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OL Reign draft Mexican international Jimena Lopez

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The Reign expect the Texas A&M defender to make an impact immediately.

Nikita Taparia

With just one pick in the third round of the 2021 NWSL Draft, expectations were low for OL Reign this year. In the end, however, the Reign might have left with one of the biggest steals on draft day. With the 28th pick — and after waiting nearly 3 hours to make their lone selection — OL Reign selected Jimena Lopez, a left back from Texas A&M.

Many believed Lopez, born in Mexico City, had the potential to be a first-round or early second-round pick if not for the fact she requires an international spot. OL Reign, meanwhile, had an extra international spot heading into the draft, with four of their five spots currently occupied by Quinn, Celia, Shirley Cruz, and Rosie White.

Lopez is a versatile player who comes well-decorated from her time at Texas A&M, which was also home to OL Reign forward Ally Watt and goalkeeper Cosette Morché. She featured for Texas A&M at multiple positions, including midfield and left back, and was named the 2019 SEC Midfielder of the Year and the 2020 Co-Defender of the Year.

The awards don’t stop there. Lopez was also a two-time All-SEC First Team selection, amassing 17 goals and 23 assists and earning a reputation as a set-piece specialist during her college career.

Here’s what Top Drawer Soccer had to say about her potential last year: “Few players can match the kind of danger and production that Lopez has from the left side. Part of that is her ability to combine with Ally Watt ... but Lopez is a dangerous player regardless, and as the go-to player in 2020, can make a case to come off in the first round [in 2021].”

Look out, NWSL, because Watt and Lopez may be reuniting once again.

There are some concerns about whether Lopez will feature for the Reign this year, as her agent tweeted this as the draft kicked off: “Players who already have a contract outside the country and are still chosen within the NWSL draft. Reason? Just to “have” your rights in the United States. Only in American sports.”

OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore confirmed to Ride of the Valkyries that the club was first and foremost amazed that Lopez fell as far in the draft as she did. “We thought she’d go in the first round,” Predmore said, while acknowledging her apparent interest in Europe may have scared some teams off. By the time the third round rolled around, with Lopez still on the board, the Reign tried to trade up to make sure they could get her. That didn’t happen, but they were still fortunate to have her available with the 28th pick.

While OL Reign was aware that Lopez was exploring options in Europe this year before the draft, the club saw her as a player that was worth waiting for. With a roster close to full already, the Reign didn’t have to use this year’s draft to build out their team — they could be strategic. Predmore spoke with Lopez’s agent the day after the draft and left the door wide open for her to join the team in 2021, but also indicated they’d love to have her in 2022.

“We don’t need her to play tomorrow and we will work with her and her agent to determine the best thing for her,” Predmore said.

With significant depth in the OL Reign midfield, it’s most likely that Lopez slots into the left back position if she joins the club. That’s where she had the largest impact in college — whipping pinpoint balls to the Texas A&M frontline — and where she has the biggest chance to thrive on the world stage. It’s clear the Reign believe she has a chance to make an impact now.

“Jimena is a tremendous young talent that will have a very bright future in professional football,” said OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti. “We believe she can play immediately, and know she will continue to grow as she gains more experience. We feel very lucky to have selected Jimena and are excited to welcome her to our club.”

On the international stage, after featuring in a number of youth competitions, including the 2018 U-20 Women’s World Cup, Lopez made her senior debut for Mexico in February 2019. She started as left back in Mexico’s semifinal match against the United States in the 2020 Olympic qualifying tournament.

The Reign currently have 24 players signed, with two still on loan (Celia and Jess Fishlock) and offers pending for Morgan Andrews and Steph Cox. Competition will be tight for Lopez, but it sounds like she’s more than ready to earn her spot.