Alejandro Solana/ Staff Writer
The walk-on athlete has long been the unheralded mainstay of collegiate athletics, and that was never more evident than this season for the FIU men’s soccer team.
The unwritten code of walk-ons suggests that most players who walk-on to college sports teams are the less talented players of the squad, the players who weren’t good enough to get noticed before college, roster fillers.
But we’ve all heard of Rudy, right? The undersized and unskilled kid from Illinois, who stopped at nothing to wear those blue and gold uniforms. Or what about Scottie Pippen? Pippen, only 6-foot-1 when he graduated high school, couldn’t find a single team who wanted him.
FIU men’s soccer player Patrick Lopez’s story is no different. No, Lopez will definitely never win six NBA titles like Michael Jordan; however, he did help win one title.
The Panthers were the Conference USA Men’s Champions this year, and it was Lopez who scored the lone goal of the championship game. In the 75th minute of a nil-nil draw, senior Daniel Gonzalez played a ball into the box and Lopez got his head on it, sending the ball into the near post past the keeper. The goal was good enough to secure a 1-0 win over Marshall University sending FIU to its first NCAA tournament win since 2004.
The senior defender describes winning the championship as the best moment of his career, calling it the “best day of my life.” Of course things didn’t always look so bright for Lopez, whose collegiate soccer career did not necessarily start off as he planned.
The 6-foot, sports and fitness studies major, played high school soccer at Archbishop Coleman F. Carroll High School in Miami, Florida, where he shined on the pitch for the Bulldogs. Lopez started all four years at ACC and lead his team in goals and assists both his junior and senior season, earning him team MVP honors in back-to-back years.
Despite his impressive high school campaign, Lopez was not offered any Division I scholarships after graduating.
“I was playing in different adult leagues around Miami, staying in form and waiting until I got my chance,” said Lopez.
Just as he hoped, the opportunity came knocking when FIU assistant coaches Jean Camere and Kevin Nylen provided Lopez a chance to try out for the FIU men’s soccer team as a walk-on in 2013.
“I was presented the chance to have a spring season trial and it was up to me to show if I was capable of playing at this level or not.” Lopez continued, “I knew coming in, it would be a huge learning curve for me trying to catch up with the rest of the guys who had already had a chance to play at this level.”
As Lopez started his career at FIU, the program underwent a huge change when Scott Calabrese was named the new head coach of the team. Camere and Nylen, this year’s Glenn “Mooch” Myernick Assistant Coach of the Year for the Southeast region, saw the potential in Lopez after bringing him in and Calabrese approved, keeping him on the squad for the 2014 season.
Lopez’s first year with the team was definitely not what anyone would describe as a breakout year. Finding the pitch only six times on the season, the Miami native struggled to find minutes with the squad, notching only 476 total minutes on the season.
“I don’t think there was ever a low point for me, but being a competitor, I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t get frustrating being on the bench.”
Lopez admitted to being frustrated, but also made it very clear that he had nothing but respect and trust for the coaching staff who had brought him in and given him his chance.
“The one thing I really enjoyed about our coaching staff was the open dialect between us players and the coaches. When I felt those lows, or thought to myself ‘why am I doing all of these things and I’m not even getting on the field?’ I could just easily go to Scott, Kevin or to Jean and express my concerns and they would immediately give me feedback.” Lopez said.
Just one year later, things went a little differently for Lopez than his first season with the team. After only getting to start in five games and make a total of six appearances his first year, Lopez played in all but one game for the Panthers in 2015. 16 games started and 19 total appearances adding up to 1,613 minutes, over triple the amount of minutes he played in 2014.
“It was a nice relief once I did get to start to play and be on the field. It’s one thing seeing the game from the outside, from the bench, but it is totally different actually being there,” said Lopez.
Along with his championship game winner, Lopez tallied two other goals earlier in the season, one of which was also a game winner against Old Dominion University. While Lopez was able to find the back of the net three times, he also managed to set his teammates up and record two assists on the season.
The coaching staff taking a chance on a kid who was playing in recreational leagues around the city, tled to finding a player who found his way consistently to the lineup helping the team go 12-7-1 on the season, and not to mention a conference championship and a place on the all-conference tournament team.
Though some in Lopez’s shoes would brag or go after the doubters, but the humble defenseman partakes in none of that. “I credit all of my success to my teammates, coaches and of course my family. They have been with me from the beginning and it’s big that they were there for me, reminding me not to give up and keep working. They helped me enjoy the moment.”
When asked if the whole walk-on experience was worth it, Lopez quickly exclaimed, “absolutely. The bond I built with my teammates is a brotherhood and I’ll never forget that.”
As for what’s next for the senior?
“Professional [soccer]. That’s the next step. That’s what I’m working to get to and if I’m able to accomplish that, this whole story that has been a blessing continues and that is all I can ask for.”