Next Level Watch: ‘RoRo’ leads Sacramento into championship game

As a kid in Santa Barbara, Rodrigo Lopez spent lots of Sundays at Dwight Murphy Field watching his dad run the attack for the San Nicolas Soccer Club.

Alvaro Lopez was the on-field leader for the high-level amateur soccer team, helping it win league, state and regional titles in the mid-1990s.

Today, it’s Rodrigo taking charge of a team and leading it to a championship game. “RoRo,” as he’s called by friends and teammates, is a standout central midfielder for Sacramento Republic FC, a first-year team in the USL Pro league. On Saturday night, Lopez recorded a second-half hat trick to rally Sacramento past L.A. Galaxy II, 3-2, in the USL Pro semifinals at a sold-out Bonney Field in the state capital. (See video above)

Sacramento will host the Harrisburg City Islanders this Saturday for the league title.

“This is unreal, man,” Lopez told the media after curling a 22-yard free kick past the L.A. goalkeeper for the winning goal in extra time. “I never could have imagined it being this way, you know? All the credit to the Galaxy, they’re a great opponent; they made it hard for us throughout 90 minutes, and that’s just the way the game goes, we were able to pull out a victory.”

Lopez on Wednesday was named a finalist for the USL Pro Most Valuable Player Award. The award will be announced on Friday.

Down 2-0, Lopez scored on a penalty kick after teammate Ivan Mirkovic was fouled in the penalty area.

The Galaxy II took a 3-1 lead in the 76th minute, but Sacramento was awarded another penalty kick when the referee called a hand-ball in the box. Again, Lopez stepped up and converted.

He completed the comeback with a sensational free kick that sent the 8,000 fans into delirium.

“It could have been anyone, you know, but I’ve been taking the PKs and I felt confident,” Lopez said. “I felt like I had a bad first half and I had to make up for it, and if it wasn’t for my teammates, the coaching staff, the amazing crowd behind us, I couldn’t have done it. It is unreal, man, it’s a moment I’ll never forget.”

It’s a deserving payoff for Lopez, 27, who played his first two years at Santa Barbara High before signing with the Chivas of Guadalajara youth development program in Mexico. He played briefly for Chivas in Mexico and Chivas USA of MLS. He’s also had brief stops with the Portland Timbers when they were an USL team, the Ventura County Fusion, Orlando City and Los Angeles Blues.

Sacramento made him its first pick in franchise history. The move reunited him with former Chivas USA coach Preki, who cut him seven years ago.

This time, Lopez has flourished under Preki. He scored 10 goals and dished out eight assists in league play and was named the all-league first team.

Now, he looks to win a championship.

He told a reporter from the web site Soccer by Ives: “To end this season off with a championship would mean so much to me and my family.”

There is another local player who has contributed to Sacramento’s success this season. Former San Marcos High and UCSB star James Kiffe has been a stalwart as a defender.

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