The World Cup veteran is comfortable in Middle America - so much so that he accepted a pay cut to stay there. Claudio Lopez spoke exclusively to Goal.com's Andrea Canales.By Andrea Canales
It's not unheard of for a player to take a salary cut to stay with a specific team. Often, it might happen due to a club's prestige, such as David Beckham wanting to stay with AC Milan. Other times, players will put aside a certain amount of financial gain in order to return to their roots, such as Kasey Keller with Seattle Sounders FC.
How, then to explain the curious case of Claudio Lopez? The skillful forward was a 1998 and 2002 World Cup veteran for Argentina who played all over the world, including Spain, Italy and Mexico.
Lopez landed in Major League Soccer with the Kansas City Wizards willing to give the club a shot, but not very familiar with the U.S. top flight.
"I didn't know a lot about the league, but once I got here, it seemed very competitive to me," Lopez explained in an exclusive interview with Goal.com. "Each league is unique, but in this one, they are definitely improving."
Though the club invested in Lopez, making him their designated player at a salary of $720,000, it wasn't always smooth sailing, getting used to the U.S. on and off the field.
"In the beginning, it's hard to adjust, simply because of not knowing the language," Lopez pointed out. "But I had the help of a lot of good people here in Kansas City .
Though he scored in his debut match for the Wizards, playing against DC United, Lopez hit a bit of a rut at one point in the season. Coach Curt Onalfo decided to bench the veteran, figuring a rest might rejuvenate him. The gamble paid off once a rested Lopez was able to contribute to the team's playoff run. The Wizards pushed the Columbus Crew, the eventual MLS champions, to the brink of elimination in the opening round, but fell a bit short.
"I had the good luck to play here and reach the playoffs," said Lopez of his first MLS season. "The team is competitive and I think we're going to have a better season this year."
The Wizards did not begin the 2009 season in impressive fashion, however.
"We started badly, losing two games," Lopez acknowledged. "Now we've turned that around a little bit and I think our level is rising. I hope we keep progressing. We'll see what happens in the upcoming games."
Kansas City gained confidence after becoming the first team to score against, then beat, Seattle Sounders FC. Though the Sounders are a new MLS club, Lopez has respect for every team in the league.
"Players here are improving tactically and technically," said Lopez. "The soccer here is rising; it's on the right path."
The success of experienced Argentine players, who are often lauded for their technical and tactical play has been mixed. Christian Gomez and Guillermo Barros Schelotto have won MLS Most Valuable Player awards, with Schelotto also claiming the league championship last season, but Marcello Gallardo, a former national teammate of Lopez, struggled to make an impact at DC United.
Gallardo returned to Argentina to play for River Plate after only a year in MLS.
"I believe everyone seeks a club situation similar to the one that produced the best results in one's career," Lopez reflected. "The situation with Guillermo - he's always competed at a high level and he's achieved a lot. Marcello has also achieved a lot, and in his case, he had an opportunity to return to Argentina. It's an individual decision."
Homesickness may be a factor that affects player performance, but Lopez shrugged off any such difficulty coping in America's heartland.
"It's fine," he chuckled. "We have a lot of things to remind us of Argentina. We have no problem there."
Beckham in some ways paved the way for other designated player signings in MLS, including that of Lopez. Though Beckham once said he was deeply committed to raising the level of play in MLS, the Argentine wasn't bothered that the Englishman opted out of half of the current MLS season.
"That's a decision between a player and a club. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. I think he's returning and we have to wait. If the Galaxy agreed to the deal to let Beckham stay longer and play with Milan, I don't see anything wrong with that."
Lopez had a solid, if not sterling, season with the Wizards last year, scoring 7 goals and providing 8 assists.
Probably no one who performs satisfactorially in any job expects a huge reduction in salary. That happened to Lopez, but with his agreement. The forward's compensation dropped nearly 600,000 dollars - down to a yearly salary of $180,000. The adjustment allows the Wizards to pursue another designated player option if a good choice becomes available.
Yet there wasn't much self-sacrificing fuss from Lopez about taking less to help the team. He kept his rationale simple.
"I like it here," Lopez stated. "My family adapted perfectly well. We're happy here."
He did hope the team would improve this season.
"We decided as a team, the Wizards, to see if we could go further in the playoffs this year," said Lopez. "The money isn't so important. I don't worry about it much."
The forward was hopeful about his team's chances in the 2009 season.
"The team is very solid," Lopez pointed out. "Matt Besler, a rookie, I think he's going to be very good. Davy Arnaud is going to be very important for us. Jack Jewsbury, too. We're a strong team all through the roster and that's what is really going to help us to get us further in the playoffs."
True to his understated manner, Lopez didn't make any extravagant claims about ensuring Kansas City a title this year. He did have a strategy, though.
"First of all, we have to make the playoffs. That's important, and it helps to get there as soon as possible. Then we need to prepare well, but it's true, one bad game can ruin things, especially if your opponent is inspired. On any day, another team can play better. We have to be ready for anything."
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America.
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