MLS: Claudio Lopez is Here to Play

Former Argentine international Claudio Lopez played all but two games last year in his MLS debut season. For 2009, he agreed to a much smaller salary while retaining a major role in the Wizards' attempt to win its first MLS title since 2000.

As the cross flew in from the left flank, the entire Fire back line was breached and all those defenders could do was stand and watch as a fully-stretched Josh Wolff touched the ball into the net.

That goal, scored in the 78th minute on April 18 at Toyota Park, started a comeback from a two-goal deficit that eventually earned a 2-2 tie when Wolff tallied again a minute from the end of regulation time. The second goal earned the point, yet that first one encapsulated yet again why Kansas City signed former Argentine international Claudio Lopez as a Designated Player last year.

"That was world-class," said Wizards coach Curt Onalfo of the chance set up when Lopez escaped pressure near the left sideline and drove the ball to where only Wolff could reach it. "Not only was it two-touch, but the fact he saw the early run that Josh had made and he basically curled the ball around their entire back line. It was an amazing goal."

The most bemoaned shortcoming in soccer is the fluffed scoring chance, yet just as many potential goals are botched not by the finish, but the ball that precedes it. The final pass, the servicing ball, call it what you will, is what can offer up a prime opportunity needing only reasonable competence to put away, or force a difficult effort that more often than not results in a miss.

"Your tongue drops out when you see the kind of service he puts in," says Onalfo. "To me, the best thing about him is that he's a class act. Regardless of the situation, he's been through so many things, he keeps the same approach, and he's got a lot of very good leadership qualities. He's well-liked within the team."

Apparently, Lopez liked his first MLS season well enough to sign for a second at a greatly reduced salary of $180,000, one-quarter of what he earned in 2008. He'll be 35 in July, so other opportunities aren't plentiful, yet even at his original salary he bought into what his team and the league are trying to accomplish.

"I don't think anyone questions what Claudio's about," says Wolff, who came back to MLS last summer following two years in Germany. "He's not here on a free pass, he's here to play and doing what he loves, and help players. He's got a very good voice and mind for the game, on the field and off the field."

Kansas City acquired Lopez, whose past clubs include Valencia, Lazio and Club America as well as several teams in his native Argentina, as a DP last year at a salary of $720,000 to set up goals as well as score them. He did both reasonably well, logging six goals and seven assists in 28 games, yet had to fight through a period of fatigue in midseason during which Onalfo sat him down.

"I think he'll be more consistent with us managing his time better, and also last year, some people thought he wasn't that effective," says Wizards technical director Peter Vermes, who helped finalize negotiations to acquire Lopez after talks stalled among with the multiple parties who owned pieces of his rights. "He started off well, hit a valley in the middle of the season, then toward the end of the season people were saying, ‘Wow, he's really doing some great things. He makes incredible runs and his service is fantastic.' I really believe teams respect him because he provides some things that a lot of other teams don't have."

That short break revived him and convinced Onalfo to manage his playing time more carefully this year, during which the Wizards will play in SuperLiga along with the regular season and U.S. Open Cup. "He's coped extremely well," says Onalfo. "Obviously, having nine weeks with the team in preseason helps, compared with two the year before. It gives you a fitness base and an idea of how the team is playing and all that.

"That's helped him tremendously with the transition to this year and I don't necessarily expect him to hit that fatigue point like he did last year because of that fitness. Having said that, we have to be real smart with his minutes. At this point, he seems real strong and doing quite well."

In Kansas City's first nine games this season, Wolff has converted two crosses from Lopez for goals as Onalfo continued to juggle personnel and formations, and a few other sweet serves went unclaimed.

"I'm playing more up top and I'm always trying to find the space and take on defenders, so I'm a little closer to the goal than I was last year," says Lopez through a translator. "I try to go get the ball so I can make things easier for my teammates."

Both Wolff and Davy Arnaud can also play wide, though Arnaud spent much of last season playing in the middle. The team could use the DP money it had spent on Lopez last year to get a forward but as of May had not made any such moves as it waited for one of its offseason acquisitions, former Rev forward Adam Cristman, to recover from a fractured metatarsal.

"They're similar but different," says Onalfo of Lopez and Wolff, who are both roughly in the range of 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds. "They're both underneath-type forwards and that's what we have to work through a little bit. Claudio likes to drift to the left and serve in beautiful balls, Josh is more of an underneath type who likes to have somebody to play into, and then play off. They have a lot similaries. One thing they both do is that they're running off the ball is very intelligent."

To the mix this year Kansas City has added another Argentine, Santiago Hirsig, to replace one of his countrymen, Carlos Marinelli, who spent much of his two MLS seasons on the bench, injured. As a holding midfielder with good distribution skills, Hirsig can serve as the fulcrum to whatever combination of players lines up around and in front of him.

More tinkering is likely, but Onalfo seems set on using Lopez as did Argentina during most of his 58 international appearances (10 goals).

"We're going to keep him as a forward," says Onalfo. "Certainly when we play a 3-4-3 we can play him as a winger but he's done a very good job as a forward and that's where we see him at this point. He's very active and his movement off the ball is very, very good."

In a 3-2 loss to the Crew in early May, Lopez demonstrated the wisdom of playing him as far upfield as possible. When Arnaud pounced on a turnover about 35 yards out from the Crew goal, Lopez and his teammates immediately got into gear. Arnaud played the ball to forward Abe Thompson, and after an exchange of passes, played the ball wide to Lopez, then raced forward to meet the inevitable cross with a diving header into the net.

"When the ball drifts wide to Claudio, you have to make sure you get yourself into the box and we have enough runners there so he can find you," says Onalfo. "That's when you have to make sure you have runners out of the midfield."

Having played in Spain, Italy, Argentina and Mexico, Lopez — like fellow Argentine Guillermo Barros Schelotto in Columbus — has adopted the more relaxed lifestyle a player in his 30s with a family can live in the United States. Onalfo and Vermes point out that rather than keep to themselves, Lopez and Hirsig join the group, which can be rather clownish with the likes of Wolff and defender Jimmy Conrad setting the tone.

"He has a real positive energy," says Wolff, who himself is a father with three sons. "He's always smiling, he's a bit of a joker, and in our locker room — in pretty much any locker room, in soccer — that's a big part of it. Having that camaraderie is key.

"He's got a little boy and our boys play together quite a bit. He's into his family as well and he has a good time, but he knows the business is on the field. He's a lot of fun to be around and very insightful, a nice, relaxed demeanor about him."

He played for Argentina in the 1998 World Cup, and cites his country's failure to advance out of the first round in 2002 as the greatest disappointment in his career. Another high on the list is the Olympic silver medal he took home from the United States in 1996. Argentina has won the last two Olympic gold medals.

Vermes says he and Lopez have agreed to evaluate his status at the end of each season, so whether he'll be back next year — when the Wizards are scheduled to move into a their own stadium — won't be known for quite a while. While he's won a few cups in Europe, the only league championship to his credit is a Mexican Clausura (2005) title with Club America.

"The teams are pretty good right here," he says. "The difference might be the Mexican teams have a lot of history and here they don't. But the teams here are pretty good and as long as they keep competing internationally there are going to get better.

"I feel good. I want to play more. I love this game, I love playing, so when I don't have that feeling anymore, that is when I have to stop."

(This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of
Soccer America magazine.)   


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