By Ben • Ben Schorzman • 

It's all about faith for Lopez

Take Frankie Lopez, a 2007 graduate of McMinnville High School. A soccer phenom who left college early to play professionally in Mexico, Lopez had money and success. Still, he was far from home and struggled being thousands of miles from his tight-knit family.

A broken left leg changed all of that, and instead of staying in Mexico, Lopez returned to Oregon to heal and refocus. Two years later, Lopez has a new goal firmly in his sights. He has founded an organization called the Community Connecting Creation to connect back to the community that gave him his start. He’s training local soccer athletes, reconnecting with his church and trying to give one more shot to his dream of playing professionally.

It starts in McMinnville

McMinnville has always been competitive in soccer but never elite. That changed Lopez’s senior year when the Grizzlies made an incredible run through the state playoffs to win a state championship

Lopez played soccer year-round growing up, honing a work ethic and love for the game that would later impress his high school and college coaches. He played on club teams, and even before he played a single minute for the varsity team, people knew who he was.

“He was the younger phenom,” said McMinnville graduate Dominic Doty, who was a senior when Lopez was in eighth grade. “That’s how I knew him.”

Doty was the best player in McMinnville history when he left school, setting a school-record with 50 career goals. By his senior season in 2006, Lopez already had scored 49 goals.

Former McMinnville boys soccer coach Joe Crabtree was the varsity assistant under Danny Mealue during Lopez’s junior and sophomore seasons but took over as head coach a week prior to the start of the 2006 after Mealue stepped down. The Grizzlies, led by Lopez, ran through most of the conference but didn’t win the conference after losing and tying with Tualatin. Tualatin finished 11-0-1 and 9-0-1 in the conference. Mac was 12-1-1 and 8-1-1 and finished second behind the Timberwolves.

Lopez was named the Pacific Conference Player of the Year, but the Grizzlies entered the state playoffs as the dark horse. On Nov. 4, 2006, McMinnville beat North Salem 8-2 in the first round at Baker Field, and Lopez scored four goals and had an assist. Four days later, Mac beat Clackamas 3-1 behind another goal and an assist from Lopez. It was the first time in school history the boys soccer team had earned a berth in the state quarterfinals.

The Grizzlies’ final three matches of the state playoffs were some of the most gut-wrenching matches of the entire tournament. In the quarterfinals Nov. 11, 2006, the Grizzlies traveled to No. 1-ranked South Eugene and shocked the Axemen, winning 5-4 in penalty kicks.

The Grizzlies continued to shock. In the semifinals, the Grizzlies beat South Salem 6-2 in overtime to advance to the state championship match. The Grizzlies were down 2-0 in the second half when Lopez scored two goals to send the game to extra time. He scored the first two goals of overtime as well and assisted on Mac’s fifth and sixth goals.

Then came the memorable state championship game Nov. 16, 2006 vs. Jesuit. The Crusaders were the defending state champions and hadn’t lost all season. They had 11 state championships in boys soccer. The Grizzlies, again playing from behind, equalized the score at 1-1 on a Jake Baker goal and won the match on penalty kicks 9-8, Gustavo Mendoza doing the final honors.

“It was just crazy,” Crabtree said. “We were running out of people. I thought I was going to have to shoot.”

In the following weeks, Lopez was named the 6A Boys Soccer State Player of the Year after scoring 34 goals in the regular season and nine in the postseason, bringing his career total for McMinnville to 92.

Lopez said when he needs a boost, he always goes back to his memories from that season.

“Especially when you’re having a tough time,” he said. “You always look back to high school. Those were the days you were oblivious to everything but your friends, your school and your community.

“That’s a bond and a memory that will last forever. A lifetime.”

A chance to be a pro

During Mac’s run to the state championship in 2006, Lopez was courted by many Division I soccer programs. He ended up choosing the University of Portland, and in the fall of 2007, Lopez and the Pilots went 10-6-5. Lopez earned a spot on the West Coast Conference All-Freshman team for his efforts.

In his sophomore season in 2008, Lopez made another jump despite the Pilots going 8-10-2. He led the Pilots with 12 goals and 27 points. He scored four game-winning goals and was a First-Team All-WCC selection as well as the Outstanding Offensive Player of the WCC Tournament.

Then in the spring of 2009, Lopez, then 19, was drafted by the Jaguares de Chiapas, a professional soccer team in the Mexican state of Chiapas in Southern Mexico. Chiapas plays in Mexico’s Liga MX — the highest tier of professional soccer in Mexico. He said it took him a day to decide what to do. Lopez took the contract, which he said was for $50,000 pesos a month.

“It’s a lottery ticket,” Lopez said of how it felt at the time. “You have to take it.”

Lopez said there were a few people who didn’t want him to leave school early, but he looks at that decision as one of the many that has led him to where he is today.

Crabtree was one of those who thought Lopez should hold off.

“I wanted him to finish at UP,” Crabtree said, “but I guess he felt like he was squandering some opportunities that might not be there later on.”

“In that moment, I had to choose,” Lopez said. “Whatever the decision was, I had to have faith in it.”

The state of Chiapas is in Southern Mexico, on the border with Guatemala. The Jaguars played in the town of Tuxtla Gutierrez, a city half a million people, according to Mexican census data. The combination of being young, far from home and having a lot of disposable income took its toll on Lopez. While he wouldn’t give specifics, Lopez said it was an extremely trying moment in his life.

“At first,” Lopez said, “I was on Cloud Nine when I went to Mexico. At first I wasn’t thinking about the types of things that go me there and the types of things I was doing to keep me there. It kind of set me back a bit. I wasn’t as disciplined as I was in college and high school when I was around my friends and family.”

“I think there was a point in my life where I kind of lost sight of things,” Lopez said. “Thankfully I was able to revive it and bring it back at a crucial point in my career.”

Another opportunity

In February of 2012, Lopez broke his left fibula in a pre-match scrimmage for Chiapas. It was a 50-50 tackle, he said, and he took the worst of it.

“A year of recovery, and it changed my perspective on life,” Lopez said.

After spending part of his recovery in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Lopez decided to come home. There were hopes of a comeback with his team in Mexico or another squad in El Salvador, but instead Lopez realized he needed his family help him re-center himself, so he flew back to Oregon and spent the next year and a half rehabbing and building himself back up.

Being around his family helped. Lopez’s parents, Martha and Martin, are first-generation Mexican Americans and Lopez said he gained a new appreciation for just what they went through raising him, his brother Martin and sister Edith after he spent time in Mexico.

On a family vacation to Southern California last year, Lopez’s father persuaded him to compete in a combine where a lot of professional teams would be on hand. Lopez played well and an assistant coach for the Ventura County Fusion of the USL Premier Development League gave him a card. That led to a tryout and Lopez playing last summer in Southern California.

“It was my family that inspired me to keep going,” Lopez said. “They’ve seen me through everything, the good and the bad.”

After the season Lopez came back to McMinnville and settled into a routine of morning mass, workouts, reading and training local soccer players. He was also an assistant coach for Doty this season for the Linfield women’s soccer team in 2012.

“He’s a soccer guy,” Doty said. “He would be completely comfortable if he had to spend all day playing soccer outside. I think he would love it. To add guys like that to the staff and to be around them energizes you and reaffirms why you do what you do.”

Lopez was back in Los Angeles in February and early March to play in some exhibition games for the Fusion. His plans were to play another season down there, but then came a fateful email in March. An assistant coach for the New York Cosmos wrote, explaining he liked what he saw in those exhibitions and invited Lopez to New York for an extended tryout.

The Cosmos is a fledgling program in the North American Soccer League that will play their inaugural season this year. Lopez got back Friday from his first trip to New York after working out with a few other invitees to tryouts. Any day now, Lopez said, he’ll get a call from the front office about whether or not he will be invited back to play.

While he waits, Lopez is pushing on with building the Community Connection Creation. He wants to raise as much money as he can to send kids on retreats that he benefited from while recovering from his broken leg. He ran a clinic with the help of Doty on March 23 at Joe Dancer Park, and another one is scheduled for April 27. If the turnout is anything like the first one, there will be more than 130 kids on hand.

Through it all, Lopez continues to build himself into a community role model. He wants to use his platform as a professional athlete to help people, and even if New York doesn’t work out, you can bet he’ll still be active in the community.

“Can I give a word for how much I’ve grown and developed as a person?” Lopez asked. “I don’t think so, but I’m hoping to let that show in my projects and the things I’m starting to do now.”

Said Crabtree: “I don’t know if Frankie will make it as a pro, but I do think he’s made it as a good person.”

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