Mikey Lopez in action for UNC - Jeffrey Camarati/UNC Athletic Communications
We continue to look at the top prospects who may be available in the 2013 MLS draft with University of North Carolina Tar Heel Mikey Lopez. Lopez is the kind of midfielder who is used to dictating the flow of the game no matter where he plays.
Mikey Lopez does not have the kind of numbers that are going to jump off the page and catch the eyes of any scouts but he still is considered by many a lock to go in the top five picks in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft. He has been a big part of the UNC's strong season as his team went 15-3-3 overall and 9-1-2 when Lopez was in the lineup. He was also a big contributor for the US under 20 program this fall, joining them in Spain this October.
With the Tar Heels Lopez made very little statistical influence. He is a creative midfielder who makes his impact on games through ball distribution and dictating the pace in the middle of the park. In 12 appearances so far he has only logged 2 goals and 0 assists but his contributions have not gone unnoticed. Despite missing a handful of games to be with the U20 team Lopez was still selected to the Atlantic Coast Conference's First Team. He is also considered to be among the front runner for the Hermann award as college soccer's top player.
Winning awards is nothing new for the UNC sophomore though who wrapped up his freshman season by claiming the ACC Freshman of the Year award and a spot on the ACC All-Freshman team. The honors came following a season where Lopez made 25 appearances chipping in with 3 goals and 4 assists and was a key contributor in the Heels 2011 National Championship.
If UNC are going to repeat as National Champions it will have a lot to do with Lopez as they face a tricky road having come into the tournament as the number 9 seed. So far they have managed to scrape through their first two matches by beating UMBC on penalties after playing to a 0-0 draw and then beating Fairleigh Dickson 1-0 in extra time. Their lack of scoring punch has been worrying but they have shown the ability to defend by keeping two straight clean sheets.
Next up for North Carolina is a date with #16 seed Indiana and Eriq Zavaleta. It will be a match that will certainly put their defensive record to a stern test as the Hoosiers are coming off a 2-1 overtime win over #1 seed Notre Dame thanks to a goal from Zavaleta. With Lopez and Zavaleta involved in the same match it will be a good chance to check out two of the top prospects heading into this year's draft. The game is set for Friday, November 30th at 5 EST.
It does not take long watching Lopez to see why so many people have him near the top of their draft boards. Top Drawer Soccer had him going third overall in their mock draft and heading to Portland Timbers but there is no reason that his stock cannot continue to rise with a solid tournament run and a strong combine. 2013 is not shaping up to be a draft that is flush with talent in the midfield, so if a team is looking for help in that area of the field they would be wise to take a good hard look at Lopez early in the draft.
Lopez served primarily as a deep lying midfielder for the Tar Heels with the majority of his work being done trying to win the ball back and then turning around from defending to the attack. He has the skill set to excel in any area of the central midfield as he boasts excellent vision, is a strong passer, but more importantly has the ability to defend and win the ball back when needed.
His versatility in the middle of the park was on full display when he joined up with the US U20 squad and was pushed further up in the midfield by head coach Tab Ramos. With the team in Spain he was asked to play more of a number 10 role rather than his tradition deep lying role. It was an adjustment for Lopez but once he got used to the demands of a different position he got back to being a dominant player and seems to have impressed in the USA's wins over Scotland and Azerbaijan.
When Lopez does make the jump to the next level it will likely be playing in that deeper role. At 5 foot 8, 160 pounds Lopez is not exactly the physically imposing type in the middle of the park. That should work just fine for him at the next level though as many of the top deep lying midfielders in MLS are not exactly giants and do most of their work by being smart and having an extremely high work rate. Osvaldo Alonso, arguably the best holding midfielder in MLS, is just three inches taller than Lopez and only 5 pounds heavier so it is not unheard of for a smaller player to excel in that part of the MLS game.
Lopez could work as an attacking midfielder in MLS but it would be a waste of many of his skills. Very few players on the field are as willing to work as hard to win the ball back as Lopez is, but more important is the fact that when he does win it back he knows what to do with it and can get the attack started. That skill is something that Toronto fans have often seen frustratingly lacking from a player like Terry Dunfield. It is great that you can win the ball back but if you can't pick out a pass and do something with the ball then it is basically all for nothing.
Lopez comes out of a NCAA program that has a proven history of producing quality MLS players. Between 2003 and 2012 UNC graduated 21 players to the MLS SuperDraft including the likes of Logan Pause, Jamie Watson, Dax McCarthy, Zach Loyd, Jalil Anibaba, Matt Hedges, and Enzo Martinez. They have had a player selected in the first round of the draft each of the past three season and should Lopez be signed to a Generation Adidas contract he would be a lock to run that streak to four. He also has a chance to beat the highest selection in that period (Michael Harrington 3rd Overall in 2007) if he goes in the top 2 picks.
There is no doubt that Lopez is coming out of one of the top programs in college soccer and will have benefited from that. He will also have benefited from playing under one of the top new coaches in the college ranks in Carlos Somoano. The 2nd year head coach led the Tar Heels to a treble of prizes in his first season in 2011 and is looking to build on that in 2012. He is not new to the Heels though as he joined the program as an assistant in 2003 and quickly became one of the top assistants in the nation. It is a program with a tradition of winning and producing quality professionals and that has not changed at all under Somoano.
From a Toronto FC perspective Lopez is worth a look because he is one of the top talents that might be available in the draft. He probably fills less of a need than Walker Zimmerman would or even some of the other players in the draft but Toronto does not really have the luxury of depth in any position. With Mariner remarking during the town halls that one of the things on his wish list is a box to box midfielder he might be able to address that by picking up Lopez.
Lopez would certainly bring a lot more to the field in a deep midfield role than we saw from either Dunfield or Aaron Maund this season and he is a much more polished player than Matt Stinson at this point in time. With Frings aging and still coming back from injury it might be time to look to bring in some more young talent to join Luis Silva in the midfield.
If Lopez does make the jump to MLS for next season he should be able to make a contribution for a number of teams next year whenever he is called upon. I don't think he is going to be the kind of player that comes in and is a difference maker right away but he would be a useful role player with a very high upside once he adjusts to the demands of playing in MLS. With Lopez expected to be part of the US U20 team again for CONCACAF qualifying that should only help to continue his development and improve his chances of being an impact rookie in 2013 should he enter the draft.