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Q & A with U.S. Under-18 MNT forward Benji Lopez

ussoccer: How did you end up getting involved with the Real Salt Lake Arizona Development Academy team?
Benji Lopez: “My older sister’s husband had a job that sent him to Casa Grande, Ariz., and I had no clue that Real Salt Lake had an academy team in Arizona. I played for the San Diego Surf and we played against Real Salt Lake Arizona and I found out about them and how much better their facilities were and I got in contact with the coaches. I went and moved out there and I was living with my sister (beginning last November), but now I’m in their Residency Program.”

ussoccer: How has moving away from home affected you and helped you with the National Team?
BL: “It’s helped me a lot. It’s just made me grow more as a player and a person as well. My work ethic has grown more and more each day. Back at home I wasn’t as concentrated and now I’m away from everything and everything seems to be more in place with my soccer career.”

ussoccer: What has the experience of traveling abroad with the National Team been like?
BL: “I didn’t go on the Portugal trip, but I came to the Netherlands. It has shown me different styles of play and how much higher the level of soccer is over here [in Europe] and how serious it is. It has helped me out by giving me experience and confidence as well.”

ussoccer: How does that motivate you, seeing what it’s like in other parts of the world?
BL: “It motivates me a lot. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s amazing how serious it is over here and how into it people get and it’s an environment that I would like to be able to play in, in front of fans that love the game as much as they do and as much as I do.”

ussoccer: What was it like when you got called in for the first time in January?
BL: “I called my dad. He has always been there for me. He always made an effort to take me to practice. He’s a hardworking dad that doesn’t really have time or money for that. I called him right away to let him know that I got called into a National Team camp. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to happen since I was little and heard of the National Team program. It was kind of a relief, but I was more excited than ever to be able to wear the U.S. patch on my shirt.”

ussoccer: How did you feel when you got called up to this trip to the Netherlands?
BL: “This is just another step and I can’t really explain how I felt in the moment. I was in the airport, sleeping, and I remember opening my e-mail half asleep and as soon as I saw I was called to this camp, I woke up and called my dad and let him know everything. It felt like I accomplished something big and it felt good that they gave me the opportunity to come to this camp.”

ussoccer: What do you think you’ve learned as a player from head coach Javier Perez and your teammates during this camp?
BL: “I’ve learned that U.S. Soccer is close to being head-to-head with these teams over here. It opened my eyes that we’re not that country anymore that gets thrown away by these teams. The way we play as a team, the way we defend and the way we work, it has given me so much more of the experience that I needed and it’s helped me by far.”

ussoccer: How do you think the team has changed or improved since January?
BL: “In the first camp, there were new kids in their first camp and no one really knew each other as they do now. We’ve been together for a couple months now and everyone knows how each other plays and we click together and we’re a team. It turned into something really good, like a family.”

ussoccer: What’s your favorite thing that you’ve done so far in the Netherlands?
BL: “Scoring against Holland. I was throwing my hands around and I lifted up one of my best friends on the bench. I tried to kiss the U.S. badge, but they said I kissed the Nike side on accident. That’s one of the biggest jokes they have on me now. It was a great moment and I was excited.”

ussoccer: What have you learned about yourself and how are you going to take it back to your club?
BL: “To just keep working hard and helping my other teammates out so we can get better. It’s not just about the National Team, but it’s the country’s soccer – playing the ball faster, playing harder and faster. Everything I learned here I’ll try to take it on to the academy and hopefully it carries onto others and I help improve other people as well.”