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Studs Up: Roger Espinoza returning is great, but is it the answer?

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Roger Espinoza is a fantastic addition to the Sporting Kansas City squad but is not the defensive midfielder that Sporting Kansas City desperately need.

Roger Espinoza celebrates his FA Cup Win over Manchester City.
Roger Espinoza celebrates his FA Cup Win over Manchester City.
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

There was a brilliant moment in August 2012 when the crowd filling Newcastle United’s St James’ Park rose to their feet and uproariously applauded Roger Espinoza off the field.

He’d just received a red card for a second bookable to end what had been a masterful performance against Brazil in the Olympic Quarter Finals.  Espinoza created a goal, scored a goal and performed heroics with energy and passion.  His typical box to box game became a pitch length whirlwind and while the Tyneside masses applauded him every body in Kansas City simply knew that his time in town was done.

There was no way we could hide him anymore.

Espinoza moved to Wigan Athletic at the end of the MLS season.  The highlight of his time in England came when Wigan won the FA Cup, beating Manchester City in the final before he lived the Westerveltian Dream and got relegated from the Premier League and the starting lineup. He’s basically been on the bench ever since and the discussions about getting him back to Kansas City started as long ago as the end of the 2013 season, and why not?  Roger Espinoza has been sighted as one of the huge missing pieces in the Sporting Kansas City lineup in recent times – one of the supposed body blows the squad has taken.

Well the prodigal son is returning, and it is very good news. He will bring a combativeness, and energy to the midfield that Paulo Nagamura simple doesn’t have in his arsenal. What it doesn’t do however is resolve a midfield problem Sporting Kansas City have been dealing with since they were the Kansas City Wizards.  Peter Vermes’ rendition of a 4-3-3 (hereby known as ‘the system’) has always emphasized pace, aggression, high pressure in almost every position except one.  The deep lying defensive midfield role occupied most recently by Uri Rosell.  Sitting right in front the back line this one position seems to be the key around which the system works.  Without Rosell we might have possession but we do not have the ability to direct the energy Sporting play with.

It was the same with Julio Cesar beforehand, and before him the discovery – the eureka moment came when Stephane Auvray was moved into that same deep role to protect the speedy tandem of Conrad and Shavar Thomas.  Instantly at that time the porous defense of the Wizards became less so and we began earning points.  Auvray did not have the passing chops that Cesar or Rosell had but that genesis moment turned the system into something viable, and it was telling how large the drop off was when Lawrence Olum was forced into the position.  As a defender Olum was fine but his ability to pass was suspect at best and he was technically only on par with Seabiscuit, and it showed, to the point that Vermes experimented with playing Benny Feilhaber in the deep role a couple of times.

The Vermes system need a quality defensive midfielder, somebody who can read the play well, anticipate it well enough to become a buffer between the midfield and the defense.  Somebody defensively savvy that when Ike Opara or Matt Besler move forward they can slot back into the same spot.  Somebody who can win the ball and who is technically sound enough to find safe exit paths from defense that help transition play into attack or at the very least maintain possession.   These are not things Olum did well, and not things that Roger Espinoza necessarily does.

What Roger brings is a player who many would describe as a box to box midfielder.  He’ll scamper all over the place is aggressive pursuit of the ball.  When he wins it he tends to want to drive forward with it.  The deeper he gets into the defense the less effective he becomes in my opinion, his like for like replacement in the Kansas City squad as far as I am concerned is for Nagamura and it is the Brazilian who seems to have been upgraded rather than the DM spot.  With this crucial role filled I still have concerns about the midfield heading into 2015 … unless the system is finally going to change.

Other Espinoza thoughts:

One of the things Espinoza has always done will is win the ball high up field, he’ll bring pressure to bear on opponents wherever he can but he often does this in quite advanced positions.  It is interesting because Benny Feilhaber does much the same which means in a high press system we could be very aggressive but it does lead to questions about how compatible the two might be together and what kind of void they might leave in the central midfield.

Espinoza offers little scoring or assist threat.  He doesn’t create goals, he seldom scores them.  His ability to win the ball does turn into chances but his greatest ability is unsettling and destabilizing opposing midfields.  In this respect his is very comparable to Seattle’s Osvaldo Alonso.  It will be fun to see those two squaring off against each other in the Western Conference three times this coming season.