In the fall of 2007, Honduran native Roger Espinoza was a junior at Ohio State University, transferring there after being named the runner-up for the National Junior-College Player of the Year at Yavapai College, an Arizona community college. Even though his college career had begun small, he had a dream.
“I wanted to play pro,” said Espinoza. “Once I got to play Division I, I knew that I had to play well there and prove myself there. I said to myself, ‘This is where it’s at.’”
In the only time that Espinoza says he felt he had to prove himself in his career, he earned first-team Big 10 All-Conference and took the Buckeyes to the College Cup final, a first for the program.
If one can call feeling a need to prove oneself selfish, Espinoza was selfish at the right time. And his team benefited markedly from his play. But it still may not have been enough to achieve his dream. Espinoza wanted to win a Generation Adidas contract with Major League Soccer and forego his senior year at Ohio State. The fact was Espinoza was not in the running.
“I’m the one who notified the league about Roger when he was coming out for a Generation Adidas contract because they weren’t even looking at him,” revealed Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes.
Espinoza earned the GA contract and was drafted 11th in the first round of the 2008 MLS SuperDraft by the then Kansas City Wizards, where Vermes was the general manager.
Since then, Espinoza has spent 9 of 11 professional seasons with the Kansas City club (196 games, 176 started, with over 15500 minutes played), interrupted only by a two-plus season stint with Wigan Athletic in the English Premier League and Championship from 2012-2014.
Espinoza is an FA Cup winner; a CONCACAF Gold Cup participant; a 2012 Olympic participant where his Honduran side made it to the quarterfinal, losing 3-2 to Brazil; a two-time World Cup participant (52 total caps with his national team), and a three-time US Open Cup Champion.
Yet he is only a one-time MLS All-Star. And he has been chosen to the MLS Best 11 zero times.
Additionally, Espinoza and the Seattle Sounders’ Osvaldo Alonso and the Chicago Fire’s Dax McCarty have perennially been the best box-to-box midfielders in recent MLS history, yet Alonso has four consecutive all-star game selections and a 2012 Best 11 selection, McCarty two All-Star selections and a 2015 MLS Best 11 selection.
Perhaps because he has been such a consistent, long-time denizen of the Sporting KC midfield, he is taken for granted and underrated by those on the outside.
“He’s definitely is a [player] that people don’t understand – the kind of work he puts into every game,” said Vermes.
Yes. Espinoza – the perfect example of a midfielder pit bull – has always been a tireless worker, a strong tackler and reader of the game, and a vocal advocate to referees – traits that don’t garner many accolades.
But there has always been much more to his game. His ever-present abilities to precisely spray the ball around the field to teammates in dangerous positions, to play deft combinations in tight spaces, and to put defenses on their heels have come to the fore in 2018. Espinoza has three assists in six games – well on his way to eclipsing his career high of five – and has often played the pass before the pass that gains the goal.
“Some of the players that we’ve added this year have really allowed him to stay more focused on his game,” said Vermes. “He doesn’t have to make up for things other people aren’t doing and can play to his strengths.”
In 2018, Espinoza is rising above the Alonsos and McCartys as a more complete player. Forget the stars, put an isolation camera on him to teach the young ones many of the subtle arts of soccer. However, even in a season where he has excelled, Espinoza is not being given his due as he has not been chosen to any MLS teams of the week six weeks in, though many of his teammates have.
That is where much of the story of Roger Espinoza lies. The accomplishments of the teams (and of his teammates) he has been on set him apart from not only his peers but all others. Just look at the successful teams he has been on, beginning at Ohio State. Outside opinions be damned. Within his sphere of influence is where Espinoza lives.
“I look more at the team stuff, and individual stuff doesn’t bother me at all. I’m happy where I’m at,” stated Espinoza, who was awarded a designated player contract when he returned to Sporting Kansas City in 2015. “If [individual recognition] comes, then perfect. I’m very happy that here we get a lot of players that get to go to the All-Star game. And that’s a thing that makes you happy because you work hard with those guys every day and you push them to be the best.”
Still, there is more to Roger Espinoza.
When asked what the biggest difference between the Roger Espinoza in 2008 and the one of 2018, Vermes stated, “His maturity. He used to let his emotions get the best of him sometimes. He [now] appreciates the profession that he is in and the opportunities that he has had. He is really good with the younger players in trying to mentor them. He’s been tremendous in that piece.”
And the action of Espinoza’s appreciation extends beyond the younger players.
Vermes pointed to the number of Spanish-speaking Latinos at Sporting Kansas City and the possibility of divisive factions being created within the team based on culture and language.
“But Roger does a tremendous job of keeping them all connected to each other. I don’t even think he sometimes realizes he’s doing it…,” said Vermes. “Roger is just a really good guy and likes to make sure the team is comfortable with each other. And when there is a spat between two guys, no matter who they are, Roger is always the guy who tries to be the mediator to try and bring it back to some type of normalcy.”
Added Team Captain Matt Besler, “[Roger’s] got a big heart. Off the field, he’s just a great person. He cares about people. Not only am I glad that I’m a teammate of his on the field, but I’m glad he’s one of my good friends.”
Espinoza will turn 32 in October and his contract with Sporting Kansas City will come to an end in December. Is he destined to be sold or traded before then while his value is still strong or simply let go at the end of the season, fates the likes of Nick Garcia and Chris Klein and Aurelien Collin and Benny Feilhaber had before him? Or will he be re-signed? Or does his destiny lie elsewhere?
The end of his contract doesn’t bother Espinoza, “Obviously, you want to be secure and you want to play as long as you can. But it doesn’t put pressure on me.”
“Every day I come into training I need to not only prove myself to myself, but to my coaches, to my teammates,” said Espinoza who made sure he got more rest before this offseason and upped his workout routine when he began his preparations. “If you are going to play for a long time, you have to bring it every day on the field and outside the field.”
Vermes feels that Espinoza’s motivation lies outside his contract situation.
“I don’t think Roger needs anything outside of his love for the game, love for the club, wanting to do the best for the team,” he said. “To me, that is his motivation every day.”
Yet one thing eludes Espinoza in his accomplished career: an MLS Cup Championship. He was with Wigan Athletic when Vermes and many of his teammates won in 2013.
“I want MLS Cup. I want that,” he said.
A selfish goal? Nah. A goal that can be achieved being the best he can be for the team.
Roger Espinoza is not a star without. He is a red hypergiant – the VY Canis Majoris – within his own galaxy.