It might have been just another MLS game in April. But for Houston Dynamo midfielder Alexander López, Saturday’s away match against D.C. United was one he had been waiting for a long time.
The Honduran international, who arrived in Houston in exchange for a hefty transfer fee, was making his first start of the season and just third since signing a young Designated Player contract toward the end of the 2013 season.
And it was López’s first big opportunity to show what he could do in front of new head coach Owen Coyle after a disappointing start to his Houston career.
“You’re always nervous, you always want to go out and perform. Yeah I was nervous,” López told MLSsoccer.com through a translator. “I’ve had the opportunity to play in a lot of games that are important, and any soccer player that tells you they’re not nervous before a game, even if it’s a little bit, is lying. I wanted to go and prove that I was doing things well. It was validating the good moment I’m going through.”
López got over those nerves quickly. Playing on the right wing in what ended a 1-1 draw, with fellow countryman Boniek García nursing a knee strain, he showed an ability to keep the ball well and play teammates into dangerous positions – validating Coyle’s and the team’s expectations. What also stood out was the work he did on the defensive end, showing the type of work rate that can keep him on the field in the weeks to come.
“I think he had a great game,” Dynamo captain Brad Davis said. “And one of the things I told him after the game was, ‘If you play both sides of that ball like you did tonight, you’re going to get more minutes. Hands-down, guaranteed.’ He’s definitely been getting better and better, and if he continues tuning into that part of his game in that way he’s going to be a terrific player.”
Nurturing that confidence for López will be an important part of his maturation after a slow start to his MLS career. López has rarely gotten the opportunity to show he can put in the two-way work. His ability to put that on display in the nation’s capital was a good sign.
“We’ve said it from day one in preseason, we know Alex is very talented,” Coyle said. “And what we’ve tried to do is we want to find the role that Alex can bring to the team, and Saturday he was terrific. What I said to him before the game was, ‘You’re in the team, you’re in there on merit, and you’re here to play, so make sure you don’t give up that jersey lightly.’ When he brings that work rate, we know the qualities he’s got on the ball. What he’s got to do now is deliver on it for the Dynamo.”
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It was only one start; the next question will be if Lopez can continue to put good performances together, starting at home Saturday against Sporting Kansas City (7:30 p.m. CT; TICKETS).
With Garcia still working through his injury, it’s clear Lopez played well enough to earn more time on the field. If that continues to be the case and the team does well, Coyle will have a decision to make regarding López’s future in the starting XI.
“One swallow doesn’t make a summer, as we say back home. You’ve got to do that game in and game out,” Coyle said. “If he keeps producing, then as a head coach you’ve got a hell of a problem because it’s difficult to keep him out of the team when he’s at that level.”
Darrell Lovell covers the Houston Dynamo for MLSsoccer.com.