On Tuesday morning, donning a yellow vest over his new No. 19 jersey, Cristian Lobato looked like he had already played an integral role in Sporting Kansas City’s system for weeks when he participated in just his second practice with the team at Swope Soccer Village.
But Lobato, a 28-year-old Spaniard who agreed to a deal with Sporting KC on June 29, has only been in the United States since Thursday. His family has yet to join him in Kansas City and he’s still car-less, living in a hotel. He last appeared in a match a month ago for previous club Gimnastic de Tarragona, a second-tier team in Spain for which he scored twice in 45 games.
Lobato has a ways to go before he can get the green light to debut in the MLS. It helps, however, that the team he just finished playing for was as aggressive in its attack as Sporting KC.
“The league, I don’t know,” he said in Spanish during an introductory press conference on Tuesday. “But this team, the way it plays, I should be able to understand it easily and that should help me get used to (the style).”
Lobato agreed to a deal in time to join the team during Major League Soccer’s secondary transfer window that opened July 10 and will close Aug. 9. Coach Peter Vermes could not comment on the nature of the agreement, but he did say Lobato will be around for a “couple of years.”
He’s not concerned with giving Lobato room to learn a new league.
“I think it’s going to depend on where he is physically,” Vermes said. “I don’t want to risk the chance of putting him in a bad situation from a physical perspective. We still have a lot of season left and some obviously very important things that are coming up, so we’re going to try to prepare him and build him up as best we can.”
Lobato came up in FC Barcelona’s youth system but never played for the La Liga team. He was teammates with Sporting KC defensive midfielder and fellow Spaniard Ilie Sanchez during a two-year stint with the Barcelona B team from 2011-13. The players have maintained a close friendship, one they continued to foster when Sanchez signed with Sporting KC in January.
So it was a no-brainer for Lobato to reach out to Sanchez when Vermes and Sporting KC brass began to show interest in bringing him stateside as soon as possible.
“It didn’t take a lot to convince him. I just explained to him how I felt here and he understood that instantly,” Sanchez said. “Everything I was told before I got here, everything they said about the club, the team, the city, has come true. They were honest with me, they told me the truth, and I am very happy.”
It may take time for Lobato to feel at home in a city more than 5,000 miles away from where he grew up. He will have to be patient before joining the fray as either a winger or midfielder, which is where he’s most comfortable.
The good thing is that Tuesday, at the practice facility where Sporting KC players were still shaking off rust from a week-long break, he already appeared to belong. Vermes was confident it wouldn’t take Lobato much time to fit in.
“A person like him, he wants to be here, he wants to play at this club,” Vermes said. “It’s not us trying to force a hand with another club to try to get a player, or what have you. ...
“He comes from an environment that already plays within, kind of, our model of play, if you will, and hopefully the transition will be pretty quick and seamless, especially when coming into the middle of the season.”