KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A year and a half after being taken in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft, Mikey Lopez is getting his shot.
With midfielder Paulo Nagamura sidelined by an ongoing ankle injury, Lopez made his MLS debut in mid-July and has started three of Sporting Kansas City's last four games. Nagamura still isn't ready to return, meaning Lopez is likely to be in the XI again for Sunday's away date with Vancouver (8 pm ET, TSN, MLS LIVE).
“It's something I've been working toward, and I'm happy that it's happening right now, but I can't take it for granted,” he told MLSsoccer.com earlier this week. “I have to keep working hard in training every day and in every game that I'm a part of.”
And while Lopez doesn't have the veteran's years of experience, manager Peter Vermes sees similarities in the way the two play.
“Mikey's sort of a younger version of Nagamura,” Vermes said. “He covers a lot of ground and at times he's a really good ball-winner, and he's really starting to get a rhythm and understanding of how he has to play the position. So that piece is helping us a lot. I think he's been good thus far, for sure.”
Lopez doesn't mind the comparison.
“That's fine with me,” he said. “Naga's a really good player, a key component to this team, so I'm good with that. One of my biggest assets, biggest skills as a player, is my ball-winning. That's important for our game, since we like to press really high and try to win the ball as quickly as possible.”
Lopez started the year on loan to USL PRO side Orlando City SC, making nine appearances with one assist, but only played 169 minutes over that span. He was subsequently loaned to Sporting's other USL PRO affiliate, Oklahoma City Energy FC, and had one goal in five outings.
The Energy gave him a lot more playing time than Orlando City – an average of just over 73 minutes per game – and since returning, Lopez has averaged nearl 70 minutes for Sporting.
Still, it wasn't easy to enter 2014 as a first-round 2013 pick who hadn't played a minute in the league yet – and then be sent to the third tier, on top of that.
“It stings a little, because any player here wants to play in the first team and play in MLS,” he said. “But it helped me grow and be a better pro and be a better person. It helped me elevate my game.”
And with Sporting coming off a 2012 U.S. Open Cup championship when Lopez was drafted and going on to win MLS Cup this year, Lopez faced the extra challenge of cracking a deep, talented midfield corps.
“It's a mentality you have to get used to,” he said. “This team was already really good, and it's hard for any newcomer to come in and be part of the team immediately, but it teaches players to be patient and know the system of the team. That only makes us better.
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It was about the same time last year that forward Dom Dwyer – Sporting's first-round draft pick in 2012 – began to come into his own in MLS after a wildly successful loan to Orlando City. Still, Vermes said, there's no hard-and-fast schedule for working young draft picks into his regular lineup.
“The biggest thing is we always want to see progression from those guys, and we've seen that from Mikey,” Vermes said. “He deserves it because he always works hard and he's got a great attitude. I'm happy that it's happening for him right now, at least that he's getting the chance and he's actually taking advantage of it.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.