone.
“When I was first playing, I was a little immature and didn’t realize what it took to be a good pro,” he said. “I’ve been through it all, playing in Mexico, MLS and with the U.S. youth national teams. I think I took that for granted. Now that I’m older and have a family, I know what it takes.”
Plenty of hard work – with feet and hands.