Rodrigo Lopez Talks Republic, His Future
When Rodrigo Lopez signed with Sacramento Republic FC earlier this year, it was something of a homecoming for arguably the club's best-ever player. The attacking midfielder had previously led the club to a championship in their 2014 season before staying on for one more year while scoring a total of 20 league goals in two years. Playing in a deeper role in 2020, Lopez added a 21st this season while leading the Republic to the playoffs before Sacramento fell in the first round of the playoffs in a controversial match to Phoenix Rising FC. Then the club revealed last month that the 33-year-old was no longer in their plans and didn't pick up his player option for the 2021 season. I caught up with Lopez this week and spoke to him about his time with the Republic, how everything went down with the club, and more.
Question: You left the Republic in 2015, what was your career like between then and returning for this season?
Rodrigo Lopez: Mexico was an amazing experience. It had always been my dream to go back and play in Mexico, as you guys knew, that’s the reason why I left Sacramento. I never really wanted to leave after 2015 and it was hard to, but at the same time, I told myself that I’d always run after my dreams and going back to play in Mexico in the first division was one of them so I took it and ran with it. It’s a decision that I’ll never regret. I think it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I was able to fulfill that dream to play in the first division again and play in the country I was born in. I accomplished a lot, a lot of people doubted me even going out there at my age. I left when I was 28 and I was in the second division there for two years and I was able to make the jump to Toluca and I was 30 at that time. A lot of people doubted me even then, even when I had made it and was doing really well in the second division, people still doubted that I could play in the first division but I was able to play in the first nine or 10 games of our season. The team was in third place, which was awesome, but I fell a little short of my time there in Toluca. I had a loan with an option to buy and I feel like the clause was just a little too high for me at that point, at 30-years-old, to pay that much money for me was a little too much for Toluca in my opinion. I was back in Celaya, went back to Veracruz after and I was able to play some more games in the first division. After that it just became hard. The last year in Veracruz was tough, they were the only team in Mexico that wasn’t paying their players. I was owed seven months of my contract so I just felt like it was time to leave. My wife and I spoke about it and we wanted to come back to the states and just think about life after soccer and start preparing for that. I pushed really hard for Sacramento, I spoke to Kevin first, Kevin Nagle, and he’s the one that was able to make it happen I believe. I’m always grateful for him for giving me that chance and I came back and it didn’t end like I wanted it to, but it happened and I was able to play one game in front of the fans who gave me a lot, so I’m happy about that.
Q: I was just going through my notes the other day and you told me a similar thing about Queretaro not paying you. I was going to ask you if you had more problems like that in Mexico but it sounds like you did with the whole payment issue.
Lopez: Usually back in the day when I was playing with the Queretaro affiliate, it was second division so a lot of those teams used to take a long time to pay you, but eventually they would pay you. Sometimes you’d have to backtrack three months and they would always pay you. Veracruz always had that problem with the owner they had, but when I got there, everyone would say, “he’ll backtrack two or three payments, but then you’ll get everything back.” I was okay financially then so I could make it happen, but it just never got to that point. He kept saying, “we’re gonna pay you, we’re gonna pay you, we’re gonna pay you.” Two months in, three months in, four months in, until seven months and the season was over and the team is no longer part of the league so that was tough. I’m still owed that money so I’m still fighting for it and still trying to get it, which is a lot of money for me and my family. That’s a problem that I had in Mexico in the last season, but other than that, I had no problems with teams before that. Toluca, one of the best clubs in my opinion in Mexico, and Celaya, also a big club with a lot of history...good ownership. Those are problems that you don’t want to come across, but if you take it in a positive way, you get a lot out of it. It makes you a better person, a stronger person, and I think it made me and my family a lot stronger. We went through so much and now I don’t think anything could faze us at this moment.
Q: So you came back to Sacramento at the beginning of this year. It had been five years since you were with the Republic. What, if anything, was different when you were playing this time compared to last time?
Lopez: I feel like a lot has changed, obviously a lot of new faces, a lot of new faces that I didn’t know, obviously new ownership, but to be honest, I didn’t really get to spend much time with the people in the office this time around and it was tough, but I could say a lot of the people who worked in there, it was very similar to what it was back in the day where everyone was really friendly, very welcoming, and obviously trying to do the best for the team. I can’t tell you too much about them. Ownership wise, obviously it’s a new owner. I knew Kevin a little bit, not too much, but to me he’s a great owner, he’s a god guy, and obviously he’s done a lot for Sac Republic for MLS and being able to get that spot in MLS that we’ve always want, that Sacramento’s always wanted, that we’ve been looking for for a long time. Kudos to him, he’s done a phenomenal job with that.
Q: You mentioned it a little bit, you got to play in that first game in front of the fans, then there was nothing for three months and a weird, truncated season at the end. What was this year like as you for a professional, playing through a pandemic?
Lopez: It was tough, it was definitely tough. The more I think of it, it’s even harder for me to deal with and cope with because I really wanted to come back and finish my career here in Sacramento as you know and as I’ve expressed many times to many people. It’s a club that I really care about. There’s a lot of players who come and go and they might love the franchise or the club for that season, but it’s a club that even when I was gone in Mexico, I still followed, and it’s a club that I really respect. I truly care about it. To finish this way was very disappointing, I don’t want to say disappointing, but I just feel bad that it didn’t end up the way that I would have wanted or maybe some fans would have wanted as well. It was tough. It’s been a tough year, not just for me, not just for our fans, but for everyone in this world. Like I told you when we picked up the phone right now, you’ve got to look at the positive side of things. I’m very fortunate, even with all the things that have happened throughout this pandemic. A lot of us are just fortunate to be alive and healthy.
Q: The Republic had a pretty good season, you only lost two games and made the playoffs. Obviously the playoff situation was probably more unfortunate than anything, but what happened at the end of the season? I think a lot of people are confused as to why you’re not coming back and I was wondering what happened, and I know it wasn’t your decision to not come back.
Lopez: No, it’s not my decision. Like I told you, I think you should be asking someone else that question but at this time I’m not scared to talk about it. I’ve always been someone who speaks freely and is always honest about what I say. I had the end of the year meeting and my option wasn’t picked up, which I probably had a good idea that it wouldn’t be due to the pandemic and the financial situation with the club and everyone else, you know, all the clubs are dealing with the same thing, but I just didn’t know that they didn’t want me back. We had a meeting and everything was said, everything they said was positive to be honest, so that’s where I’m still kind of trying to figure out what happened. I don’t completely know. Later on we spoke a little bit and my salary was mentioned, my age was mentioned, so I guess it’s along those lines. I don’t feel like that was the case because I would have taken a pay cut. I know the situation we’re in and like I said, everything can be solved when you talk and figure things out, but I felt like it had to be something more. I don’t know what it is, I’m still trying to think about it and obviously I’m my biggest critic and I don’t feel like age had to be a factor in the decision because I was playing three games a week the last few weeks of the season and I was playing 90 minutes and I thought I was playing well and starting to pick up my game. I was getting used to the USL, which isn’t easy coming from Mexico. It was the same thing going over there to Mexico, it wasn’t an easy thing to adjust right away. Going to a different league in a different country, it takes a little bit of time. For some people it might take more, for some people it might take less, but I feel like I was getting to my level again. Like I said, I was playing three times a week, playing 90 minutes, going on the road. So I don’t know. I don’t want to say too much, I just don’t feel like it’s along those lines. The more I think of it, I keep telling myself why and how, but I still respect the people there, I don’t hold grudges, I’m trying to be positive in every way, I just don’t feel like I’m done so this has been hard. I wanted to finish my career here. I expressed my feelings to Mr. Nagle and expressed to him that I really wanted to be around the club for many years after playing and I think he’s aware of what I’ve done for Sacramento and what Sacramento means to me, so we’re hopefully on the same path with that and hopefully one day I can be back maybe after playing, who knows?
Q: You mentioned MLS and the future of the club a couple of times. Before the pandemic, the club expected to enter the league in 2022. When you came back to sign here, was that something that was on your mind, possibly making that first team that played in Major League Soccer?
Lopez: That was definitely a goal of mine. That’s the thing, like I’ve told you, I’ve always been really honest with myself, with the way I play, and I can tell you that there’s games where I didn’t play well, or not where I didn’t play well, but where I didn’t play to my ability. Granted, I had a different role this year, I wasn’t the player that I was a few years ago, I was more free there, I was playing a different position in a different formation that allowed me to express myself a little more freely and be in spaces where I could attack more. I feel like I came back and I still have the legs. If I didn’t, I would be like, “look, this is time to go. It’s time to retire.” But I came with that goal, with that mentality that I wanted to play throughout this season and the next season and then hopefully get myself a contract in MLS at least for a year and finish out with a bang. But obviously it didn’t go that way. I still feel like I can play. I can still definitely run out there and cover ground, cover distance, that’s why we have those GPS’s that we wear every game, every practice, and those don’t lie. I feel like I can still run out there and give it maybe one or two years. That’s what we’re pushing for. It’s hard right now with the pandemic and with teams cutting budgets and having a family. It might be a factor in my decision, but there’s still a possibility of me just hanging them up.
Q: I asked Mark Briggs the same thing after the playoff game, but for this year in particular, is there anything that you would have done differently?
Lopez: I think something that Mark and I had spoken about before signing and before coming aboard. He said he really wanted a leader and someone to communicate on the field and off the field with the players and bring the players together. With the experience I got in Mexico, with the leaders I had over there, World Cup veterans, players who have played for many years, have made a lot of money and were still humble and good leaders, I tried to implement it here and I didn’t think it worked and I’ll tell you why. I might have tried to get involved too much and in my opinion it might have backfired, that’s what I think. I sometimes think that here the passion for the game is just different from other countries, we’re getting there, we’re getting there with talent, the sport is growing every day, but coming from another country, I’m not saying it’s better, but they live the game a lot different than people do here. I feel like I should have just backed off a little bit in a lot of the decisions I made, even for trying to help players and try to be a good leader. A couple of things that happened off the field I was always trying to help in the locker room, I always try to help in any way possible with fines, with getting money for people to be okay, with the young players, all this stuff, at the time maybe I was helping and I was doing good, but now I just feel like I should have just backed off and focused on myself and playing and doing what I had to do on the field and not being so involved with the things that went on, on and off the field.
Q: I know you mentioned possibly retiring, but what’s next for you and have you been looking at other places to play? What is that process even like right now?
Lopez: It’s been tough, I’ve had a call from Mexico not too long ago. Like I said, I’m done moving. Honestly I just don’t really want to move to another country again. My son is really happy right now with playing club soccer here and with his friends that he’s met. He just looks so happy that it would break my heart to have him move again. We did it so many times in Mexico and it would always break his heart to have to make new friends and have to move to a new city. Obviously he’s young, but at the same time it would hurt me seeing him cry on his first day of school at a new school every time so it’s hard for me to go back to that and move him away from his comfort zone again. That’s something that I’m thinking of. Obviously I want to continue playing, but if it’s not worth it for me and my family, for them first of all, for me I think about them first and then about me at this point in my career. They’ve supported me for 14 years, 15 years of my career so I think it’s time for me to actually think about them and what they want and where they’re going to be most comfortable and happy. If something comes up that’s worth it and we can make it happen then I’ll go for it, but I’ve spoken to my agent and there have been a couple (of teams) interested, but nothing that’s worth me moving, worth my family moving. That’s where we’re at right now. It’s tough with the pandemic, a lot of teams are cutting budgets, there’s a lot of uncertainty with when the league is gonna start to how contracts would work. I just gotta wait and be patient and see what happens. And your question about retirement, I haven’t looked to see what I’m going to do after. I’m trying to start my coaching courses as soon as possible. There hasn’t been a course opening yet, I know there was a “C” license opening, but I automatically qualify for a “B” so as soon as that opens, I’m going to take that opportunity to get a license and maybe start coaching in the future. As of now, we’re just waiting, playing the waiting game, being patient, and trying to enjoy the family as much as I can right now because I’ve been busy with soccer throughout so many years and I think now’s the time to settle down and enjoy them as much as I can.
Q: Is there anything else about this season or your experience with the club that you’d like to add?
Lopez: I think the season for us, I think we did well. I think we put ourselves in a tough spot in the playoffs, I think we could have avoided Phoenix had we won some of the games we tied and tied some of the games we lost. Obviously a lot of those games were games where we were up and we could have put teams away, but we didn’t. We put ourselves in a spot to play Phoenix and obviously the team fought hard and I thought we were the better team that night, but that’s the game. Sometimes it’s brutal, sometimes it’s unfortunate. In 2014 we were fortunate enough to have the refs on our side in (The Miracle at Bonney) and now it went against us. It’s tough, it’s a tough game, but the one thing that I will tell you that I’ve learned throughout the years is that if you do well and you put the work in and you’re honest with the game, the ball will always roll to your side. That’s the mentality I have right now with soccer and I know I played to, I don’t know about my full ability, but I was getting there, but I definitely know that I always worked hard and always gave it my all. I played through injuries, I trained through injuries. I got my MRI back a week ago and I had a rib fracture throughout the last two weeks of the season and then I had a tear in my groin so if someone is going to question my heart and my desire to play and my work ethic, I think it doesn’t go that way, it’s the opposite, it shows how much I love the game and how much I wanted to play and demonstrate what I can do.
Q: Is there any message you have for the fans and the city of Sacramento, who I think were looking forward to watching you play again in person, but only got to for a few minutes at the start of the season? What would you like to say to them?
Lopez: I would just say to stay positive and keep supporting the team. You have a team that’s going into MLS, we’ve had a great tradition in USL and the team does so much for this city. The fans have a lot to do with that and the players are always involved in anything that the city needs. They’re always involved in the community, always helping. Just keep supporting. Especially after this pandemic, I think it should be an even bigger reason to bring people together and to fill up the stadium again for the players, for the crest, and for the great owner that Sacramento has who’s done a great job with the team. I just hope everyone stays positive and everyone stays safe. Hopefully everyone’s back at Papa Murphy’s cheering on the team.