Rodrigo Lopez thriving at Toluca after journey through USL to Liga MX

Rodrigo Lopez Toluca
Antonio Zorrero
After considering quitting soccer and working in construction, the 30-year-old former U.S. youth international is living his dream playing in Mexico

Rodrigo Lopez wasn't sure soccer was the right career for him.

He'd been a standout as a teenager. He caught on in the youth system at Chivas de Guadalajara, the city where he was born, and later represented the United States, the country where he grew up, at the U-17 and U-20 levels. But four years ago his career had stalled out, and he thought his dream of playing in Liga MX or MLS may have come to an end.

"I ended a season with the LA Blues in 2013 and I wasn't sure if I wanted to play anymore," Lopez told Goal. "My son was born that year. Economically, the USL isn’t the best, and I needed to figure out a way to raise my family and take care of my family.

"I was working construction for my offseason, which is kind of hard to believe, but I was working construction and it opened my eyes. I wanted to take care of my family first. I was thinking of leaving soccer, but then Graham Smith from Sacramento called me and said there’s a good opportunity for you in Sacramento."

Even when the call from Sacramento Republic's director of football came, Lopez wasn't entirely convinced. He'd bounced around the USL for the past few seasons, sometimes playing close his hometown of Santa Barbara in Southern California but other times playing as far away as Portland or Orlando. Now he was a father and wanted to provide his newborn son with stability. And there was the added factor of Sacramento's coach, Preki, being the man who had in some ways started him on this odyssey when he cut him from Chivas USA. 

"Preki had let me go from Chivas USA and I thought about it twice, but I told myself I’d prove him wrong and change the perception he had of me," Lopez said. "I worked extra hard that offseason and I went to Sacramento with the goal to have a standout year and obviously to help my team get as far as we can. We won the USL championship that year."

Preki admits that he was "a little hard" on Lopez when he was an inexperienced player trying to break into a solid Chivas USA team, but said Lopez had become a better player with a stronger mentality in the years between leaving Chivas USA and earning 2014 All-USL honors.

"I said to Graham Smith I said, 'Graham he knows what I’m all about. I had him at Chivas. Unless he’s prepared and he really works for the team, it’s going to be difficult for him,'" the coach told Goal. "To be fair to "RoRo," he accepted the challenge, he came in and he was ready to work."

Lopez had great success in Sacramento but during his time there, he always wanted to return to MLS or Mexico. Nearing 30, however, he didn't think it would be a possibility. 

"At my age, I didn’t feel that being back in Mexico would be an option. But then Celaya happened and I set myself goals to play and be a constant starter, to get people talking about me," Lopez said. 

Milton Caraglio Atlas Rodrigo Lopez Toluca

Lopez signed with Mexican second-division side Celaya in 2016, and he continued to impress. Still, when he started hearing rumblings about him drawing attention from Liga MX clubs, the 30-year-old was skeptical.

"I got a call this last offseason saying there are a couple teams interested in Liga MX but I had heard that before and I was kind of trying to keep it out of my head," Lopez said. "The draft came and I got a call from Celaya saying, 'Hey there’s a chance you might go to Toluca, are you interested?' I didn't think about it twice."

Several clubs reportedly were interested, but Toluca sporting director Jaime Leon pounced and signed Lopez on loan. 

"Now I’m here, I’m at a great club and I’m grateful to be at such a big club," Lopez said. "I could’ve been at any other club, but to me Toluca is one of the biggest clubs in Mexico with a lot of tradition, a lot of championships and a great fan base which is special to play in front of."

Lopez has become a fixture in the starting lineup for the Red Devils in the midst of their 100th birthday celebrations. The Lopez on the field at the Estadio Nemesio Diez plays a different style than the one who terrorized USL defenders for two years.

After being cut by Preki for an apathy toward getting back and helping the defense, Lopez now is playing in a defensive midfield role for coach Hernan Cristante. For his former coach, it's a testament to the work he's put in since that moment when he was deciding between leaving the game and pressing on.

"He changed his mentality. He was willing to do whatever it took to be successful," Preki said. "He was willing to help the team win in a lot of different ways, not just with the pass or with the shot but by the way he chased the ball defensively. I felt he finally learned how to be a two-way player instead of just a one-dimensional player where he gets the ball and can make a pass or can shoot."

In a club where established Liga MX veterans Rubens Sambueza, Gabriel Hauche and Carlos Esquivel spearhead the attack, Lopez wouldn't have found a place at the team much less in the starting lineup had he not tweaked his game. But his time in the second division served him well, as did his training with Preki in Sacramento.

"In Sacramento I had more of an offensive role. I was playing a little bit wide, but more in an attacking role and Preki gave me a lot of freedom to attack and be free in the attacking half," Lopez said. "I go to Liga Ascenso with Celaya and I become more of a mixed center midfield with some attacking and now I’m here with Toluca and I feel like I have more of a defensive role.

"It’s something that early in my career I needed to work on but as the years went by I got better and more disciplined on my defensive side of the field. Now I think that hard work is what’s giving me the chance to work with Cristante."

Lopez is still on loan from Celaya but if he continues to earn minutes with Touca it's likely he'll stick on with the central Mexico team or move elsewhere in the top division. It's taken longer than he expected when he was a teenager in the Chivas system, but he's living his dream.

That's not to say there aren't more goals Lopez wants to tackle. 

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"Now that I’m with Toluca I just want to be a constant starter and play and be seen throughout the country," he said. "Obviously I’ve always wanted to be a national team player and play at a World Cup. I’m hoping to one day get a call-up, which is my next goal in my career."

A debut senior call-up for a 30-year-old may seem unlikely, but after going from the construction site to Liga MX in four years, Lopez has learned not to stop dreaming.

"It’s been a rough and tough road to get here but it just makes it a lot more satisfying and enjoyable once it happened," he said. "I’ve knocked on a lot of doors, I’ve hustled, I’ve asked for opportunities and I’ve been turned down a lot. But I kept on fighting and obviously I’ve always dreamed of playing in Liga MX, so I didn't stop until that happened."