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MLS SuperDraft: A day in the life of draft pick Mikey Lopez

INDIANAPOLIS – Roughly three hours before the biggest moment of their lives is set to unfold on the podium at the MLS SuperDraft, more than a dozen of the top collegiate prospects are gathered in a hotel meeting room to hear about all the things that could, in fact, go terribly wrong.

This is the routine every year in the early hours of draft day, thanks to a handful of pragmatic MLS officials who love this stuff. Reality-check time. Remember to shake hands with the commissioner, don’t flub the name of the team that drafted you, and please, whatever you do, don’t be in the men’s room when your name gets called.

There are other warnings too, but here’s the advice that really sticks: These young men are no longer in control. The players assembled last Thursday morning were made up of college kids who’ve been largely dictating their own fates as athletic stars for years, thanks to a mix of talent and work ethic that pushed them ahead of the pack, behind the velvet rope and into this room. This is the gilded future of Major League Soccer.

“You will get drafted when you get drafted,” says one league official. “And if you get drafted at No. 1 or No. 38, that doesn’t matter. That will not determine where your career stands. What determines where your career stands is what you do after that.”

But after one league official gently wishes them luck should they ever get traded (“and some of you will”), a player personnel consultant brings up the previously unthinkable. There is certainly a chance they will spend the entire length of the televised draft without moving an inch. There is a possibility, in other words, that no one will want them today.

Dig in on those scrambled eggs boys, because you might be sitting out there for a while. You’ll be absolutely starving.

“I like guys to know what they’re going into,” the consultant says, “because sitting out there by yourself for a long period of time is not an enjoyable experience.”

But that’s not going to happen to Mikey Lopez. There are nearly a dozen Lopez family members and friends up from a border town in Texas all certain of that. After all, at just 19 years old, Lopez is a player with seemingly endless potential, and that means just about as much as anything to MLS coaches and club executives on draft day. On this day, it’s easy to believe that the next MLS superstar really is sitting right in front of you, if you just know which one to pick.

Lopez is as good a bet as anyone. If you believe some of the scouts outside this room, it’s not a case of if this kid makes it, but when.

“It’s crazy, knowing that I’m there,” Lopez says. “Well, I’m not really there, but I’m a pro. Stuff is starting to happen now. It’s like the first day of actually starting my pro career. That’s crazy.”

Although born in Dallas, Lopez (right) was raised primarily in Mission, Texas, a town of nearly 80,000 people roughly five miles north of the Mexican border in the Rio Grande Valley. More than 85 percent of the population there is Hispanic, and it’s where Mikey’s father Miguel, a Mexican immigrant, has raised two sons and made a living as a professional events photographer with his wife, Martha.

It’s also an area of Texas with a surprisingly strong reputation of producing solid young soccer players, and Lopez is one of the crown jewels of his generation. Shipped by his parents to the private St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, Lopez was a regular in the US Soccer youth ranks even before he signed his letter of intent to attend North Carolina, where he promptly became the ACC Freshman of the Year in 2011 and returned as a sophomore as one of the best midfielders in the nation.

Schellas Hyndman’s been on the Texas soccer scene since 1984, for 24 years as the head coach at Southern Methodist and the past five as the head coach of FC Dallas. He knows all about Lopez and the Rio Grande Valley. He remembers groups of eight passionate kids like Lopez from the area piled into a van driving nine hours north to Dallas, attending Hyndman’s two-day clinic, and driving nine hours right back home. Then some coach always tugs Hyndman on the arm and insists he start scouting down there if he wants to find the real undiscovered talent of Texas.

“Lopez is a very, very good player, and we’ve had him on our radar,” Hyndman says. “And I tell you what: If I was still coaching at SMU, I would have never let that boy go to Chapel Hill.”

Dallas is one of a number of teams with Lopez in their sights, but there’s no shortage of interest today. During the short walk from the players’ conference room to his mother’s hotel room (he’s on his way to pick up his new suit), he recites the six teams who expressed interest when they spoke with him at the MLS combine the previous week: Real Salt Lake, Colorado, Seattle, New England, Chicago and Sporting Kansas City. All five are picking in the first round today, with New England holding the top overall pick in the draft.

The one team not on that list, however, is the one he’s been linked to most closely in the past week. As a Mexican-American he’s on the short list for players in the scope for brand new Chivas USA head coach José “El Chelís” Sánchez Solá who, since being hired in December, has hardly wavered from his stance that the Goats will much more closely resemble their sister club from Guadalajara under his watch, and lean heavily on players with Mexican ties in 2013.

Lopez appears to be the perfect fit. He’s still slight for the pro ranks at just 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, but he proved at the Combine that he possesses a work ethic perhaps second to none among players in the draft, and scouts love his fitness. That’s what they fawn over, and that’s what they can’t teach. Every team would be thrilled to have a Mikey Lopez playing the role of terrier in the midfield.

Except, it seems, Chivas USA. Maybe the one certainty of the day for Lopez is that “El Chelís” will not come calling, because just days before Indianapolis he made it clear that the other prominent Mexican-American in the draft, Connecticut midfielder Carlos Alvarez, is the Goats’ top choice, and that he’ll go at No. 2.

“I felt nervous before games, especially way back in the day when he was a little kid and I was on the coaching staff,” says Miguel Lopez, who embraces his son from a Starbucks coffee line in the hotel lobby. “I know what nervous feels like. I’m not nervous, I’m just anxious. You just don’t know where he’s going.”

After Lopez grabs his suit from his mother’s room – “She’s more nervous than I am,” he insists – he loads up his rental car for the short drive to a different hotel, where his girlfriend and high school sweetheart is staying. In the car he admits that while he’s certainly considered playing for Chivas USA – his mother is a fan of the Guadalajara club – he has no real preference.

“Chivas USA, Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City or really any team that wants me, and where I will play,” Lopez says. “But I don’t really have a preference if I go to [Chivas] or not.”

Here’s the problem if Alvarez does indeed go to Chivas USA at No. 2, and Lopez is left there hungry: Lopez isn’t a starter on opening day. That’s what the scouts seem to think, anyway, after he left North Carolina following his sophomore year. Perhaps another year or two in the ACC would have seasoned him a bit more, but he’s always told himself that he would leave after his sophomore year, and when his father heard positive rumblings from the agents, it seemed to both of them that it was time to go.

But at 19 years old he’s one of the younger players in the draft this year, and he leans on potential as much as anyone on the board. Other players in the conference room on Thursday morning – Louisville defender Andrew Farrell, Furman defender Walker Zimmerman, Notre Dame midfielder Dillon Powers – are either more experienced or more physically prepared for the jump from the NCAAs to MLS, and are therefore more valuable to the teams picking in the top 10. These are the teams in need now, not the ones who can afford to pay a player to sit the bench because their starting lineup is already set for 2013.

Those teams – Sporting Kansas City, San Jose, D.C. United or LA, for example – pick later, which means Lopez could be in for a longer afternoon than expected if the Goats go ahead with Alvarez.

At 11:30 am ET,  MLS officials usher Lopez and the select players into a special roped-off section to the right of the stage at the Indiana Convention Center. It's tough to tell exactly, but it looks like there are a dozen members of the Lopez party, seemingly larger than any other group supporting the players, and the group is so big is that it spills from the third row to the fourth, all furiously snapping photographs on their phones and shipping off emails to friends.

Lopez holds the aisle seat, directly across from Virginia Commonwealth forward Jason Johnson and diagonal from Farrell, the Louisville star who is widely expected to be the No. 1 pick. Lopez is pounding away on his cell phone and gazing up at a gigantic video board with a list of each team and their corresponding picks. The Lopez crew – most of them all the way up from Mission – is pulsating.

“We’ll go wherever he ends up,” his father Miguel says, in between posed pictures with his sons and his wife. “We’ve been traveling for years already. Mikey’s teams would travel 12-hour round-trips every week. We’ll go wherever he goes.

“I just want him to go to someone who believes in him, and to someone with a winning mentality, because we like winning,” he adds. “Who doesn’t?”

Compared to some of its previous incarnations, the SuperDraft is a breeze these days. Whittled down over time from six rounds in its inaugural run back in 2000 to just two rounds and 38 total picks today, the entire event moves along at a relatively decent clip.

But despite its trimmer, more streamlined presentation, there are certainly times during the first 15 picks when it can feel like a slog. Each team has five minutes to make a pick and most sides use close to all of that to make a selection, and trades or team timeouts for further deliberation can make an anxious player feel like he’s languishing in a dentist’s waiting room rather than sitting on the cusp of a new career.

At 12:19 pm, Farrell goes first to New England. No real drama there, considering the Revs wanted him so badly they traded up to land the top pick the night before the draft. He nails the thank-yous – parents, coaches, New England Revolution. Exit, stage left.

Then comes Chivas USA at No. 2, the one real shot Lopez has of being of a top-three pick. But they stick to their word and take Alvarez, who gets up from his seat in the front row, throws on a Chivas scarf and tells reporters that wearing these colors is a dream come true.

The words of the league official keep coming back: You will get drafted when you get drafted.

The Alvarez pick comes down at 12:23 pm, and Lopez will spend roughly the next hour stuck in the last place he wants to be: the aisle seat in row three. Players are springing up all around him at five-minute intervals. Kyle Bekker goes third to Toronto, the Vancouver Whitecaps snap up two forwards at picks Nos. 4 and 5, and another forward, Deshorn Brown, surprisingly goes to Colorado at No. 6, all to the squealing delight of their families and the firm congratulatory handshake of an agent.

Dallas comes and goes at No. 7, opting for the Furman defender Zimmerman instead of taking a shot at a local talent the team’s staff been familiar with for years. More often than not any regional connections don’t pan out with such a valuable pick, however, and all Lopez can do is offer Zimmerman a high-five when he passes by on his way to the podium.

“We had Lopez on our list to draft, but so much of the draft is your needs,” Hyndman says later. “What did we need? Well, we didn’t think we needed a central midfielder, even though he may be one of the most technical players coming out of the draft. It just doesn’t do well to bring Lopez in, because he’s not going to get the playing time he needs.”

New Mexico midfielder Blake Smith follows to Montreal at No. 8, and then two forwards – Notre Dame’s Ryan Finley and Indiana’s Eriq Zavaleta – round out the top 10. When Colorado claim the Notre Dame workhorse Powers at No. 11 he becomes the fourth midfielder taken ahead of Lopez, and when Real Salt Lake grab Maryland’s John Stertzer at No. 12, he’s the fifth.

Lopez, meanwhile, is doing one of two things during all of this. He’s either texting as compulsively as any teenager on the planet – “these are my true friends that are going to be there for me no matter what” – or he’s glancing up at the big board. There’s chatter among the family but not a great deal to Lopez himself, who now finds himself in the aisle seat in the second row. In the hour since Farrell was taken first, event organizers have straightened up a bit and taken away most of the vacant chairs left by the players now backstage mingling with family and friends.

What if Houston were to come to the rescue at No. 13? At roughly 355 miles it’s the shortest drive the Lopez crew can ask for from Mission, and the Dynamo are, as Miguel Lopez would agree, winners. Two straight MLS Cup appearances and one of the best coaches in the league in Dominic Kinnear, but zero need for a box-to-box midfielder like Lopez. The Dynamo opt for Johnson, who bounds out of his seat and tells reporters he’ll be there for whenever his new team needs him.

You will get drafted when you get drafted.

Sporting Kansas City are on the clock at No. 14, and they’re stocked. Their midfield, in particular, seems jammed, with offseason pickup Benny Feilhaber pulling the offensive strings and either the veteran Paulo Nagamura or Spanish youngster Oriol Rosell manning the defensive end of things. If anything, Lopez is a complete luxury here, and he won’t see much playing time in Year 1 while playing behind the starters on the best team in the Eastern Conference.

But SKC head coach Peter Vermes sees two things when he looks at Lopez: time and tenacity. The first is a direct result of the Generation adidas contract Lopez signed before the combine that likely won’t hit SKC’s salary cap for at least two seasons, or at least until Lopez establishes himself as a regular contributor and graduates from the Generation adidas program. It won’t cost Sporting a single cent against the salary cap to groom Lopez behind Nagamura or have him absorb the habits of Feilhaber and Graham Zusi, two guys playing with the US national team in California right now.

And then there’s the Lopez work ethic, which plays about as well in Kansas City as any other market in the league. SKC are arguably the hardest working box-to-box team in the league under Vermes, and it’s a style that only suits a select group of players who can adjust quickly and keep up.

Mikey Lopez is their man. At 1:28 p.m., the club snaps him up with the 14th pick, and the Lopez family erupts. It’s a blur from there as he’s swallowed up in leather jackets and suit coats, hugs and wet cheek kisses, and then a rushed walk to the podium. He thanks them all – God, mother, father, brother, girlfriend, coaches, agent, Sporting Kansas City. He tells the crowd to “have a great day,” and he’s officially been drafted.

“He’s a lot more mature than 19 years old. He really wants to do this, this is his passion,” Vermes tells reporters. “And that fits into the way we play, because I think our team is very passionate on the field, and I think we have a lot of guys who love the game. He kinds of fits into that world.”

Lopez, for his part, runs the gauntlet of post-draft interviews and the obligatory photo ops, which on this day include a shot hoisting the new jersey, complete with a new corporate sponsor in Kansas City. There’s Vermes, there’s SKC president Robb Heineman, and there’s All-Star defender Aurelien Collin, invited specially to Indianapolis to show off the new kits.

It lasts roughly 15 minutes from the second Lopez steps off the stage to when he finally drifts back into the players’ hospitality room, where his family is waiting. Here Miguel admits that while waiting for his son to get drafted was frustrating – and unexpected – it wasn’t for naught.

“Based on Mikey’s history, he always comes into a new team and earns his respect,” Miguel says. “He always works his way up. The same thing happened throughout his youth career and in high school and in college. I don’t think it’ll be any different here.”

Mikey Lopez wisely fires off a tweet to the Kansas City Cauldron supporters and tells them he “can't wait to get to the season started,” and flashes a wide grin worth an hour’s wait on the draft floor.  He reaches down to his pocket. His phone won’t stop buzzing.

“I was picked by a great team and I’m glad to be going to Sporting Kansas City,” he says with both excitement and sense of exhaustion. “It’s a match made in heaven.”