When Roger Espinoza was listed at the defensive midfielder spot for Sporting Kansas City, both last year and in the game against Nasvhille SC on Saturday, I was the first person to say, “I don’t like this idea.” Espinoza is a box-to-box midfielder, a #8 if you will. He’s maurades up and down the pitch destroying anyone who gets into his way. At least, that’s how he’s always needed to play.
But what if this may be the perfect transitional spot for him as his career nears it’s end? Hear me out.
Pros of this Idea
One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen from fans about Ilie Sanchez’s play last year was he lacked physicality. He wouldn’t just foul tactically to stop a counter, like say a clever Diego Chara might. Instead, a player might get by him and put the backline in a compromised position.
Does anyone think Roger won’t make a foul if needed? The only issue might be staying out of the book. If he’s on a yellow, it becomes a bit of a dangerous proposition. But maybe he can go watch someone like Chara and pick up some tips. That guy never gets sent off, despite seemingly fouling all the time.
Another flaw we could all see in Ilie is he lacked pace. Roger isn’t a world beater in a foot race, but he’s quick. He’s got a healthy burst and has made more than a few lung busting recovery runs. If he is conserving energy by not running back and forth over the length of the field and sitting a little deeper, maybe he can reserve enough energy for late game runs. Or, if he’s on a yellow or tired, simply rotate Remi Walter back to this spot and bring on one of the younger, more dynamic midfielders at the #8 spot.
Something else that Roger brings the game, that seems to be sorely lacking since Ilie left, is the ability to hit a long, accurate pass (sure Graham Zusi and Andreu Fontas do this, but who is doing this in the midfield?). I’m not sure if this is a tool Uri Rosell has in his pocket because he’s played just a smidge over one game worth of minutes through seven so far this season. It’s definitely something I’ve seen Roger do, when given any amount of time or space in the midfield. I’m not going to pretend he’s anywhere near the passer that Ilie is, but his long balls (not his long shots) have a pretty good deal of accuracy.
Cons to this Move
There are concerns of course. At times in his career, Roger has held the ball too long and been dispossessed. However, with training and knowing how deep he’ll be at times, I think he can account for that and be more aware of the safe outlet passes. It’s obviously much more risky to give the ball away deep and the #6 is usually deeper than the #8.
Additionally, Roger has a tendency to roam forward a lot. He did it against Nashville a few times. But, if he knows and learns his role as the 6, I think he can be disciplined enough to stay deeper when the game calls for it and limit those runs. Plus, if Rosell is still likely to be the starter here, this is just a depth move that offers other benefits.
Other Perks to this ‘Move’
Walter stays up the pitch at his more useful #8 spot. Don’t get me wrong, Walter may be the best #6 on the team at times, but I think he’s more valuable further up the field. He got into a dangerous spot and scored last weekend and his coach calls him Benzema in practice because of his ability to consistently finish when in and around the box.
Beyond just Walter, the team is simply deeper in that more advanced midfield role. Some day (hopefully), Gadi Kinda will return from injury. Once healthy, presumably he and Walter would be the starters. But then there are dynamic, young players behind them read to come on and contribute in Felipe Hernandez and Cam Duke. Plus Jake Davis is a promising player who should get extensive minutes with SKC II while waiting to break through more regularly with the first team.
Finally, as I pointed out in the Mauri termination story, Sporting KC have needs elsewhere with that roster spot that he freed up, the salary relief and the international spot. It could be striker, winger or something else, but not signing another defensive midfielder (assuming Rosell stays a bit healthier) is a boon to another part of the roster.