Fresh off a tournament-best four goals and four assists, and a share of the tournament Golden Boot Award, Sacramento Republic FC midfielder Rodrigo Lopez earned a rare combination of awards for his performance in the 2022 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Lopez was the was not only voted TheCup.us Lower Division Player of the Tournament, but he was also voted the overall Player of the Tournament. Since a “lower division” award was added in 2012, he is the first player to sweep both awards. Lopez also becomes just the second player from a lower division team to win the overall Player of the Tournament award. He joins goalkeeper Chris Eylander, who earned the honor in 2008 with the then United Soccer League (USL) Seattle Sounders.
The Player of the Tournament awards are voted on by TheCup.us staff, a select panel from the North American Soccer Reporters and select backers (those that pledge $10 or more) of TheCup.us’ Patreon team.
Lopez was an absolute force during the tournament, propelling Republic FC to their first Open Cup Final where they would eventually lose 3-0 to Orlando City. Despite the loss, Republic FC were only the fourth non-MLS club to compete in a Final. During their run, the Quails knocked off MLS sides San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City, in what was a thrilling penalty shootout that only rivals the Miracle at Bonney during the club’s inaugural season. From the Miracle at Bonney, to the 2022 Open Cup run, it was Lopez leading the way for the Republic.
“I am a little bit shocked to be honest … something that I wasn’t expecting especially after not winning the US Open Cup,” said Lopez when asked for his reaction to winning both awards. “(But) to be awarded this MVP brings a little joy to me and to the work I’ve put in throughout the season and obviously the work of my teammates, coaching staff and everyone involved with the Republic.”
This marks the second time, and the second tournament in a row that a player on a team that didn’t win the tournament won the Player of the Tournament award. In 2019, the tournament’s top scorer Darwin Quintero of Minnesota United FC won despite his team falling to Atlanta United FC in the Final.
Lopez’s contributions were felt widely across the tournament. In the Fifth Round (Round of 16), he scored a goal and tallied an assist en route to a 2-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes. In the Quarterfinals against the LA Galaxy, Lopez scored an early goal that set the tone in a 2-1 victory. And in the Semifinals against Sporting Kansas City, he played 120 minutes and converted a penalty kick to send Republic FC to the Open Cup Final. He’s played this tournament many times before, but this year was different. It was apparent that Lopez, his teammates and the club were locked in.
“You may remember in the past we got knocked out by an amateur team, and I didn’t play that game and the coach made a lot of changes, I don’t think some of the players took it very serious,” said Lopez. “I really think Mark did a good job in the rotations and taking every game serious. We never underestimated any team. For Mark to play me in these games when I had been playing all the league games, it definitely showed me he wanted to win. I just really wanted to make a big run, and with the tone we had in our locker room and with the coaching staff and front office, I truly felt like we had a really good chance.”
Make no mistake about it, the Republic’s run in this year’s Open Cup galvanized the City of Sacramento, captivated soccer fans and media across the country and elevated the game. When Lopez was told about recent chatter on social media saying that when the Republic build their new downtown stadium, there should be a statue of him out front. That’s how much he means to the city and fans.
“It means a lot, but I don’t like to take full credit of the success this club has had or I’ve had,” said Lopez. “It’s all built around a team and I’ve been very lucky to play under great coaches and alongside amazing players, but once my son Roman was born, I definitely changed my mindset and the way I worked and the way that I acted as a professional and worked on the field every day. All the success and attention I am getting is based on the hard work, the struggles and me learning from early on in my career. I appreciate everyone who supports me and for the fans to praise me like that … it’s special.”
Father-Son Open Cup Connection
One of Lopez’s biggest fans watching this Open Cup from the stands or on television was his dad, Alvaro Lopez. He also competed in the tournament with San Nicolás FC out of Pomona in 1998. That team had to win a tournament in their zone and travel to Albuquerque for a regional tournament against teams across six states to qualify for the Open Cup.
Once they qualified, they had to travel to Austin, which proved to be complicated. The team flew out at 1 a.m., had to make a connecting flight, and eventually arrived at their hotel at 11 a.m. for a 5 p.m. kickoff. San Nicolás would eventually lose 2-1 to the Austin Lone Stars (USISL D-3 Pro League), with Alvaro starting and playing a full 90 minutes. Despite the challenges to qualify, he looks back on his experience fondly.
“It was very difficult to qualify for the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup,” said Alvaro. “I remember that the team’s overall skill level was very good, which included college and players who had played professionally. We only had time for breakfast and rest before heading to the field at 3:30 p.m. That team in Austin would be considered to be at a USL Championship level today, but I believe we would have had a better result if we would have traveled the day before. But it was a very good experience.”
Whether it’s 1998 or 2022, qualifying or making a run in the Open Cup takes a lot out of players and teams. There is a tremendous amount of sacrifice, playing through injuries, heavy minutes with league play, mental toughness to push through and the expectation to play well and advance. Knowing Lopez faced and battled through all of this is something his dad understands and appreciates.
“He deserves a very good rating for his overall performance,” said Alvaro when taking about Lopez’s Open Cup play. “He satisfied all the expectations I had on him and the way he played this year. I believe that his experience, the way he takes care of his body and his willingness to give it his all for his team and the City of Sacramento all came together to keep him motivated.”
One of the Best Seasons Ever?
Without question, this was one of Lopez’s best years as a professional. While Republic FC fell just short in the Open Cup, nobody in Sacramento will soon forget their magical run.
“This has to rank in the top three of my career,” said Lopez. “I would say that first year winning the championship was one of them, making my dream come true to play in Mexico in the first division was the other, and this one is up there. I don’t know what order to be honest, but it definitely has to be in the top three.”
Hats off to Rodrigo Lopez – ambassador for the game, consummate professional, Sacramento Republic FC legend, and now, 2022 TheCup.us Player of the Tournament. I am sure fans look forward to watching him reach even new heights next season.