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Andy Furillo: Rodrigo Lopez wants his future to be in Sacramento

Republic FC midfielder Rodrigo Lopez (8) fights for the ball against Real Monarchs SLC midfielder Alec Sundly (6) on Aug. 22 in Sacramento.
Republic FC midfielder Rodrigo Lopez (8) fights for the ball against Real Monarchs SLC midfielder Alec Sundly (6) on Aug. 22 in Sacramento. aseng@sacbee.com

His head is clear now. He is free from the distraction of moving up and maybe out of Sacramento. Now the one they call “RoRo” is totally focused on the hometown Republic FC and ready to take a shot at another USL championship.

Rodrigo Lopez, inverted left winger and leading Republic FC scorer, went through the same thing last year, when the San Jose Earthquakes tried to sign him away from Sacramento in the middle of the season. Their July 2014 offer induced a spate of sleeplessness until he put it out of his head. Then Lopez led Republic FC to the title.

Temptation returned this summer to trouble Lopez’s mind. This time, it came from clubs he declined to disclose, although he said one was from Mexico. Whoever they were, RoRo told them no-no, for now.

Before his future reveals itself, Lopez, 28, made one thing clear: If the moguls of Major League Soccer award a franchise to Sacramento, he’ll play for it.

“If Sacramento were going MLS next year, I would never think about it,” Lopez said after practice Thursday at Cosumnes River College. “I’ve grown to love the city. The fans have made it amazing for me to be here with my family. They’ve made it enjoyable, and they have brought that joy out in me again.”

Republic FC plays its last regular-season home match tonight at Bonney Field at 7:30 against Arizona United SC. A win here, one on the road Tuesday night in Orange County to finish the regular season, and Sacramento earns a top seed for the playoffs.

So Republic FC is in a good place, and so is RoRo, finally. A hip strain slowed him early in the season. Lopez soon found his health, but then he lost his temper. He shoved an opponent in the face in a loss to OKC Energy FC on May 23 and the referee red-carded him. It cost him three games on suspension.

The only person that can stop me is myself.

Rodrigo Lopez, Republic FC midfielder

Then Preki quit and Paul Buckle replaced him as coach. As with any managerial change, it raised insecurities in the workforce. Lopez has adjusted to Buckle, and the new coach to him. Now the whole team is hot, beating Portland, Vancouver and Tulsa in a row by a combined score of 8-2.

Lopez scored one goal and assisted on another during the streak. They are not quite the numbers he put up earlier this year, before the red card interrupted his offensive flow. But the boss is not complaining. Buckle worked some defensive-oriented changes into RoRo’s game, and management likes the result.

“He’s covering more ground – he understands his role,” Buckle said.

The coach explained to the talented midfielder that when he is on the attack, the left-side defender on Republic FC’s back wall, James Kiffe, “will always be with him.”

“So when Kiffe is defending,” Buckle said, “I expect RoRo to be with him.”

RoRo’s technical ability, combined with his athletic grace and experience at the sport’s higher levels, make it appear at times as if he is playing under his own spotlight. He scored once this year from 60 yards out. He dribbles through multiple defenders and threads pinpoint passes to teammates anywhere on the pitch. The only time he appears to lose control is when he loses interest.

“The only person that can stop me is myself,” Lopez said.

10 Goals scored this season by Rodrigo Lopez, tied for eighth in the league despite missing four games

Born in Mexico and raised as a naturalized American citizen in Santa Barbara, Lopez played as a teen on the Chivas youth team in Guadalajara as well as the United States’ U18 and U20 teams. He returned full time to his native country for one season with lower-division Zapotlanejo and another in Querétaro, in Liga MX. Heading norte in 2009, he bounced up and down and around, to Chivas USA of MLS, the Ventura Fusion of the USL’s development league, the Portland Timbers during its promotion from USL to MLS, down to Ventura again, and across the country to Orlando City and back to the LA/Orange County Blues.

Lopez saw the uneven trajectory of his career two years ago and considered abandoning it. He worked construction. Then Republic FC called and talked him into joining its Sacramento start-up. He recommitted to the game and discovered he was still pretty good at it. Last year, he was third in the league in points and was named MVP of the USL championship match. This year, he’s tied for eighth in the league in goals scored, with 10, even though he has missed four games.

With the regular season winding down and his team assured of the playoffs, “I feel like right now we’re at the strongest we’ve been all year,” Lopez said. He sees similarities to last year’s closing kick by Republic FC. He wants to finish strong and help the rest of the boys, and the city, win another championship.

RoRo’s future beyond 2015 will be shaped in part by forces beyond his control, among them the expansion plans of MLS and the depth of the pockets of his secret soccer suitors.

“I want to stay committed to Sacramento and finish my contract and see where things go, “ Lopez said. But, “I’ve got to look out for myself and my family, and hopefully the club benefits from it as well.

“I want to finish on a high,” he added, “and whatever happens after that happens.”

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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