All Images: Rance Ristau, Two Ten Soccer

San Antonio FC will begin their third season Saturday, and with a bolstered squad, they are serious about another go at the United Soccer League championship after reaching the conference semifinals last season.

Part of what made 2017 go so well was the full offseason beforehand in which they improved their roster from back to front. While SAFC saw some integral players like midfielder Billy Forbes and defender Sebastien Ibeagha move on to new clubs (in Ibeagha’s case, up to MLS), they were able to bring 17 players back for 2017.

Keeping most of the squad intact, SAFC still managed to reinforce and build on their roster for 2018 though, with the midfield seeing some particularly impressive additions.

  1. Mikey Lopez, center midfielder

After five years with MLS’s Sporting Kansas City and then New York City FC, Lopez opted to return to his home state for 2018. Lopez said one of the things which drew him to SAFC was the club’s progression and MLS aspirations. His experience could be critical for a club which has such high expectations for both its present and future.

Despite moving down to the USL, Lopez will find no shortage of competition for playing time in his primary position. Ryan Roushandel will look to play a bigger part for SAFC than ever before after morphing into a defensive midfielder toward the end of last season, and Pecka consistently dictated the flow of matches as he led SAFC in tackles won, interceptions and passing accuracy. Rafa Castillo will also look to reestablish himself after an injury cut his 2017 season short, and Maxi Rodriguez will seek more playing time in his second season as a professional player.

Lopez’s skill and versatility will help him though as he tries to break into the central midfield full of returnees. In addition, SAFC has often played with two central midfielders in a 4-2-3-1 formation in preseason, so there will be twice the opportunity for him to get minutes, whether he’s keeping things tidy in midfield like Pecka or driving forward to augment the attack like Castillo.

Despite being one of the new players in that area of the field though, Lopez is not completely unfamiliar with his teammates. He remembers playing youth soccer with the likes of goalkeeper Matt Cardone and midfielder Kris Tyrpak, and he spent some time at Oklahoma City Energy FC alongside defender Cyprian Hedrick.

“Even though I am a new player, a lot of these guys I already know from before,” Lopez said on the first day of preseason training. “It’s pretty easy to just be myself and express myself, and they did a really good job of welcoming me with open arms.”

On a professional level, Lopez’s skill, experience and flexibility will help him plenty in the quest for playing time. On a personal level, his south Texas roots and familiarity with multiple teammates will help him ease into life at SAFC.

  1. Sonny Guadarrama, attacking midfielder

Farther up the field is another Texas native returning to the state after forging his way elsewhere. Guadarrama joins the SAFC squad with more experience under his belt than most of his teammates, having played his entire professional career in Mexico before taking a short hiatus and then joining SAFC for the 2018 season.

Guadarrama drew fans’ and followers’ eyes in the 2018 preseason match against MLS’s New England Revolution in Tucson, Arizona, on Feb. 17 as he converted a penalty kick and assisted forward Ever Guzman twice. Though still a trialist at the time, the online broadcast of the match provided his last name and it spread through the SAFC Twitter community quickly. Guadarrama’s signing was announced six days later.

Guadarrama played provider for Guzman again on Feb. 24 as SAFC played St. Edward’s University at Toyota Field. Their success together is no accident as the two have prior experience working together in attack.

“On a personal note with Ever, we’ve already played twice in Mexico before, so that really helps and it just made things smoother to come into the team and just know exactly where he wants the ball so he can just push it into the net,” Guadarrama said of his chemistry with SAFC’s first-choice forward.

The language Guadarrama uses makes the partnership sound almost machine-like, but the on-field manifestation is anything but that as he slides passes through the defense for Guzman. Like Lopez, his combination of experience and chemistry with teammates is likely to see him settle in nicely and contribute to SAFC this season.

  1. Jose Escalante, winger

Unlike Lopez and Guadarrama, Escalante doesn’t have deep roots in Texas, but he is arguably the most (in)famous of SAFC’s new signings for 2018 in the eyes of fans. He spent the previous two seasons with Rio Grande Valley FC and was a thorn in SAFC’s side in the latter stages of 2017.

Escalante scored the lone goal in a match at Toyota Field on Sept. 23, 2017, managing to chip a ball over SAFC goalkeeper Diego Restrepo from wide left, then brought down defender Ben Newnam from behind just minutes later, prompting Newnam to lash out while the players were on the ground and get sent off. In the final match of the 2017 regular season on Oct. 14, the clubs met at Toyota Field again and Escalante was the one dismissed that time after a high kick at the back of SAFC midfielder Owayne Gordon, meaning Escalanate will miss SAFC’s first match of the 2018 season.

Some might call Escalante a dirty player for the two disciplinary incidents he was involved in, but it can be spun positively by just saying he works hard for his team. Now with SAFC. Escalante seems keen on San Antonio and his new club.

Escalante is not just here for the sights either as he is already delivering results on the field as well. He assisted the two goals in a friendly match against FC Dallas in Frisco on Feb. 11 then scored two goals on Saturday against Tulsa Roughnecks FC at Toyota Field in SAFC’s final preseason friendly.

It’s going to take more than a friendly tweet and preseason contributions to change his image in the eyes of SAFC fans, but it’s not crazy to think he’ll be able to deliver what fans want as the season progresses, putting past transgressions behind him.

Of course SAFC made additions elsewhere on the field, including three center backs, but it’s the newbies in the middle who are the most interesting and exciting. In some ways, they may already fit in and look like they’ve been with SAFC for more than just a couple months.

Posted by J. Check

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