When Republic FC star midfielder Rodrigo Lopez is asked how he wound up in Sacramento playing for a new third-tier minor-league soccer team, he flashes a smile.
“Graham Smith,” says Lopez, a 10-year professional who started his career with Major League Soccer’s Chivas USA. “He can rope you in.”
Smith is one of the main people pulling the strings of Republic FC’s evolution from an eclectic group of largely untested players at the start of the year to a serious MLS candidate that will play the Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders for the USL Pro championship Saturday night at Bonney Field.
Last year, Smith, the team’s technical director and a former English goalkeeper, persuaded Republic FC founder Warren Smith (no relation) to swing for the fences and hire a high-profile coach in Preki, the fiery former MLS star who was reluctant to take the job.
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“I told him he needed to make a statement,” Graham Smith said. “You need to get the best guy out there, even though he should be in MLS, not the USL.”
Smith had to do some arm twisting with Preki, who had been out of MLS coaching for three years but wasn’t sure if he wanted to jump back in with a new team at the minor-league level so far from his Chicago home.
“It was a little bit like pulling teeth initially because Preki’s a guy with a lot of pride,” Smith said. “He’s a guy who achieved some of the highest things in (soccer) in the United States. I had to tell him this was a journey that, hopefully, would propel him back into significance in the U.S. game.”
Preki came around, especially when he realized he would have the freedom to put his stamp on a team, something that hindered him in his last coaching stop, with Toronto FC in 2010.
“That’s something you always want as a head coach,” Preki said. “You don’t want people interfering with your job.”
Smith and Preki are longtime friends. As his agent, Smith brought Preki to the top-flight English League with Everton and Portsmouth in the early to mid-1990s. But Republic FC was their first collaboration building a team from scratch.
They stitched together a group of mostly untested young players, a handful of veterans looking to reignite flickering careers and loan players from MLS. They molded it into a championship-caliber squad that just might have the chutzpah to play at the next level.
“It doesn’t happen without both,” Lopez said. “Graham did so well talking people into coming here. Preki is the perfect man for this team with so many young and inexperienced players. You can’t take one second off. He’s so tough on everyone, but he’s also fair with everyone.”
Lopez has history with both.
When Lopez played three seasons with Chivas USA, Preki thought he was immature and undisciplined and eventually cut him, which sent Lopez on a long odyssey with an assortment of mostly lower-division pro teams.
Lopez won over Smith, once the coach and president of the Ventura County Fusion, after a couple of stints with the Fusion when he wasn’t moving from Portland to Orlando City to Mexico and back to Los Angeles. Smith knew Lopez could be a leader for Republic FC, one reason he signed him before letting Preki know.
Although Preki had initial reservations, Lopez has proven himself. He’s Republic FC’s top player and one of three candidates for USL Pro Player of the Year, which will be announced today in Sacramento.
“I’ve always believed in giving people a second chance,” Preki said. “I hoped he learned from the first time. RoRo has worked hard, he’s part of the group, part of the success.”
When Lopez learned Preki was going to be the coach, it made his decision to come to Sacramento easier.
“I wanted to come and prove him wrong, (show) that I could play,” Lopez said. “That was my first worry coming here: Can I do well for Preki and convince him I could play at the highest level, not just here? ... I knew he was going to get the best out of me, and he certainly has this year.”
Lopez also knew that Smith would keep watch over him and his family, especially his young son Roman, born last year with a heart condition.
“Graham is a straight-up guy,” Lopez said. “He’ll tell you how things are. But he’s also the type of guy who wants to help a player out and help him get to the next level. … He told me my family would be taken care of. We got my son insurance. We have a nice apartment. Everything he promised in the offseason he came through with, and I’m sure he did that for a lot of (players) as well.”
Smith and Preki agree that the strength of their bond is that they can yell at one another one moment, then pat each other on the back the next.
“At times, the relationship is good,” Preki said. “At times, it’s, you know, a hard conversation. But at the end of the day, to be fair to Graham, he’s never interfered with what I try to do. He’s always been supportive.”
Smith said their debates can be intense.
“He’ll be screaming at me, and I’ll be screaming at him,” Smith said. “And he’ll stand up to me, and I’ll stand up to him. I’ll listen to him for five minutes, and he’ll listen to me for five minutes – and then we decide I’m always right.”