To some observers, Sporting Kansas City midfielder/winger Cristian Lobato may look lazy. He doesn’t float wide and use that space to run at defenders like his speedy counterpart wingers Gerso Fernandes and Latif Blessing. Nor does he specialize in making clever runs to goal for the ball like Daniel Salloi. Lobato is even more clever.
And, in time, the 28-year-old product of the renowned FC Barcelona La Masia Academy and veteran of over 200 games across Spain and Greece at various levels should be just as effective and lauded as his trio of teammates. He is Sporting Kansas City’s dark horse.
Lobato’s dark complexion and perfect hair, complemented by his well-trimmed beard and mustache radiate sophistication, as does his play. Like his countryman and former teammate on Barcelona’s B team, Ilie Sanchez, Lobato very rarely loses the ball, which fits perfectly into Sporting Kansas City’s evolution to a more possession oriented side.
“He has the quality and the knowledge as a soccer player,” said Sporting KC Manager Peter Vermes of Lobato.
Vermes and his staff vet prospects thoroughly, and acquisitions brought in during the summer window are, by necessity, ones who complement what is already on the table for a side.
Ilie (his translator for our interview) and Cristian himself describe Lobato as a player who finds space “between the lines,” much like a pool player who maneuvers the que ball in tight spaces at the centers of the table to pocket the necessary ball.
In the box score, Lobato has tallied only once in his 419 minutes (eight appearances, five starts), but that important goal was illustrative of his cleverness and alertness of space. In the 19th minute of an eventual 1-1 draw at Columbus on September 10, Lobato spies the last defender deeper than his cohorts, runs into space allotted horizontally to stay onside, and then finishes when the same defender fails to clear the ball sent forward. It was a smart run, not one that all players would see or attempt.
Similarly, against the Los Angeles Galaxy last Sunday, his movement across the 18-yard-line into space between the back line in the 23rd minute was noticed by Ilie whose chip tried to reward the insightful run, only to be intercepted.
The addition of Lobato’s unique abilities is another part of Sporting KC’s evolution to not only more of a possession-oriented side but one that combines more with more numbers in attack.
“One of the things that [the Open Cup Final and win over Galaxy] have displayed is that we’ve had incredible movement in the final third as a team. And that’s a lot of different players that have been there,” said Vermes. “… We have to continue to be a team that is really hard and difficult to play against.”
To see more of Lobato’s tantalizing abilities, check out this highlight video put together by Kansas Sports TV:
As far as Lobato himself goes, I sat down with him and Ilie for a Q and A session.
TheBlueTestament: You have been with team for only two months. Are you happy with your integration into the side thus far?
Cristian Lobato: “Yes. I am happy. The team is doing so well, and it’s good because it makes my job, and our job, easier to integrate me into the team. Peter decides who starts, and I respect that. I try to be ready when he needs me.”
TBT: Do you feel you can be a big contributor down the stretch?
CL: “Yes. I have a lot of confidence, and I am here because I have a lot of experience. I am ready to contribute.”
TBT: Beyond your compatriot Ilie, who has lent you guidance within club?
CL: “Everybody [has helped]. We have a team where you can see American guys, you can see Latin guys, you can see Eastern European guys, and everybody tries to help each other. The coaches make the environment what it is. But I understand the Latinos because I understand the language better than English. But I am learning. The American guys are really nice to understand my situation and to help me integrate into the team.”
TBT: Has anything about the club or MLS been a surprise to you?
CL: “It is what I expected. I knew that the team wants the ball, to play, and to make an offensive style. The league is an attractive league, and I am enjoying my time here.”
TBT: How do you feel about Kansas City itself?
CL: “[Ilie and I] live 15 minutes from the training facility, 15 minutes from downtown. We have everything here. When we are walking around the city, people just stop you to say a good word. Even if they want to say something bad to you, they don’t stop you. So far, people just respect us.”
TBT: Any particular restaurants or hotspots appeal to you?
CL: “Wherever they serve good hamburgers.”
A scouting report on Lobato might read as such: A two-way player with strong vision, able to find and exploit tight inner spaces and combine. Good with both feet, deceptively explosive on the dribble, though not on the level of a top-tier international. Strong in possession and positional acumen. Able finisher. Has an appetite for hamburgers.
But the question remains, will we see more of Lobato on the field and more of what he can do? So far, Vermes has shown a willingness to play Lobato and get him accustomed to the speed and physicality of MLS. And, the more time he gets, the more used to his play his teammates get. But this is crunch time.
“When you start to get down to this last [five] games of the season, all of a sudden, the games just take on a different level of intensity,” said Vermes after acknowledging that Lobato could be a dark horse for Sporting Kansas City. “So the [preparation] is trying to give them little tastes of that along the way that doesn’t put them in positions where they get overwhelmed. He’s had a couple games where he has come into and gotten a taste of that. But the big thing going forward as we get these games at the end, that he is going to get a chance to be a part of it more and more.”