Lopez one of the better DP signings in MLS history
In the final weeks of Argentina's 1994 Apertura season, Racing Club was poised to win the championship. Many of the 60,000-plus Racing supporters at Estadio Juan Domingo Peron in Avellaneda were in a celebratory mood on a warm Friday night in late February, some scaling a 25-foot fence behind the goal to lead the cheering.
The Racing team, which included a 19-year-old forward named Claudio Javier Lopez, had momentum and motivation, plus a 1-0 halftime lead over Ferro Carril Oeste. But the action was just starting. Maybe it was coincidence, or maybe someone was trying to give Racing another advantage, but the lights in the visiting team's locker room went out, so Ferro spent halftime on the field, amid the din and pyrotechnics. And when Mariano Dalla Libera extended the lead to 2-0 early in the second half, Racing's title seemed secure.
Dalla Libera started the party by ripping off his shirt and twirling it, whipping up the crowd.
But that action by Dalla Libera -- who had long ago earned the nickname "El Loco" -- was the beginning of the end of Racing's season; he received his second caution (shirt removal had only recently become a yellow-card offense), Racing lost its inspirational playmaker and Ferro calmly rallied to tie. Racing supporters attempted to confront the officiating crew, waiting outside the locker room for an hour after the game, failing in their attempt only because they were diverted by a gunshot.
After the reporters from Clarin had filed their stories by cell phone, I joined them at a parrillada for a dinner which began well past midnight, returning to my hotel about 4 a.m.
Lopez and his Racing teammates probably had difficulty sleeping after that match, which did, indeed, cost them the title -- they finished a point behind first place River Plate.
Lopez is now 33 years old, and he might be ready for a calmer environment. If so, Kansas City is the place.
There will be barbecue joints, but they will be closing about the time things are just getting started in Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Rome and Valencia, Lopez's other ports of call on the way to becoming a Wizard; he is the MLS' seventh designated player since the so-called Beckham Rule was instituted last year.
Though there might be some culture shock for Lopez to endure, this could be one of the better pickups in the short history of DPs.
The Wizards are acquiring Lopez for purely soccer reasons. They are not attempting to appeal to an ethnic community or an entertainment entity, or turn the team into a traveling circus.
And Lopez apparently is going to Kansas City for purely soccer reasons. He is not expecting to move in next to celebrities, become the idol of a huge expatriate community, or join a high-profile road show.
So, where will Lopez rate among DPs?
Lopez, nicknamed "El Piojo" ("The Flea"), is not nearly as powerful as Juan Pablo Angel. Lopez is a forward who relies on technique and opportunism. Like Cuauhtemoc Blanco, though, Lopez has probably lost a step or two in recent seasons. But, like Blanco, Lopez's skill level is high enough that he does not have to rely on foot speed.
But the MLS is a league based on hard-charging, physical play. Lopez will have to adjust to the aggressiveness of opponents and also to the level of sophistication of his own teammates. If, like Blanco, Lopez has to retreat to get involved in the offense, or finds himself in more of a playmaking role than he is used to, the setup will not work for the Wizards.
Another Argentinean, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, noted the crudeness of the MLS game in his first season with Columbus last year. Like Barros Schelotto, Lopez should be able to adjust to everything the MLS throws at him. The main questions will be the physical demands and how to stay motivated when performing on an artificial-turf field somewhere in Utah in the middle of August with no threat of being relegated. Lopez will find life mas tranquilo in Kansas City, but he will not receive any mercy from opposing defenders or any sympathy from referees.
This is the MLS. Early to bed, early to rise. Keep your shirt on, and we'll see if we can find a No. 10 to get you the ball.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.